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Tuesday, December 15, 1998 Published at 00:04 GMT

World: Europe

National Front row deepens

Bruno Megret has vowed never to leave the party

The far-right National Front in France is moving closer to a formal split after the party's political bureau confirmed a controversial decision to expel its former chief lieutenant, Bruno Megret, and four of his allies.

The party's leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, barred supporters of Mr Megret from attending the leadership meeting on Monday to stop them trying to unseating him.

After the meeting, the 70-year-old party founder said: "The National Front is doing well. The old man isn't dead."

[ image: Mr Le Pen described himself as a
Mr Le Pen described himself as a "cannonball"
Mr Le Pen also said one of his opponents was wrong in calling him a ball and chain. "I'm a cannonball," he said.

The National Front chief for the greater Paris area and a Megret supporter, Jean-Yves Le Gallou, said barely half of the 44 members of the political bureau were allowed into the meeting. He said Mr Le Pen no longer had a majority in the leadership.

He said Mr Le Pen had accumulated mistakes over the past 18 months, including:

  • publicly repeating in Germany a notorious comment that Nazi gas chambers were "a detail of history",
  • taking part in an election brawl last year, and
  • saying he preferred a socialist to a conservative win in general elections.

    Mr Le Pen is also accused by his opponents of misusing party funds to pay for a personal housekeeper.

    Mr Megret, long regarded as Mr Le Pen's deputy and probable successor, is heading challenges within the National Front to oust Mr Le Pen.

    Besieged by calls from opponents to resign, Mr Le Pen has vowed to serve out the remaining two years of his three-year term as party president.

    Party reprisals

    The National Front's political bureau is to hold an executive bureau meeting on 23 December to decide whether to bar Mr Megret and other rebel members of the party for good.

    However, on Sunday, Mr Megret held an emergency meeting of the party's National Council, at which Mr Le Gallou said more than half the members were present and voiced their support for a special party congress next month, which Mr Le Pen opposes.

    Mr Megret's backers say they have assembled more than 10,000 signatures in favour of such a meeting - well over the required 8,000.

    Another of Mr Megret's supporters, Daniel Simonpieiri, said an emergency party congress called to try to unseat Mr Le Pen would go ahead on 17 or 24 January.

    The National Front, with its hard-line and anti-immigrant policies, made strong gains in regional elections earlier this year and has maintained about 15% support nationwide.

    But analysts say the power struggle between Mr Le Pen and Mr Megret threatens to undermine the National Front's performance in the European Parliament elections next year.

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