June 18, 2017 / 6:41 PM / in 4 months

France's Le Pen wins parliamentary seat, faces turbulent times

PARIS (Reuters) - French far-right leader Marine Le Pen was on Sunday elected to parliament together with seven other National Front candidates, a result that beat worse-case scenarios for the party but will not be enough to paper over deep divisions.

FILE PHOTO: Marine Le Pen, former French presidential election candidate for the far-right National Front (FN) party, poses prior to an interview on prime time news broadcast of French TV channel TF1, in Boulogne-Billancourt, near Paris, France, May 18, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Guillot/Pool

The outcome falls well short of the National Front’s (FN) target of a “massive” presence in parliament and also misses its objective of having enough troops to form a parliamentary group, meaning its voice in the lower house will be limited.

Nevertheless, the anti-establishment party fared better than pollsters forecast over the past few days and has a greater presence in parliament than the past five years, when it had only two MPs.

Only a month ago the anti-immigration FN leader challenged Macron for the presidency in a run-off vote that underlined the widespread disillusion with mainstream parties.

Her defeat was cheered by European leaders who had feared another populist upheaval in the wake of Britain’s Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president.

On Sunday she was swift to say the record-high abstention rate in the parliamentary election weakened Macron’s legitimacy.

“We shall fight with all our strength the harmful projects of the government, which is only in place to implement the roadmap sent by Brussels,” she said in a televised address in her northern fiefdom of Henin-Beaumont.

But without enough lawmakers to form a parliamentary group -- a target both the party itself and observers until recently expected it to meet -- the FN will little speaking time in the chamber, no say over parliament’s agenda and its committees, and fewer financial resources than other parties.

“TURBULENT TIMES AHEAD”

Le Pen’s failed presidential bid opened up rare public infighting among senior party lieutenants, of which there was further evidence on Sunday night and which is likely to intensify now that the parliamentary election is over.

FILE PHOTO: Florian Philippot, French far-right National Front (FN) party vice-president, arrives at their party's campaign headquarters in Paris, France, April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Gilbert Collard, an outgoing lawmaker who held off the challenge of a former bullfighter to keep his seat in the southeast, slammed the FN’s election strategy.

“We should not claim victory because we suffered quite a blow,” said Collard, who won his seat by a mere 123 votes. “We are going to need to think seriously about ... how we are organized.”

One key issue will be the party’s stance on the euro currency.

FILE PHOTO: French deputy Gilbert Collard attends a French National Front (FN) political debate in Paris, France November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

A fierce nationalist, Le Pen stuck during the presidential run-off race to promises to exit the euro currency, long at the heart of her economic platform, even though most French citizens and some of her top allies like Collard oppose the move.

The FN’s elected lawmakers represent both sides of that debate even if Le Pen’s deputy Florian Philippot, who was a key architect of the anti-euro manifesto, failed to get elected.

She has promised to overhaul the party and debate issues like the single currency.

“There are turbulent times ahead for the FN,” said Nice university researcher Gilles Ivaldi, a specialist of the FN.

“The FN managed to minimize its losses, which wasn’t a given but there are a lot of difficulties ahead ... the party is divided ideologically.”

The FN will hold a major congress at the end of this year or beginning of next.

Those elected alongside Le Pen include her partner Louis Aliot in the south-west and, in the north, Sebastien Chenu, the head of the “Idea-Image” cell that was key to her presidential campaign strategy.

Additional eporting by Andrew Callus, Simon Carraud, Pierre Savary, Julie Rimbert, Sybille de La Hamaide; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Richard Lough

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