Le Pen quits leadership of far-right National Front, saying she represents ‘all the French’ in presidential race
Surprise move comes as political mainstream rallies behind Le Pen’s centrist opponent, Emmanuel Macron
In a surprise move, French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has announced she is stepping down as leader of the far-right National Front party, to focus on representing “all the French” in the decisive second round of voting in May.
“I have always considered that the President of the Republic is the president of all the French and must unite all the French people, but it is necessary to translate words into action,” she told France 2 public television.
“I decided to leave the presidency of the National Front, and I am no longer the president of the National Front. I will be above partisan considerations,” she said.
Le Pen brought the anti-establishment FN party into the country’s political mainstream in Sunday’s first round of voting. She came second with 21.3 per cent, or 7.67 million votes, a record number mirroring a growing public support for anti-immigrant party hostile to Europe.
She attacked her centrist rival Emmanuel Macron, the first-round winner, suggesting he is a “hysterical, radical Europeanist” who is weak on jihadi terror.
Her tirade came as the country’s demoralised mainstream parties threw their weight behind Macron on the first day of campaigning for the presidential runoff on 7 May.
Le Pen said of Macron: “He is for total open borders. He says there is no such thing as French culture. There is not one area where he shows one ounce of patriotism.”
Politicians from the Socialist and Les Républicains parties – the mainstream centre-left and centre-right groups that have dominated French politics for decades, but found themselves shut out by voters – united on Monday to urge the country to back Macron and reject Le Pen’s populist, anti-EU and anti-immigration nationalism.
The outgoing socialist president, François Hollande, said he would vote for Macron, his former economy minister, because Le Pen represented “both the danger of the isolation of France and of rupture with the EU”. A far-right president would “deeply divide France”, he said. “Faced with such a risk, it is not possible to … take refuge in indifference.”
Only the defeated far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, pointedly refused to endorse Macron, saying he needed to consult his base first.
Le Pen’s aim in temporarily stepping aside from her party’s presidency is to appeal to the supporters of losing first-round candidates, particularly some of those who backed the conservative François Fillon, who finished third, and the minor rightwinger Nicolas Dupont-Aignan.
The move would allow her more freedom to “change certain aspects of her project and rally support”, party sources told Le Monde.
Macron, 39, who founded his En Marche! movement only this time last year and has never held elected office, became the clear favourite to become France’s youngest president after winning 24.01 per cent of Sunday’s vote. Polls have consistently predicted Macron would win a head-to-head contest between the two by up to 25 points.
Le Pen leapt on the string of endorsements for Macron to paint him as the candidate of a discredited political establishment, attacking the “rotten old republican front” of centre-left and centre-right parties that have aligned to keep the FN from power whenever it has come close to it.
“I’ve come here to start the second round campaign in the only way I know, on the ground with the French people,” she said on a visit to a market in the northern town of Rouvroy. She wanted to draw the French people’s attention to “important subjects including Islamist terrorism, on which Mr Macron is, to say the least, weak,” she said.
France has suffered a series of terror attacks by violent jihadis over the past two years that have left 239 people dead. A policeman was shot dead and two more seriously wounded in a shooting on the Champs Élysées less than 72 hours before Sunday’s vote. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.
Macron’s upbeat, internationalist vision of a tolerant France and a stronger, united Europe with open borders is in stark contrast to Le Pen’s French-first policies which aim to suspend the EU’s open border agreement on France’s frontiers, expel foreigners on intelligence service watchlists, restore the franc and possibly leave the EU.
Macron drew early criticism on Monday after spending Sunday evening with supporters and En Marche! activists at the well-known – but not upmarket – La Rotonde brasserie in Paris.
“We need to be humble. The election hasn’t been won and we need to bring people together to win,” Richard Ferrand, the movement’s secretary general, said.
Le Pen, whose father, Jean-Marie, reached the 2002 presidential election runoff, gained 1.2 million new voters compared with her 2012 presidential bid. Louis Aliot, a Front National vice-president, said she offered an alternative for patriots, adding he was “not convinced the French are willing to sign a blank cheque for Mr Macron”.
The euro and European stock markets rose and France’s main share index hit its highest level since early 2008 on Monday as investors bet on Macron becoming president. Relieved politicians including the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, wished him well.
Merkel’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, tweeted that the win for Macron showed “France AND Europe can win together! The centre is stronger than the populists think!”
In a highly unusual gesture during an ongoing campaign, the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, also welcomed the first round result. The commission’s spokesman, Margaritis Schinas, said the choice “was a fundamental one” since Macron represented pro-EU values while Le Pen “seeks its destruction”.
The conservative Le Républicains candidate Fillon won just under 20 per cent, marginally ahead of Mélenchon. He was the favourite until January when his campaign was hit by allegations that he had given his British-born wife, Penelope, a fake job as his parliamentary assistant.
The official Socialist party candidate, Benoît Hamon, got just 6 per cent. “We are in a phase of decomposition, demolition, deconstruction,” said the former Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls. “We didn’t do the intellectual, ideological or political work on what the left is and we paid the price.”
Valls pledged his support to Macron, saying: “We must help him as much as we can to ensure Le Pen is kept as low as possible.”
Additional reporting by Xinhua