PARIS (Reuters) - France’s far-right National Front party elected Marine Le Pen as its new leader and likely presidential candidate on Friday, replacing her 82-year-old father Jean-Marie Le Pen, a source close to the party said.
The Le Figaro newspaper also said on its website a preliminary count showed she had clearly beaten rival Bruno Gollnisch in a vote ahead of the party’s annual congress this weekend in the French city of Tours. It did not give a figure.
Putting a fresh, less firebrand, face on the hard-right party has won Marine Le Pen points in opinion polls, and her popularity suggests she could eat into the ruling centre-right UMP party’s vote in the spring 2012 election.
President Nicolas Sarkozy is widely expected to run for reelection next year in a tough battle against a resurgent left.
Polls rank him as one of France’s most unpopular presidents, his ratings even dipping below 30 percent in some surveys last year as even mainstream conservative voters grew tired of economic gloom, government scandals, pension reform and a perception of a flashy, unpredictable leader.
While most French people strongly oppose the National Front, the party sent tremours through the country in 2002 when founder Jean-Marie Le Pen unexpectedly made it to a second-round runoff against Jacques Chirac in the presidential election.
While Le Pen failed in all five of his presidential bids over nearly 40 years, the party’s ability to steal a steady 15 percent of the vote gives it an influence in political debate.
Polls see Marine Le Pen able to win 12-14 percent of a first-round presidential vote next year and show that two in five UMP supporters would back some kind of party alliance.
Reporting by Catherine Bremer and Nick Vinocur; Editing by Matthew Jones