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Marine Le Pen severs ties with founder, announces name change

Right-wing party leader says change long overdue; party must meet new aspiration of governing, not protesting.

Marine Le Pen

France's National Front leader Marine Le Pen revealed plans to change her party's name in what observers said was an attempt to part ways with her father and party founder's racist-laden legacy.

Le Pen - who ran unopposed and secured re-election as the right-wing party's leader during the two-day congress in France's northern city of Lille - said on Sunday the word "front" inspired a sense of opposition, was outdated, and would be dropped.

"This name, National Front, bears an epic and glorious history, which no one can deny... But you know it is for many French people a psychological obstacle. We were originally a protest party... There should be no doubt that we can be a ruling party," Le Pen said.

The new moniker, Le Rassemblement National (National Rally), must still be approved by party adherents who in a poll last year expressed mild support for the proposed move, with a slight majority of 52 percent voting in favour of the change.

Abdel Mestre - a journalist for the Paris-based paper Le Monde, and a longtime observer of the French far-right - said the name is not wholly new and it has been used during the 1986 legislative elections.

An overwhelming majority of the movement's adherents - 79 percent - have agreed to a new party structure that includes the creation of a 100-member governing council, and the retraction of an honorary title granting the party's founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, lifelong presidency.

In 2015, 94 percent of party members voted to expel the controversy-stricken founder and rescind his honorary status as president-for-life, but were not able to enforce the decision because of legal challenges.

The octogenarian has been living in political isolation ever since.

'Let them call you racists' 

Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon addressed party supporters at the congress on Saturday.

He expressed his unequivocal support for the anti-establishment, ultra-nationalist Le Pen and, in a show of populist euphoria, called on followers to celebrate accusations of racism and xenophobia.

"Let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honour. Because every day we get stronger and they get weaker."

"What I've learned", Bannon added, "is you are part of a worldwide movement that is bigger than France, bigger than Italy, bigger than Hungary, bigger than all of it." 

The 56-year-old, who is on a European tour, recently told reporters he aspires to be the face of universal populism.

"All I'm trying to be is the infrastructure, globally, for the global populism movement," Bannon told the New York Times on Saturday. 

Racist slurs

The National Front has long struggled to brush off the ideological residue that propelled the once modest movement to national prominence.

A close aid to Le Pen and assistant-director of the party's youth wing was filmed hurling racist slurs at a security guard outside a bar in Lille on Friday.

"You piece of nig%@* sh#t," Davy Rodriguez said in the video, using the racist name for black people.

While Rodriguez denied making such a statement, claiming the video was "pure montage", the party announced his suspension.  

Marine Le Pen, who made it to last year's French presidential runoff only to suffer a crushing defeat at the hands of political novice Emmanuel Macron, has consistently looked to modernise her party in an effort to appeal to more centrist voters.

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