PARIS (AP) — Tensions within France's far-right National Front party, on the rise since leader Marine Le Pen's resounding loss in the country's May presidential race, are hitting a crescendo as Le Pen prepares to reset party priorities.
The firing of a regional official — a close friend of Le Pen's top lieutenant, Florian Philippot, whom some claim is no longer loyal to her — set off the sparks.
Sophie Montel's exit from her post as local president of the National Front in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comte region was made official Thursday, two days before Le Pen's annual address from a northern village that the party uses to symbolize the "France of the forgotten."
Party unity is important as the National Front strives to become a leading opposition force to President Emmanuel Macron and his centrist government and position itself for the next presidential election in five years. The far-left won more than twice as many seats in June's legislative election than the National Front's eight, including one for Le Pen.
French newspapers are calling Le Pen's decision to remove Montel a "putch." The move reveals infighting in the National Front as the party tries to raise its profile, reset its priorities and likely change its name after Le Pen's resounding defeat by Macron.
Montel — a 30-year party member — charged in a recent interview with France 3 TV that the party was "re-toxifying" after Le Pen's work to scrub the party image of racism and anti-Semitism. She also said the party was losing its ideological compass.
Louis Aliot, Le Pen's companion, dismissed Montel's claims.
"She is a diva who thinks she's the queen mother since being elected to the European Parliament," he tweeted.
Montel is friends with Florian Philippot, a National Front vice president and top Le Pen aide during the presidential campaign. Philippot made the exit from the euro a priority of Le Pen's presidential agenda — but that move was not popular with the party's base.
After Le Pen's resounding defeat by Macron, Philippot started his own group, The Patriots, raising questions about his commitment to the National Front. Montel is a vice president of the association. Both she and Philippot think the National Front needs to modernize, and open up to issues that go beyond its traditional anti-immigration focus.
"There is neither a plot nor a conspiracy," Philippot said in an interview Tuesday with LCI TV station. "If the National Front gives the feeling that it is incapable of accepting the existence of an association ... what a sad image you give of your party."
"I think we can talk about everything. I think we even have the right to criticize," Le Pen told TF1 TV on Thursday night." But she added "constructive proposals" should follow.
The party plans a congress, likely in March, to "re-found" its identity and policies — which Nicolas Bay, the secretary general, said will focus on identity and security issues and put any exit from the eurozone on the back burner.
Bay and other top National Front officials have refused to concede that the party's unity is at risk. He also defended Marine Le Pen as the party's only legitimate leader, despite her embarrassing performance in an election debate with Macron.