Le Pen appeals to disenchanted Sarkozy party members

PARIS Thu May 3, 2012 7:21pm BST

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PARIS (Reuters) - An implosion of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling UMP party has sunk his chances of re-election, far-right leader Marine Le Pen said, calling on disenchanted conservatives to join her National Front in a new grouping to run for parliament.

In an interview with Reuters, Le Pen said centrist UMP stalwarts had wrecked Sarkozy's strategy of moving sharply to the right in the hope of winning over National Front voters for Sunday's presidential run-off.

"The UMP is digging Sarkozy's grave. They prevented him from even having the hope to win," said Le Pen, who won six million votes in the first round of the election last month and now wants her party to return to parliament.

"The UMP is already imploding, even before the election. Sarkozy has lost control," she said at her party's suburban Paris headquarters, an industrial building with a small statue of Front mascot Joan of Arc by the entrance.

Le Pen's influence has dominated the final stages of the election race, with Sarkozy forced to take a tough line on immigration and national identity in a drive to catch up with Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande.

Sarkozy has veered so far to the right that he has divided his party and Le Pen called on "nationalist and patriotic" politicians to join her in a coalition for parliamentary elections to be held in June.

Le Pen sprung a surprise in the first round of the presidential polls by winning over almost one in five voters but her National Front has been absent from parliament for a quarter of a century.

The 43-year-old former lawyer said she would focus her efforts on building a patriotic coalition that would include National Front members, former UMP members and other nationalist politicians and individuals.

These people would be invited to join her new "Rassemblement Bleu Marine" ("Navy Blue Grouping") to win seats in parliament and the group should be in place by next week.

Since taking over the National Front leadership from her ex-paratrooper father Jean-Marie in early 2011, Le Pen has tried to widen her party's appeal by expelling extremists and cracking down on racist talk and anti-Semitism.

PARLIAMENTARY BREAKTHROUGH

With the UMP having ruled out any national electoral agreement with the National Front, Le Pen hopes to make deals with local politicians to boost the party's chances.

The National Front has had no parliamentary deputies since 1986, when a brief experiment with proportional representation helped it secure 35 seats. Since a subsequent change in the voting system it has failed to win a majority in any district.

Le Pen is aiming for at least a handful of seats and hopes to get the 15 needed to form a parliamentary group, which would boost her party's ability to propose legislation.

"Success would be to get one parliamentarian to begin with because it's been 25 years that we've been excluded," said Le Pen, who will run in the northern constituency of Henin-Beaumont, where she was edged out in 2007 by a Socialist.

If the party came close to repeating Le Pen's 17.8 percent presidential score, it could split the right-wing vote in more than half of the 577 constituencies, making it easier for the Socialists to beat Sarkozy's UMP.

Under the two-round constituency voting system, candidates who win more than 12.5 percent of registered voters are entitled to enter the decisive second ballot.

Le Pen won more than 12.5 percent of registered voters in 353 constituencies in the first presidential round on April 22. However, turnout in parliamentary elections is normally 10 to 20 points lower than the 80 percent average in the presidential vote, so the National Front may reach far fewer runoffs.

In districts where the Socialist Party faces a UMP and National Front candidate, the rightist parties could boost their chances if one of them withdrew, by making a deal with the other to pull out one of its candidates in another district.

Le Pen said her party was already negotiating with other parties and representatives of the UMP in several wards. "We are redrawing the French political landscape," she said.

VULCANOLOGIST'S FORECAST

She said a presence in parliament would give her a platform for her economic programme - which includes protectionism and a French exit from the euro - and ultimately pave the way for a 2017 presidential bid.

"Our ideas have been so influential, even without a presence in parliament. Wait till we get a few seats," she said.

A TNS Sofres survey on Wednesday found 37 percent of voters agreed with the National Front's policies, the highest level since 1984. Just over half said France had too many immigrants.

In the past few months, Le Pen's anti-euro stance has taken second place as she focused her campaign on the Front's traditional themes of security and immigration. However, she said it was just a matter of time before the euro zone crisis resumed and showed how untenable the euro had become.

"They have smothered the euro crisis by throwing billions at it, but as soon as the crisis returns, the euro debate will come return," she said, adding that the euro would eventually blow up.

"I am like a vulcanologist: my analysis shows that the volcano is about to erupt," she said.

(editing by David Stamp)

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