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For Jews fearing the worst in France, a brief sigh of relief before facing the next fears

The party of Marine Le Pen suffered a surprising defeat, but vexing questions remain

Until early Sunday afternoon, I planned to begin my column with the iconic lines from Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film La Haine, or “Hatred.” Perhaps you know them: “Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: So far so good… so far so good… so far so good. How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land!”

Why this moment from the film?  Because until Sunday afternoon, I was convinced, along with nearly every other election observer, that the extreme rightwing Rassemblement National (National Rally) would place first in the second round of France’s legislative elections. To my mind, the movie’s lines captured what had happened in France over the past two decades. As the National Rally, whose foundations were built by antisemitic trolls, Nazi collaborators, and racist ideologues, continued its apparently irresistible rise, the political class in France reassured itself, like the guy about to splatter on a sidewalk, that jusqu’ici, tout va bien: so far, so good.

But once the preliminary election results were announced Sunday night in France, the laws of physical and political gravity seemed to have been suspended. The New Popular Front — the leftwing coalition bolted together in great haste last month to block the National Rally’s path to power — achieved what no one anticipated: a first-place finish with between 172 and 192 representatives bound for the National Assembly. Moreover, the NPF outdistanced President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance Party, slated to win between 150 and 170 seats—yet another surprising result, since pollsters had been unable to find a pulse for the party’s inert body.

But the great surprise — and, of course, source of great joys — is the third-place finish of the National Rally. The party of Marine Le Pen, which she rebranded as the National Rally upon inheriting the then-National Front from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, will tally somewhere between 132 and 150 seats. After its resounding victory in first round of the election last week, the party seemed bound to win, if not an absolute majority, at least a convincing relative majority. The question was not whether the National Rally would win, but whether its president, Jordan Bardella, would agree to form a minority government.

But this stunning turn of events, while a reason for celebration, is also a reason to pose different, but equally urgent questions. Though Macron has yet to make a public announcement, republican tradition requires the president to ask the leader of the party with the largest number of deputies to form a government. But this raises the most immediate, and perhaps intractable question to answer: Who, in fact, is the leader of the New Popular Front?

The current answer is no one knows.

Recall that this coalition is the very same coalition, the New Ecological and Social People’s Union, that proved as unmanageable as its name, collapsing barely a year after it was formed in 2022. There were substantive policy differences between the four parties that formed the union—Socialists, Ecologists, Communists, and La France insoumise, or Defiant France — but even more significant were stylistic differences. In contrast to the tie and jacketed ranks of the National Rally — who gave the impression of being the adults in the room — the so-called les insoumis dressed casually and often behaved disruptively in the National Assembly, keener on ridiculing rather than reforming the parliamentary system.

No less toxic for traditional voters on the center-left was the personality of the union’s leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who rarely missed an occasion to make mischief with provocative pronouncements. After the Hamas massacre, Mélenchon’s refusal to clearly denounce the act, as well as his refusal to describe Hamas as a terrorist organization, was the proximate cause to the coalition’s disintegration. Though Mélenchon has vowed not to seek the role of prime minister — a promise made under the duress applied by the other parties — he is also vowing that the next prime minister, whoever he or she is, must be from his party’s ranks. At the same time, the leaders of the other parties — including Raphaël Glucksmann, who played a pivotal role in the creation of the NPF — vow no less vehemently that this will not be the case.

What then? As Berthold Brecht observed, once “the travails of the mountains lie behind us, the travails of the plains lie before us.” If the NPF manages to scale the mountain posed by Mélenchon, it must then navigate the plains of governance. The Fifth Republic’s government is a hybrid, a parliamentary system where the prime minister runs the country while the president reigns over it. Moreover, it is a system which has experienced just three periods of “cohabitation” — when the president and prime minister represent different parties — and never experienced a minority government shackled to a president who opposes its very being and a legislature where it is but one of three mutually hostile ideological blocs.

And this is only the start. But that France should find itself at this point reminds us that parties inspired by political malevolence and ethical malpractice are not destined to take power. All those who are attached to France’s revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity and have been holding their breath, have every right to exhale with relief, take a moment and embrace the lessons of this moment.

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