PARIS (AP) — The right-hand man of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen quit the National Front on Thursday, the culmination of a feud that erupted after her bruising defeat in May's presidential election, laying bare party divisions and risking more.
Florian Philippot, who made a meteoric rise to party vice president and Le Pen confidante, was the most visible figure in the party after Le Pen. He was a familiar face on French TV — where he announced his exit.
Philippot played a key role in Le Pen's effort to scrub clean her party's racist and anti-Semitic image to make it more voter-friendly. But he was also behind Le Pen's controversial proposal for France to leave the eurozone. Some Philippot critics believe the proposal harmed her in the presidential vote, when she lost to centrist Emmanuel Macron.
Philippot, 35, announced his departure on a morning news program on France 2 television after being demoted by his boss and relieved of his responsibilities for party strategy and communications late Wednesday.
"I was told I'm vice president of nothing ... I don't have the taste for ridicule. Of course, I'm leaving the National Front," Philippot said.
Philippot, with degrees from France's top schools, joined the National Front six years ago and quickly rose to the top echelons, irking some longtime officials wary of his left-leaning bent and ideas, like returning to the French franc currency, that they feared distracted from the party's fundamentals: immigration and national identity. But he and Le Pen were inseparable throughout the presidential campaign.
Philippot's exit comes as the National Front is in the midst of a major makeover, to include changing the party's name that dates from its founding in 1972 by Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Philippot claimed that the party's "old demons" were sneaking back into the party, a reference to hard right values.
"I regret his (Philippot's) departure," Le Pen said Thursday on the LCP TV station. But she added that "the Front will get over it without difficulty."
She wasted no time in starting to fill Philippot's shoes, replacing his communications role with four people, a chief and three spokespeople. His name was scratched from the lists of party officials on the National Front website.
The power struggle unfolded after Philippot decided to start a political group, Les Patriotes, within days of Le Pen's election defeat and without consulting her. It has played out on TV in numerous interviews by Philippot and party officials. Le Pen and Philippot never had a direct meeting about their differences, both say.
Philippot has said his served as a think tank aimed at broadening the National Front's support base with a modern, more open approach to politics. But Philippot's critics saw it as both a diversion from the task of rebuilding the party, and a bid to lay the groundwork for his own political movement.
Philippot was playing the role of victim, Le Pen said. But with the creation of his association, "there was a strategy to raise tensions ... I think the goal was to push himself out."
Party secretary-general Nicolas Bay said on France Info radio Thursday that the group "has all the characteristics of a micro political party."
Le Pen recently gave Philippot an ultimatum to leave the group's presidency. But he refused, saying Wednesday that "you don't remake a party with a pistol at your head."
In her statement demoting Philippot, Le Pen said his "double responsibilities" posed a "conflict of interest."
Philippot has insisted that he wasn't plotting an exit strategy. But the shadow of a potential schism fell over him. No one in the National Front forgets the 1998 departure of Bruno Megret, the right-hand man of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who took numerous officials with him.
Shortly after Philippot announced his departure, others said they were leaving, including Philippe Murer, Le Pen's economic and environmental counselor. Sophie Montel, a close ally of Philippot and vice president of his association, also left the party Thursday, days after being ousted from her role as a regional head of the National Front.
"There will be those who are disappointed because in a divorce like that ... there always are," Luis Aliot, another vice president and Le Pen's companion, said on BFM-TV. "But most will be relieved."