Marine Le Pen steps down at National Front to boost run for presidency

French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has announced that she is stepping down as leader of the National Front, the party she has helmed since 2011.

After qualifying for run-off in France's presidential election, she seeks to build wider appeal

After qualifying for the second round of voting in the presidential election, Marine Le Pen has decided to step down as president of her party, the National Front. (Kamil Zihnioglu/Associated Press)

French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has announced that she is stepping down as leader of the National Front, the party she has helmed since 2011.

The announcement came a day after Le Pen came second to centrist Emmanuel Macron in the first round of the French presidential election, securing her a chance to bid for the presidency.

Monday's move may be a way for the 48-year-old candidate to embrace a wider range of potential voters ahead of the May 7 run-off between herself and Macron.

She took 21.3 per cent of the vote on Sunday, to Macron's 24.01 per cent.

"Tonight, I am no longer the president of the National Front. I am the presidential candidate," she said on French public television news.

She may be trying to distance herself from the anti-Semitic and openly racist associations of the National Front, particularly under her father and predecessor Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Marine Le Pen has tried to remake the image of the National Front since she assumed its leadership, expelling many of the old guard leaders who served under her father.

She has built a wider base of support through two election campaigns, coming third in the first round of voting in 2012.

Her own platform, not the party's

She has said the platform she ran on in 2017 is her own and not her party's. If Le Pen wins, she would be France's first woman president.

Le Pen went on the offensive against Macron in her comments Monday. "He is a hysterical, radical 'Europeanist.' He is for total open borders. He says there is no such thing as French culture," she said.

Her campaign so far emphasizes returning French sovereignty, leaving the European Union, clamping down on  free trade, and slashing immigration.

Among her proposals:

  • Negotiation with Brussels on a new EU and a referendum on EU membership.
  • Expelling illegal immigrants and reducing legal immigration to 10,000 people per year.
  • Closing "extremist" mosques.
  • Fixing the retirement age at 60 and enshrining a 35-hour work week.

However, some doubt whether she has left behind the old remnants of National Front racism and anti-Semitism.

Denunciation by other politicians

On Monday, Israel's president denounced Le Pen for her statement earlier this month denying France was responsible for its role in rounding up French Jews for deportation to Nazi death camps.

Speaking Monday on Israel's Holocaust memorial day, President Reuven Rivlin said he found the comments "uniquely disturbing."

Politicians on the moderate left and right, including French President François Hollande and the losing Socialist and Republican party candidates in Sunday's first-round vote, manoeuvred to block Le Pen's path to power.

In a solemn address from the Elysée Palace, Hollande said he would vote for Macron, his former economy minister, because Le Pen represents "both the danger of the isolation of France and of rupture with the European Union."

Hollande said the far right would "deeply divide France" at a time when the terror threat requires solidarity. "Faced with such a risk, it is not possible to remain silent or to take refuge in indifference," he said.

With files from The Associated Press