French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen said on Monday that she was stepping aside from the leadership of her far-right National Front party in a bid to unite the French people as she prepared for the second round of the presidential election.
Most polls see Le Pen trailing her centrist rival Emmanuel Macron 40 points to 60, and she has to widen her support if she can hope to beat him in the run-off on May 7.
“This evening I’m no longer the president of the National Front, I am a candidate for the presidency of France,” Le Pen told French television channel France 2.
“I will feel more free and above all, above party politics, which I think is important.”
Le Pen has said for months she is not, strictly speaking, an FN candidate but a candidate backed by the FN. She has long distanced herself from her maverick father Jean-Marie, the former FN leader, and in the election campaign has put neither her party’s name nor its trademark flame logo on her posters.
Opening the battle for second-round votes, Le Pen highlighted the continuing threat of Islamist militancy, which has claimed more than 230 lives in France since 2015, saying the 39-year-old Macron was “to say the least, weak” on the issue.
Le Pen needs to avoid a repetition of 2002, when her father, FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, surprisingly made the second round, but was then humiliated by right-wing president Jacques Chirac as mainstream parties united to block a party they considered racist and anti-Semitic.
His daughter has done much to soften the FN’s image, gathering support especially among young people – a quarter of whom are unemployed – with her promises to push back against “rampant globalization.”
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France’s outgoing president, Francois Hollande, on Monday urged people to back Macron and reject Le Pen, whose place in the run-off represented a “risk” for France.
Hollande, a Socialist nearing the end of five years of unpopular rule, threw his weight behind his former economy minister in a televised address, saying Le Pen‘s policies were divisive and stigmatized sections of the population.
“The presence of the far right in the second round is a risk for the country,” he said. “What is at stake is France’s make-up, its unity, its membership of Europe and its place in the world.”