Unbowed Le Pen looks ahead to parliamentary elections

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen lost her bid to become France's first female chief of state, but she was unbowed, looking instead to the next battle: parliamentary elections next month.

Le Pen's loss to centrist Emmanuel Macron still gave her a historic number of votes, reflecting the changing image of her once-pariah National Front party from fringe force to a political heavyweight.

Always a fighter defying the odds, the ambitious Le Pen set a new challenge for herself in the weeks ahead: "a profound reformation of our movement to constitute a new political force."

The National Front's interim president, named while Le Pen campaigned for Sunday's runoff, said the changes include giving the party a new name.

"It's opening the doors of the movement to other personalities," Steeve Briois told The Associated Press.

Changing the name was discussed at the height of Le Pen's efforts to scrub the party image and remove traces of racism and anti-Semitism that scared away potential backers. But party stalwarts saw the change as too radical.

A new name would help Le Pen distance herself from the old guard — including her father, party founder Jean-Marie, who was kicked out under his daughter's image revamping.

Le Pen, who came third in the 2012 presidential election, has spent years planting a grassroots structure for her party. In 2014, the National Front won 11 towns in municipal elections, and her party performed better than any in France in elections for the European Parliament, where she co-presides over a far-right group.

Now she vows to go further with still more changes to reach an even wider spectrum of voters, "those who choose France, defend its independence, its freedom, its prosperity, its security, its identity and its social model."

"I will be at the head of this combat," she said.

Le Pen credited herself with upsetting the French political landscape, creating a divide "between patriots and globalists."

"It is this great choice ... that will be submitted to the French in legislative elections," she said in her concession speech.

She said she will seek new alliances, after one she clinched ahead of the runoff with the leader of a small conservative party, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan.

Le Pen called on "patriots" — the word she uses to describe herself — to join her.

The deck is stacked against the National Front despite its strength. It now has only two deputies in the National Assembly due to a voting system that favors more mainstream parties.

President-elect Macron had floated the idea of introducing a dose of proportional representation that favors smaller parties or those locked out. Without that, Le Pen could be hard-pressed to be more than a disruptive force instead of changing the nation's course.

It was unclear if she would seek a seat for herself. Her niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, is currently a lawmaker.

With her fighting spirit, the 48-year-old Le Pen, a lawyer turned politician, resembles her father, who wrenched from a court the right to continue as honorary president for life of the party, even though he was expelled.

"I was never fascinated by power," she said in a recent interview on state-run TV. Power, she said, "is a tool ... not an end in itself."

The mother of three portrays herself as the guardian of a disabused France, where citizens are losing their culture to an encroaching Islam, their identity to "massive immigration" and their sovereignty to the European Union.

Had she won, she says she would have immediately worked to pull France out of the European Union and NATO and put French francs back in the pockets of the French who now shop with the euro currency. She pledged to toughen laws to combat illegal immigration and terrorism and ensure that the French come first in jobs and benefits. Those measures would probably not be fully buried if her movement finds a powerful voice in the legislature.

At the least, Briois, the interim party president who is also mayor of the National Front's northern bastion, Henin-Beaumont, said the party thinks it can get enough lawmakers in the parliamentary voting to form a group — 15. He also looked beyond the election.

"It's not the end tonight. It's the start," said Jean Messiha, who coordinated Le Pen's presidential project. Macron's liberal project "belongs to the past."