French far-right icon Jean-Marie Le Pen gets mixed ruling

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PARIS (AP) A French appeals court on Friday upheld the far-right National Front's decision to expel party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen over anti-Semitic remarks, but also confirmed a lower court's ruling that maintains his status as honorary party president for life.

The decision of the Versailles appeals court, both a stinging defeat and a partial victory for the 89-year-old Le Pen, portends a new showdown with his daughter, former French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.

The father and daughter have waged a bitter power struggle over National Front's image since he named her to succeed him in 2011. The elder Le Pen, who has been convicted multiple times for racism and anti-Semitism, now bemoans fundamental decisions she made.

The enmity could worsen with the approach of the anti-immigration party's congress in March. Members will be asked to vote on doing away with the rank of honorary president-for-life, a strategy to bypass the courts and to make Jean-Marie Le Pen's removal definitive.

The party said in a statement that Jean-Marie Le Pen "has no right to take part in the March congress" because only dues-paying members can participate.

Marine Le Pen and party decision-makers expelled the elder Le Pen in 2015 for a series of remarks considered a liability to the party's image, including repeating a remark that Nazi gas chambers were a "detail" in World War II history.

Jean-Marie Le Pen sued his lawyer said the decision to expel him was made by an "execution squad" but a lower court in 2016 confirmed the ouster.

In the appeals court ruling Friday, the judge echoed the lower court's arguments that the National Front was justified in removing Le Pen as a rank-and-file member because of damage he caused to the party.

However, the court also ordered the party to pay Le Pen 25,000 euros ($31,000) in damages and interest. It said fines were appropriate as well since Le Pen was blocked from high-level party functions he had been entitled to attend as honorary president.

Jean-Marie Le Pen's lawyer welcomed that part of the decision as a victory, according to French media reports.

It may be short-lived. If the honorary president-for-life designation is eliminated at the March 10-11 congress in Lille, it would break Le Pen's last link to the party he founded in 1972. It was not known if he plans to try to attend the gathering.

Party members also are expected to vote on renaming the National Front in a final break with the party's past. Jean-Marie Le Pen said in a Tweet last month that long-time party followers would see a name change as "veritable treason." toward decades of party followers.

At the time of the anti-Semitic remarks, Marine Le Pen was in the midst of an image cleanup campaign ahead of the 2017 presidential race, and she and her cohorts felt her father's verbal provocations would tarnish her.

Marine Le Pen placed second in the first round of last year's French presidential election, but suffered a resounding loss to Emmanuel Macron in the runoff.

Neither Le Pen was present for Friday's ruling.

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