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Extremist Parties Chalk Up Massive Gains in French Legislative Elections

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avatar by Ben Cohen

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the French far-left La France Insoumise political party. Photo: Reuters/Robert Pratta

Extremist parties of both left and right enjoyed a strong showing in Sunday’s legislative elections in France, with the far right National Rally (RN) winning its highest-ever total of parliamentary seats and the far left NUPES coalition making key gains.

The results were a significant blow to the centrist French President, Emmanuel Macron, who was re-elected to his post in April after comfortably winning a run-off against RN leader Marine Le Pen. Macron’s party won 245 of the 577 seats in the French parliament, well short of the 289 required for an absolute majority. Meanwhile, the RN won 89 seats, an elevenfold increase on its previous tally, while the NUPES alliance of green and socialist parties claimed a total of 131.

On Sunday, Le Pen hailed her party’s electoral performance, pointing out that “in our wildest dreams we were hoping for 60 MPs.”

Addressing supporters in Henin-Beaumont in northern France — once a Socialist Party stronghold that has now embraced the RN — Le Pen remarked that she had been “pleasantly surprised by the mobilization of our fellow citizens and this desire that immigration, insecurity, and the struggle against Islamism do not disappear from the parliamentary debate.”

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A successor party to the National Front (FN) which was founded by her father, the French neo-fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen, the RN has attempted to modernize itself under Marine Le Pen, with some prominent party figures distancing themselves from its historic antisemitism. However, Crif, the umbrella body representing France’s Jewish community of 500,000, has refused contacts with the party, warning that “extremes are dangerous for France and dangerous for Jews, as history has shown us.”

The RN will now take its place as the largest single opposition party in parliament, as the NUPES representatives belong to different left-wing factions. “The RN has become a party with local roots,” observed the political scientist Pascal Perrineau in an interview with news outlet Le Parisien. “It has become the undisputed spokesman on social and territorial divisions.”

Macron’s government will also now face stiff opposition from NUPES, although the coalition’s leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, failed to win enough seats to realize his ambition of becoming prime minister.

Mélenchon has frequently been accused of antisemitism. In June 2020, he dismissed reports of chants of “Dirty Jews!” at a left-wing demonstration in Paris as having been fabricated by the police, who were guilty of “peddling gossip about antisemitism,” he said.

In a radio interview the following month, when asked if police should “be like Jesus on the cross and not respond” to violent demonstrators, Mélenchon revived the ancient antisemitic trope that Jews are collectively responsible for the execution of Jesus by the Romans, replying, “Listen, I don’t know if Jesus was on the cross. I know who put him there, it seems that it was his own compatriots.”

Last November, Mélenchon again angered the Jewish community when he claimed that Eric Zemmour, a far-right presidential candidate of Jewish origin, could not be antisemitic “because he reproduces many cultural themes: ‘We do not change tradition, we do not evolve’…All these traditions are very much linked to Judaism.”

The winning NUPES candidates included Danielle Simonnet, who stood for the party in Paris. Earlier this month, Simonnet courted controversy when she appeared on a platform with Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the British Labour Party whose term was marred by a series of antisemitism scandals in the party’s ranks.

“Corbyn was the victim of a gross manipulation because he embodied the left wing,” Simmonet said. She went on to claim falsely that the Labour Party “had to apologize and reinstate [Corbyn.]”  (Corbyn’s suspension from Labour’s parliamentary grouping, imposed in Oct. 2020 after he claimed that the scale of antisemitism in the party had been “dramatically overstated,” has not been lifted.)

Simonnet won a comfortable victory on Sunday over her rival Lamia el Araaje, a Socialist candidate who had denounced Corbyn’s presence in Paris. “To invite and display the support of Jeremy Corbyn, dismissed from the Labour Party and [its parliamentary party] for complacency with antisemitism in Britain, after 1,000 complaints registered by this party, is a shame of which Danielle Simonnet is proud,” she stated.

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