|Le Pen, right, will be succeeded by his daughter Marina, left, as leader of France’s National Front [EPA]|
Jean-Marie Le Pen, the head of France’s National Front (FN), has made an unapologetic farewell speech as he handed over the leadership of the party to his daughter Marine.
Le Pen, who is standing down after nearly 40 years at the helm of Frances’s far-right, reiterated his stance against the spread of Islam in the country during the speech at the party’s conference in Tours.
The former paratrooper founded the National Front in 1972 and built it into a strong political force, making international headlines when he shocked voters by coming second in the 2002 presidential election.
“I have never forgotten those who were in hardship or adversity. It is for them, and to avoid our people one day falling into hardship and servitude, that I have never ceased to fight and hope,” he said, to deafening cheers from supporters.
“I know that the presence of the National Front in political life is a comfort and a hope for millions of our compatriots.”
Le Pen has continually defied the outrage sparked by his comments over the years, notably his claim in 1987 that the wartime Nazi death camps were a mere “detail of history”.
His remarks have caused the anti-immigrant party to be branded racist, but have not stopped him scoring double figures in several presidential elections.
“All my comments were distorted from their true meaning … because I refused to submit to the dictatorship of the thought police,” he said during the speech of more than an hour.
Earlier, police put up barricades around the conference centre hosting the party gathering, where rights groups and left-wing political groups staged a protest march nearby.
“They’re hunting immigrants, they want to keep women in the home. They are racist, they are sexist, down with the FN!” the demonstrators chanted.
Inside the conference venue, Alain Lavarde, a 64-year-old supporter and fellow former paratrooper, said: “I’m sorry to see him go. “But things will continue as before [under the new leader].”
A senior FN official said late on Friday that Le Pen’s daughter, 42, had won the leadership of the party in a vote by its 24,000 members, beating her rival, the traditional party stalwart Bruno Gollnisch, 60.
The results are to be formally announced on Sunday morning.
Recent polls say about 17 per cent of the French electorate would vote for Marine to lead the nation, posing a big challenge for Nicolas Sarkozy, the president, ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
Marine has made it clear she wants to challenge Sarkozy in the poll.