PARIS (AP) — Little by little, the president of France's far-right National Front and top lieutenants have tried to silence the party founder, pushing him from the inner circle, refusing to back him in elections and now, in the culmination of an ugly political dispute that began as a family feud, suspending his membership.
But the 86-year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen, a disruptive force in French politics for decades, is refusing to disappear. He said Tuesday he is ashamed his daughter, party chief Marine Le Pen, bears his name.
"Get married. That would allow you to change your name. It would ease my conscience," was his message to his daughter 12 hours after the party's executive bureau suspended him for repeating anti-Semitic comments for which he was once convicted.
The very public father-daughter dispute has escalated into a political drama that reflects a new era for the National Front, which sees itself as France's leading party, and the slow demise of the man who created it and grew it into a feared political force and kingmaker in French elections.
The anti-immigration National Front, co-founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972 under the banner "French first," has been setting the political tone for decades, forcing the themes of security and immigration onto the agendas of mainstream political leaders. Le Pen reached the final round in 2002 presidential elections, shocking the world.
Now, daughter Marine Le Pen wants to win in 2017. She is modernizing the party, pushing out old guard followers of her father and banning any reference to anti-Semitism.
The latest flap came after Jean-Marie Le Pen repeated that the Nazi gas chambers were a "detail" in the history of World War II, and praised Philippe Petain, head of France's Vichy government, which collaborated with the Nazis.
Still, Marine Le Pen rails against the "Islamization" of France and echoes other themes dear to her father.
"This signals a change of generations," far-right expert Jean-Yves Camus said in a telephone interview. "The basic program remains absolutely identical to what it always was."
Another expert, Sylvain Crepon, said that despite the vitriol, it is unlikely the party would suffer long-term from the dispute. But mainstream politicians have pointed to it as a reflection of the party's inability to lead.
"If the FN (National Front) is incapable of resolving its family affairs, how can it run a state?" said conservative lawmaker Luc Chatel to the daily Le Figaro.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, the last French politician of his generation still active, could lose his cherished title of honorary of president for life, conferred at a 2010 party congress in which he anointed his daughter as his successor. Within three months, the party will sound out its members on stripping it from him. Le Pen cannot be removed from his seat in the European Parliament.
Last month, he was pressed into giving up his plans to run in regional elections in December in southern France, where he is a popular figure. His 25-year-old granddaughter, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, one of two party lawmakers who sides with the elder Le Pen's conservative stance, stepped in to replace him. But in a measure of the turmoil, she said on Tuesday that she had done so as a peacemaker and now was reconsidering her candidacy.
"I don't want to be taken hostage by Jean-Marie Le Pen," she said.
There is no measure to exclude Le Pen forever from the party, which some suggest would be unthinkable. Two experts said his ultimate weapon in his fight for political survival may be the secrets he holds.
Crepon said that "embarrassing revelations" as well as his financial might — he has an association that helps finance the party — could become defensive weapons.
"In 40 years, he has accumulated lots of information about people ... what everybody does, all the secrets, all the betrayals," Camus said. "If Jean-Marie Le Pen is forced to go the length to defend himself, I think he has some tricks up his sleeve."