By Ingrid Melander
PARIS (Reuters) - The right-hand man of French National Front chief Marine Le Pen quit the party on Thursday, a split that opens the way for policy changes in the far-right party and shows the depth of internal feuding after Le Pen's presidential election defeat.
The departure of Florian Philippot, for years Le Pen's closest aide and a key architect of efforts to detoxify the party's image while campaigning against the euro, had looked increasingly inevitable as the party bickered over who was to blame for a damaging electoral cycle.
His exit is expected to allow Le Pen to refocus on core policies around immigration and French national identity, while perhaps softening her anti-euro tone, which many say contributed to Le Pen's resounding defeat in the presidential election run-off.
While Philippot's departure is likely to increase turmoil in the party at first and others have already said they would follow him out the door, the FN has survived similar crises in the past and analysts expect it to do the same this time. Philippot is seen as too divisive within the far-right to create a party that would be a serious threat.
Le Pen, who has shown a sometimes ruthless determination to hold on to power in the National Front, having already pushed out her father Jean-Marie, the founder of the party, withdrew Philippot's responsibilities within the movement late on Wednesday, leaving him with little choice about his future.
"I'm not into being ridiculed, I'm not into having nothing to do. And so yes, of course, I'm quitting the National Front," Philippot, 35 and a graduate of France's elite administrative school ENA, told France 2 television.
Le Pen, who just last year spoke of having an "intellectual crush" on Philippot, responded tersely that the FN would have no problems of getting over his departure.
"One should stop trying to bury the National Front," she told LCP television. "Every time people have tried to do it, it came out better-structured, stronger and more powerful."
The National Front, which has made major inroads in local, regional and European elections over the past decade without winning any major constituency, will hold a congress in March where internal differences since its defeat to Emmanuel Macron and his new party will come to a head.
The far-right party has tried to portray itself as the main voice of opposition against Macron. But that mantle has so far been assumed by Jean-Luc Melenchon, the leader of the far-left France Insoumise (France Unbowed), who is calling for mass demonstrations against the president's economic reforms.
Appearing on France's RTL Radio on Thursday, Melenchon reveled in the turmoil on the far-right.
"Excellent, that's their business. It's perfect," he said in reaction to Philippot's departure. "It's a party that counts for nothing. Those that were angry but aren't fascists, I urge them to turn their back (on the FN) and come and join us."
Jérôme Fourquet, an expert on the far-right at polling group Ifop, said Philippot's exit would deprive the party of experienced policy writers. But he said any exodus was likely to be limited and short of those who quit when Bruno Megret left the party in 1988, when it was led by Jean-Marie Le Pen. Megret created his own party but it never attracted many votes.
"Those who leave the FN or are pushed out all end up being marginalized," Fourquet said.
Philippot joined the party in 2011 and rose quickly to become Le Pen's chief adviser. He was instrumental in crafting her policies and her 2012 and 2017 election manifestos.
Sophie Montel, one of Philippot's closest aides and an FN member for over 30 years, said on Twitter she was quitting the party. So did several other Philippot allies.
But other more high profile figures rejoiced, including Le Pen's partner Louis Aliot.
"The FN will finally have some peace of mind away from a sectarian, arrogant, vain extremist who was trying to muzzle our freedom to debate," Aliot said on Twitter.
"He thinks he's right about everything and... for me he's an extremist," he said later, speaking to RMC. "When you show him a poll that says 75 percent of the French people don't want to leave the euro, his reply is 'we don't give a damn, that's where we are going.'"
Robert Menard, an FN ally and a mayor in southern France, was even blunter, saying: "We need to stop with the anti-Europeanism and the Melenchon-type (economic) policies."
Le Pen said the party would continue to fight the EU and wanted a return to monetary sovereignty. But after many flip-flops on the issue, she did not spell out precisely what that would entail.
(Reporting by Mathieu Rosemain, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Simon Carraud, Brian Love; Editing by Luke Baker and Toby Chopra)