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Sunday, January 24, 1999 Published at 19:07 GMT

World: Europe

French National Front splits

Mr Megret's faction faces some lengthy court battles

France's far-right National Front has split in two after the leader of a rebel faction claimed victory in his battle to seize control from the party's founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The BBC's Jim Fish reports on the split
Bruno Megret won 86% of the votes in an election for a new president at a special party congress organised by his breakaway group.

[ image: Mr Le Pen declared the meeting illegal and stayed at home]
Mr Le Pen declared the meeting illegal and stayed at home
But Mr Le Pen, who boycotted the meeting, dismissed the conference as an illegal coup and Mr Megret as a ''psychopath'' who fancied himself as a Napoleon.

The move leaves France with two National Fronts, each determined to put up candidates for the European Parliament elections in June.

And it could start a series of legal battles as the two factions fight over the right to the party's name, insignia, state campaign subsidies and large Paris headquarters.

France's National Front, which is Western Europe's biggest extreme-right party, currently wins about 15% of the vote in national elections.

Leader challenged

The BBC's Jonathan Marcus contrasts the two rivals' very different styles
The split follows a bitter row between the fiery Mr Le Pen, known for his anti-Semitic and racist remarks, and his one time protege.

Mr Megret, 49, a former party organiser, was kicked out of the National Front in December after calling for a conference to hold a leadership election.

Mr Le Pen branded the move "a putsch and a plot" and refused to attend, saying: "I will not abandon the ship's helm to a handful of perfidious lieutenants and quartermasters."

Mr Megret told about 2,000 followers at the two day meeting that Mr Le Pen - whom he did not specifically name - had effectively withdrawn himself from the leadership.

"A second candidate had asserted himself but he didn't show up and has thus withdrawn probably because he feared the democratic nature of this vote," Mr Megret said. "So be it, we'll make do without him.''

Delegates at the meeting in Marignane, southern France, are also electing a new central committee and political bureau.

Ugly row

The run-up to the split has been marked by an increasingly vitriolic slanging match between the rivals.

Mr Le Pen, 70, who is spending the weekend at home in Paris, accused Mr Megret of being power hungry and repeatedly mocked his modest physical stature.

"Even if it's difficult my friend, try to put your feet on the floor," he said. "There's no dishonour in being small, but there's no point in acting bigger than you are."

Mr Megret declared his former boss had ceased to be a driving force in the party, adding: "Le Pen is a diva who has botched his exit."

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