In Paris, joy and creeping fears after French far right’s fall from grace

Le Pen’s National Rally movement dropped from first to third place in an election week, but its relative rise remains a worry.

France after the parliamentary election
Jouhayna, a 20-year-old French Moroccan student, said she was racially taunted ahead of the second round [Adham El Khodary/Al Jazeera]

Paris, France – “Of course, we went to vote for Melenchon,” says Houcine, a 49-year-old butcher of Moroccan descent in Belleville, a diverse Parisian neighbourhood.

“On Sunday, I went to the polling station again, but it was closed. A woman explained to me that the left candidate had already won and been elected deputy after the first round. I didn’t even know,” he adds with a smile that lights up his face.

Jean-Luc Melenchon is the 72-year-old veteran socialist heading up the New Popular Front (NFP), a left-wing alliance that secured most seats in the second round of recent parliamentary elections, crucially stopping the far right from seizing power.

Houcine, a father of three who moved to France 26 years ago, embodies the joyful spirit among marginalised communities in Paris following Sunday’s run-off.

Houcine says he wants to see Melenchon lead parliament [Adham El Khodary/Al Jazeera]

The clouds hovering over Belleville, home to North African restaurants, Asian food shops and a few gentrified bars, fail to dampen the mood.

“I knew that the [National Rally] wouldn’t make it. They are too racist and France, it’s also us, immigrants,” says Houcine.

But many others had feared that Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration party would win a majority at the National Assembly, after a historically high score during the first round.

Their concerns were compounded by memories of the last two presidential elections, during which Le Pen challenged President Emmanuel Macron in a second round.

Her popularity remains undeniable, but to the surprise of many, the New Popular Front coalition ultimately won the most seats in the parliament – 188, beating Ensemble, Macron’s centrist movement which secured 161 seats. The National Rally bagged 142 seats – falling from first to third place in just a week.

The result followed a crunch deal between left-wing and centrist candidates to “block the far right” by withdrawing some politicians in areas where the far right had sway.

All parties fell short of the 289 seats required for a majority, meaning France now has a hung parliament while coalition negotiations take place – a process that could last several weeks.

Rokhaya Diallo
Rokhaya Diallo pictured in a cafe in Paris in 2017 [File: Al Jazeera]

Rokhaya Diallo, a French journalist, writer, filmmaker and activist who is focused on equality, cautioned against celebrating Sunday’s results.

“It is a relief to have been able to limit the influence of the National Rally, but it is far from a victory. They have increased the number of their deputies by 58 percent,” she said.

“The good result of the left has been made possible by the mobilisation of the civil society, who has been doing phone actions, canvassing, holding rallies … It is thanks to true work on the field.”

‘It is a half-hearted victory’

Houcine hopes that Melenchon, “everyone’s favourite here”, will govern the country.

A few blocks away from Houcine’s butchery, Jouhayna, a 20-year-old French Moroccan student who helps run the family’s parfumerie when she is not at university, opens up about a grim exchange.

“After the first round of elections, I was very scared and disappointed to see the National Rally’s result. One day, as I was opening the shop, a man looked at me and said: ‘We are in France here, missus’.”

She believes he was referring to her colourful hijab.

While she feels “relieved” the far right has been kept at bay, she says it is “only the beginning of the fight”.

“It is a half-hearted victory. Today, we have won, but the scores of the National Rally don’t foreshadow anything good for the future. In 10, 20 years, who knows what will happen?”

For her, the “unabashed racism” unleashed by the National Rally towards migrant communities and Muslims will scar the country.

Le Pen has called for the hijab to be banned in public spaces while Jordan Bardella, her protege heading the parliamentary bid, has called the veil a “tool of discrimination”. He has railed against the populous banlieue north of Paris that he grew up in – Seine-Saint-Denis – and promised to ban dual nationals from some of “the most strategic” state jobs if his party seizes power.

NGOs have reported a surge of Islamophobic and racist abuse during June.

Banville shop
Farouk Ezzou feels relieved following the election that pushed the far right from the brink of power [Adham El Khodary/Al Jazeera]

Farouk Ezzou, a 52-year-old of Syrian descent who sells prayer mats and Qurans from his shop, has lived in France since 2008.

“One of the main reasons behind this good result lies, according to me, behind Gaza,” he says. “I know a lot of people who feel solidarity with Palestine went to vote for the left.”

Farouk is “very happy with the result”, but worries that the presidential camp will not agree to cede its power to the left.

In his victory speech, Melenchon said the president and future premier “will have to agree to recognise the Palestinian state as soon as possible”.

Long a supporter of Palestinian rights, his France Unbowed party has been praised by many and equally condemned by others for its position on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Police recently summoned Mathilde Panot, president of the left-wing party, over her statements made after the Hamas-led incursion into southern Israel.

Panot leads LFI, the parliamentary group of France Unbowed, which cast the events of October 7 as an “armed offensive by Palestinian forces” and referenced Israel’s occupation.

On Monday, Gerald Darmanin, interior minister, said it was “out of the question to govern or support a coalition that would have any link with France Unbowed”.

“They have to pass down their power. It is a question of freedom,” says Farouk.

Late on Sunday, at the Place de la Republique square, thousands gathered to cheer the left wing’s triumph, many waving Palestinian flags under a sky full of fireworks.

Reda, a 50-year-old Algerian, was unable to vote as he does not hold French citizenship.

“As soon as I closed my shop, I heard people screaming out of joy. It was crazy,” he said. “I was scared, yes, that the National Rally would win, but not for myself, as I hold a residence permit. I was scared for all the others, for all the undocumented people.

“If I could have voted, I would have voted for Melenchon. Everyone loves him, Melenchon.”

Graffiti reading ‘F*** the National Rally’ is sprayed on a wall in Paris [Adham El Khodary/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera