PARIS (Reuters) - Marine Le Pen on Sunday put a brave face on her crushing defeat to Emmanuel Macron in Sunday’s presidential election, pledging to overhaul her far-right party and turn it into the main opposition to France’s new centrist leader.
Analysts said she looked set to maintain her grip on the National Front (FN), despite criticism from some party members, including her own relatives, over her campaign.
Despite losing to Macron by around 35 percent to 65, Le Pen did nearly twice as well as her father did when he reached the second round of the election in 2002, but fell short of the 40 percent party officials had said would be a success.
The anti-EU, anti-immigration party will now focus on the mid-June parliamentary elections, although Le Pen recognised that the party needs far-reaching change.
In a brief address to supporters who booed Macron’s victory and then sadly chanted France’s La Marseillaise anthem when the news of Le Pen’s defeat emerged, the 48-year-old far-right leader said the National Front (FN) “must deeply renew itself.”
“I will propose starting this deep transformation of our movement in order to make a new political force,” she added.
It was unclear at this stage what impact the overhaul would have on policy.
FN deputy head Florian Philippot said the new party would not be called the National Front, the party’s name for more than four decades. The brand is well known in France and abroad but is very much associated in voters’ minds with her maverick father Jean-Marie, who has been convicted several times for incitement to racial hatred.
While Le Pen did not address the question of the party’s name, she said she aimed to reach out beyond the current FN and reconstruct the French political landscape around a “patriots” versus “globalists” divide.
But achieving that goal will be no easy task.
Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, the leader of a small nationalist party who backed Le Pen after he attracted just under 5 percent of votes in the first round, and whom Le Pen had promised to appoint as her prime minister if she won, said on Sunday he would not join her new party and would instead present his own candidates in the parliamentary ballot, independently of the FN.
“If even the man who should have been her prime minister says he won’t be part of it, the question is, whatever the name of the party, who will be there and what its policies will be?” said Jean-Yves Camus, a researcher who specialises in the far-right.
The conservative The Republicans party hopes to rebound in the parliamentary elections. Its officials, and most of its supporters, are seen sticking to their party rather than joining the FN, analysts said.
Although the National Front can count on a loyal base, it only has two seats in the current lower house of parliament and a poll last week predicted the party would win only around 15-25 seats in the June elections.
The OpinionWay-SLPV Analytics poll of 535 of the 577 constituencies found Macron’s En Marche! (Onwards!) party would emerge as the largest group, followed by the conservatives.
“LESSONS TO BE LEARNED”
In a party where the Le Pen family has always called the shots, Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie and her niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen, a rising star and FN lawmaker, said Marine Le Pen’s campaign had not been convincing enough and had been undermined by its position on the euro.
A majority of voters oppose ditching the euro, which is at the heart of the FN’s economic programme. While Le Pen in the last days of the campaign appeared to soften her position on its timetable, Marechal-Le Pen said that came too late.
“There are clearly lessons to be learned,” she said on France 2 television. “We clearly didn’t manage to get this election to be understood as a referendum for or against France, a referendum for or against immigration ... for or against the European Union as we know it.”
Last Wednesday’s televised candidates’ debate, in which Le Pen constantly attacked Macron and seemed at times uneasy on economic issues, was also cited by analysts and supporters alike as a reason for the defeat.
“The debate was a failure,” FN supporter Jean-Francois Perier, a 76-year old pensioner, said at Sunday’s FN election gathering. “I just hope now we will rebound for the parliamentary elections.”
Despite the criticism, analysts said Le Pen’s leadership was unlikely to be challenged.
“There is a lot of disappointment but no one contests her leadership,” said researcher Sylvain Crepon, of the university of Tours. He said that would remain true even if the legislative elections were also a disappointment. “Her grip on the party is simply too strong,” he said.
Researcher Camus said the only possible opponent at this stage, Marechal-Le Pen, who has had a series of public disagreements with her aunt over the years, did not seem to want to lead any challenge.
Top party officials agreed.
“It’s thanks to Marine Le Pen that we got this historic score for our party, it is out of the question that she wouldn’t be with us to wage that new battle,” said the head of the FN Youths, Gaetan Dussausaye, while adding that the party overhaul would mean fresh faces and party structures.
“There is today a new opposition leader and it’s Marine Le Pen,” top party official Jean-Lin Lacapelle told reporters. But he added: “We need to organise things differently, the National Front has its limits.”
Additional reporting by Cyril Camu, Matthias Blamont, Leigh Thomas; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Adrian Croft