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An unprecedented victory for a historically antisemitic right-wing party in France, and now the world holds its breath

In the land of existentialism, Emmanuel Macron has proved unequal to the existential crisis he created

No doubt you have already heard the news. Yesterday, one in three French voted for Marine Le Pen’s extreme-right wing party, the Rassemblement national, or National Rally, in the first round of legislative elections in France. The party’s first place finish, as you also already know, is “unprecedented.”

Over the past half year in France, no adjective has gotten as much wear and tear as “inédit” or “unprecedented.” The explosive rise in the number of antisemitic incidents across France since last October? Inédit. The tidal surge of Le Pen’s party in the polls since early this year? Inédit. President Emmanuel Macron’s decision on June 9, following his party’s catastrophic performance in the European elections, to dissolve the National Assembly and call new elections? Inédit. The overnight formation of the four leftwing parties into a coalition called the New Popular Front? Inédit.

And yet more inédits pelted France yesterday, starting with the stunning percentage of French who went to the voting stations instead of the beach. By noon, the number of ballots cast had already blown past 50%, unlike the past several legislative elections which never broke even. In fact, the final percentage, slightly more than 67%, came close to equaling the percentage of voters in 1981, when a Socialist government won power for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic. One newspaper hailed this unprecedented event, quite simply, as “La victoire,” or “Victory.”

Does this mean that French newspapers must now swap “la victoire” for “la défaite”?  When it comes to Macron and his party, the answer is a resounding “yes.” By way of rationalizing his irrational and impulsive decision to dissolve the assembly, Macron insisted that his shock and awe announcement was deliberate. An election was “indispensable,” Macron declared, to “clarify” the nation’s political future.

Alas for Macron and his party, their future could not be any clearer or grimmer. The party finished a distant third with barely 20% of the vote. During the seven years of its existence, the many names of the party — from On the Move! (En Marche!) through The Republic on the Move! (La République en Marche!) to Renaissance — are now singularly ironic. (Or, rather, “Ironic!”) In the end, the public was alienated by the style and substance of a president whose policies moved from the loosely liberal to lamentably illiberal and whose dream of governing France with “Jupiterian” authority made for the nightmare of an extreme-right wing party now a step away from forming a government.

Victory, obviously, belongs to Le Pen and the National Rally. She took a marginal movement once known as the National Front — an anti-republican, anti-immigrant, and antisemitic movement founded by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen a half-century ago — and transformed it into the nation’s leading political party which, despite its rebranding, remains an anti-republican and anti-immigrant party. Indeed, despite its vaunted effort to rid the party of its antisemitism, scarcely a day passed this month that a National Rally candidate was not outed by the media for antisemitic and racist utterances.

A few days ago, the current of ethno-nationalism that runs through the National Rally burst its banks. Jordan Bardella, the 28-year-old poised to become France’s prime minister, declared he would exclude from “strategic” or “sensitive” positions in his government those individuals who hold dual nationality. Reserving these positions for French citizens, he clarified, “is another way of protecting ourselves from attempts at interference orchestrated by foreign states.” Not surprisingly, his declaration spurred outrage on the French left and center; no less surprisingly, it will barely spur a shrug of shoulders among National Rally voters  come the second round of elections this Sunday.

The republican rampart that now stands between the National Rally and power is the New Popular Front. Its election results — it placed second with 28% of the vote — marked a qualified victory. On the one hand, the simple fact that the Socialists, Communists, Ecologists, and Defiant France — whose internecine battles brought down an earlier coalition — bridged their differences overnight to create the New Popular Front was itself a victory. There was also a signal victory in resolving the most crucial issue dividing the parties: Defiant France’s ambiguous stance on Israel and Hamas. In stark and striking language, the alliance’s joint statement denounced antisemitism, embraced a two-state solution, and declared the events of Oct. 7, 2023, as a “terrorist attack.”

Whether this will be enough to either deprive the National Rally of enough seats to form a government, much less win enough seats to form their own government, depends on at least two factors. First, there is the “Mélenchon factor.” The leader of Defiant France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has alienated most everyone on the left, apart from his own rank-and-file, by his artfully vague yet inevitably divisive statements on Israel, Gaza, and antisemitism. Nevertheless, the other parties, as well as members of his own party, have made clear that Mélenchon will not be their prime minister. Moreover, the party, unlike the National Rally, embraces the egalitarian and democratic ideals of the revolution and republic.

A second factor involves the nature of France’s two-round electoral system. If no candidate succeeds in winning 50% in the first round, those candidates who receive at least 12.5% of the vote will face-off in the second and deciding round. Today it became clear that voters in about 300 of the 577 constituencies will face the dilemma of “triangulations” — the situation where three remaining candidates will run against one another.

Of course, this is only a dilemma if two of the three candidates, committed to republican values, refuse to retire thus splitting the vote and handing the seat to the National Rally candidate. The New Popular Front, committed to maintaining a “republican rampart,” have already announced that their candidates who finished third in any of these constituencies will retire and support a Renaissance candidate. However, Macron has again failed to be equal to the existential crisis he helped create. Having insisted over the past several months that the National Rally and Defiant France are two peas in an anti-republican pod, Macron is either unwilling or unable to change his tune. All he could manage was to issue a statement calling for a “broad, unequivocally democratic, and republican alliance for the second round.”

What this will mean come Sunday is unclear. It will be a bit less unclear tomorrow evening — the deadline for candidates to announce whether they will remain or retire from the second round. What is clear is that Macron’s achievement will also be inédit. The man who pretended to be the shield against the National Rally will instead be remembered as its shill.

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