PARIS (Reuters) - The new leader of France’s National Front warned skinheads to stay away from the far-right party’s annual labor day parade this weekend, intensifying her efforts to clean up its image ahead of elections next year.
Marine Le Pen also said she would not revoke her decision to expel a 21-year-old regional councilor photographed in a Nazi salute from the National Front despite complaints from senior party figures, including her father, former party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Le Pen, who opinion polls show could qualify for the second round of the presidential polls next year at the expense of unpopular President Nicolas Sarkozy, has been credited with giving the National Front a more acceptable face for voters.
Ahead of Sunday’s march, Le Pen said she would try harder this year to make sure extremists did not tarnish the party’s reputation.
“We were victims in the past. We still are victims sometimes of a certain number of provocateurs,” she told RTL radio.
“They attract the cameras like flies and they come to get themselves a little publicity. It’s absolutely normal that we would protect ourselves from these kind of provocations.”
Le Pen said the party had always told regional organizers to keep out extremists, but it was not easy to ensure the instructions were followed at a march attracting thousands of people. “I will make sure they are (this time),” she said.
A telegenic former attorney, Le Pen has sought since taking the party reins in January to attract mainstream French voters fed up with rising unemployment, static wages and what she has called an “invasion” of immigrants, largely from North Africa.
In 2002, Le Pen’s father reached the second round of presidential elections, feeding on disillusionment with traditional parties, before losing to Jacques Chirac.
Marine Le Pen, recently named by TIME magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, said Sarkozy’s government had not done enough to tackle the scale of the immigration problem and praised British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Cameron said this month Britain did not want “mass immigration” and immigrants’ unwillingness to learn English and integrate caused problems in many communities.
“Mr Cameron has taken stock of the problem and has proposed a drastic reduction. That is what France should do,” Le Pen said.
The Front’s rising popularity has forced Sarkozy to step up his rhetoric on crime, immigration and assimilation of foreigners, exposing him to criticism from the French left that he is pandering to the far-right’s agenda.
Editing by Daniel Flynn and Sophie Hares