PARIS (REUTERS) - Marine Le Pen's bid to defy the odds and win election as French president risked a setback on Friday (April 28) when the man named interim head of her National Front (FN) party stood down to defend himself against charges that he shares the views of Holocaust deniers.
Days from the May 7 ballot when the far-right leader faces off against centrist ex-banker Emmanuel Macron, the abrupt exit of Jean-Francois Jalkh awoke ghosts from the Front's past and revived a furore sparked by Le Pen's father when he called the Nazi gas chambers a "detail" of history.
The renewed controversy threatens moves by Le Pen, who expelled her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, from the party two years ago, to cleanse the FN's image of xenophobic and anti-semitic associations and make it more palatable to a broader electorate.
"With all we know of the revisionist views the Le Pen family has voiced in the past, there comes a time when the women and men of France must open their eyes to where the National Front comes from," Richard Ferrand, Macron's campaign director, said.
Though opinion polls still show her losing in the May 7 face-off with Macron, she has in the past few days been scoring public relations points off him with well-timed appearances and comments.
Jalkh, a long-time ally of Le Pen senior who founded the National Front and one of 35 Front members elected to parliament in the mid-1980s, had been due to take over as interim party chief, a post Marine Le Pen vacated to focus on the presidential race.
Front member Louis Aliot, Marine Le Pen's partner in private life who announced the move, told BFM TV: "He (Jalkh) wants to defend himself and he will be filing a legal complaint because he feels his honour has been attacked, and I can tell you he firmly and formally contests what he is accused of." Steeve Briois, another of the party's four vice presidents, would take Jalkh's place, Aliot said.
At issue are comments attributed to Jalkh in a conversation with a researcher in 2005 about the work of Robert Faurisson, a professor convicted more than once for questioning the scale of Jewish extermination in Nazi gas chambers during World War Two.
Le Pen's father, who was tried and convicted of inciting racial hatred for his remarks on the Holocaust, said as recently as 2015 that he had a right to make such comments because he believed them to be true.
In the run-up to her bid for power, Marine Le Pen has sought to cleanse the FN's image of such associations and recast it as a nativist, or "French first", party that opposes immigration, globalisation and European Union membership.
THORN IN HER SIDE
Her father appears rapidly to be turning into a thorn into her side as she strives to mount a convincing campaign against Macron.
Last Tuesday, after a first round of voting from which she emerged as one of the two runoff candidates, the 88-year-old former paratrooper said she should have campaigned more aggressively following the example of US President Donald Trump.
He courted controversy again on Friday when he said a remembrance ceremony for the policeman killed last week by an attacker in Paris "exalted" the concept of gay marriage because the gay policeman's male partner was given the stage to speak in his memory.
Marine Le Pen, who attended the state ceremony with other political figures including Macron, distanced herself from his comment. "I felt it was a very dignified ceremony and I was very moved by the speech of his partner," she said.
Jalkh was a little-known figure from the old guard of the party, until his name emerged as interim party leader this week. Newspaper articles relayed the Holocaust-related comments he is purported to have made.
Also unearthed was a newspaper report from 1991 that said Jalkh had attended an anniversary rally held by supporters of Marshal Philippe Petain, French wartime leader and Nazi collaborator, in July of that year.
As Le Pen and her party grappled with a potentially damaging turn of events, Macron, headed for a campaign visit to a village that has been preserved as it was when SS soldiers killed nearly all of its inhabitants in 1944.
Macron was expected mid-afternoon in Oradour-sur-Glane, the village in central France, now a "frozen-in-time" memorial to the 642 men, women and children killed in the space of a few hours in June 1944.
Le Pen said on her return to Paris from an overnight rally in the southern city of Nice that Jalkh was deeply affected by the accusations against him. She said the matter of party leader had been solved with Briois being named to the position.
A new Opinionway poll published at midday showed Macron, like in most other polls, beating Le Pen in the final ballot with 60 per cent of the total vote against her 40. An Odoxa poll put the margin between them at 59 to 41.