France's bruised Le Pen seeks a rebound

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Kintzheim (France) (AFP)

Nine months after losing France's presidential election to Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen took to the stage of a hotel ballroom with a message: the National Front must go.

Wrapping up a nationwide "FN reform" tour in Alsace last weekend, she riffed on traditional themes -- railing against immigration and the "totalitarian" EU -- before grasping the nettle.

"I know many people are attached to the National Front name," she told 400 party members over a lunch of coq au vin.

"But we have to recognise that the taboo linked to the name is a problem," said the 49-year-old ex-lawyer.

"Without a name change we will not be able to forge alliances. And without alliances we will never be able to take power."

Running unopposed for a third term as leader, Le Pen will propose a new name at a party conference in Lille next week -- culminating a seven-year campaign to cleanse the party of its past association with overt racism and anti-Semitism.

Since the 2017 presidential campaign and a general election in which the FN bagged only eight seats out of 577, the party and its leader have appeared punch-drunk.

Le Pen has kept a low profile, fuelling speculation about her future.

Other woes have piled up, including banking problems and criminal charges over alleged misuse of EU expenses and gruesome tweets of Islamic State atrocities.

- New blood? -

Polite applause rippled around the ballroom in Kintzheim, a picturesque village near the German border.

But there was a distinct lack of the fist-pumping fervour that Le Pen elicited on the campaign trail.

Christophe Hingray, a 50-year-old undertaker with a heart tattooed on his neck, admitted he was "more than a little disappointed" in Le Pen for stumbling in the final showdown with Macron.

She ultimately trailed Macron on 34 percent after a disastrous TV debate which raised questions about her grasp of economics.

"Things were going well until the debate, then she messed up," said Hingray, echoing a sentiment voiced by many in Kintzheim.

He disagreed that the FN brand -- still closely associated with Le Pen's father, serial Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen -- was a handicap.

"The millstone is the party leadership. They should make way for new blood," he said.

- Nationalists vs globalists -

The architect of Le Pen's unpopular pledge to pull France out of the eurozone, Florian Philippot, was hounded out in September.

It laid bare divisions over what she calls her "two-pronged" approach: a far-right agenda on immigration and national identity coupled with a statist economic programme that contains shades of the French left.

Last week there were further blushes after her glamorous niece, 28-year-old former MP Marion Marechal-Le Pen, was invited to address a US conservative jamboree after Vice President Mike Pence.

The reappearance of the Catholic hardliner, a darling of the FN's old guard who quit politics after the presidential election, revived speculation about a comeback.

"Marion's so great! She's vivacious and has an answer for everything," said Irene Buschauer, a 71-year-old widow attending the lunch in Kintzheim.

In a rare display of vulnerability, Le Pen told French radio on Tuesday that Marion "doubtlessly has more going for her than me, starting with youth".

She repeated she would gladly step aside in the 2022 election if another FN candidate was "better placed to unite people and help our ideas triumph".

But her leadership is secure for now -- underwritten by her 10.6 million presidential election voters, double her father's 2002 tally.

"She's the one who brought us this far," said Hombeline du Parc, a FN councillor for the eastern region.

The party aims to present a united front in Lille and set up a nationalists versus globalists rematch with Macron in next year's European election.

The FN will also attempt to sever its last link with 89-year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen by changing party statutes to strip him of his role as honorary president.

- 2020 vision -

In Kintzheim, Le Pen set out a strategy for winning the 15 points that separated her from the Elysee palace, beginning with a victory for eurosceptics in European elections in May 2019.

"We can and will come out on top," she vowed.

The FN also aims to "flood" France with councillors and mayors in 2020 municipal elections, and strike alliances with other parties, which have historically banded together to bar the FN's path to power.

The leader of the main opposition Republicans, Laurent Wauquiez, has so far refused Le Pen's overtures.

But she is banking on divisions between centrists and right-wingers tearing his party asunder -- leaving hers to pick over the spoils.

Political analyst Jean-Yves Camus predicted Le Pen would nonetheless struggle to win over Republicans, most of whom ended up backing Macron in May.

"Right-wing voters in France are attached to a monarchical vision of the presidency," Camus said.

"Marine Le Pen does not match up to that image, even less so since the debate."