French election: Nazi attire and racist comments dog Le Pen’s campaign

National Rally leadership is under fire for fielding candidates who have made racist comments or done favors for the Russian government.

Jul 8, 2024 - 01:29
French election: Nazi attire and racist comments dog Le Pen’s campaign

PARIS — Over the past decade, French far-right leader Marine Le Pen has gone to extraordinary lengths to rid her National Rally party of its reputation for racism and xenophobia — including firing her own father and ditching the party’s historic name.

But Le Pen’s attempts to portray a polished, mainstream-friendly veneer cracks when one takes a closer look at her candidates who are (repentant) Holocaust deniers, admirers of Russian President Vladimir Putin and overt racists in the second round of parliamentary elections on Sunday.

Le Pen’s candidates, who are expected to sweep between 230 and 260 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, just short of an absolute majority, look like a rogue’s gallery of extremists and whackos who would have felt just as much at home in the party when it was run by Le Pen’s controversial father, Jean-Marie.

Start with the aficionados of racist posts on X or Facebook. Despite the existence of journalists who can easily read such posts, Le Pen’s candidates keep on getting caught for writing things like “not all civilizations are equal” and that some “have remained right above bestiality in the evolutionary chain.”

In a post that was since deleted, that one was courtesy of Marie-Christine Sorin, a candidate in southern France who placed first in her district after a first-round vote last Sunday.

Another candidate, Monique Griseti, took aim at a famous Black singer called Gims, writing on Facebook in January 2022 that he should “go back to where he comes from and bring his whole tribe with him. Let him go milk goats, it will give the rest of us a holiday,” according to the left-wing daily, Libération. Another candidate, Paule Veyre de Soras, touted the fact that she has a “Jewish eye doctor” and a “Muslim dentist” as proof of her non-racism. 

One might think that having such messages dug up and published might hurt these candidates’ chances at the ballot box. Au contraire, mon cher: All four of these candidates were qualified for the second round of voting, which — it must be said — does not necessarily mean they will be elected during a runoff on Sunday.

Putin fan club

Then there is the Putin fan club, arguably a larger tent than Le Pen’s Facebook racists.

It includes candidates like Pierre Gentillet, a co-founder of France’s pro-Russian Pushkin Circle, traveled to Syria at the invitation of President Bashar al-Assad, who has been shut out by global leaders over atrocities in the decade-long Syrian civil war.

There are also those who personally rendered services to Putin by acting as “election observers” in various sham elections taking place in Russia or Russian-controlled territories of Ukraine. And then there is Frédéric Boccaletti who combines pro-Putinism — he was an observer for Russia’s parliamentary election in 2021 — with a history of anti-Semitism. Indeed, in the late 1990s he was the owner of a bookshop specializing in anti-Semitic and Holocaust denying works. 

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen has gone to extraordinary lengths to rid her National Rally party of its historical reputation for racism and xenophobia. | Francois Lo Presti/Getty Images

Are voters punishing these candidates for embracing a foreign leader whose country has just endorsed Le Pen as France’s next leader? Pas du tout. Here again, it appears that being radical is a selling point rather than a hindrance. Boccaletti placed first with 48.3 percent of the votes in his southern Var district, a National Rally stronghold.

Ditto Gentillet, who placed first in his district. In total, according to tf1info, nine National Rally candidates who participated in sham election observation missions for Russia passed the first round hurdle last Sunday and could be headed for a seat in the National Assembly.

‘Black sheep’

When confronted with the overtly racist comments made by their candidates, National Rally leadership tends to take one of two approaches. If the comment or behavior crosses a certain line (typically, legally actionable acts under France’s hate speech laws), the party may yank their endorsement. This was the case with Ludivine Daoudi, a candidate in northern France who dropped out after a photo surfaced of her grinning in a Nazi Luftwaffe uniform cap. “We cannot accept such things,” said Philippe Chapron, the local party boss. “She is withdrawing in order to not cause problems for the [National Rally] and its candidates.” 

But in most other cases the approach is to shrug, minimize and take action only when the scrutiny has grown too uncomfortable for Le Pen’s “new look” National Rally party. Asked if such candidates would face consequences for cases of racism specifically, Jordan Bardella, the party’s president and potential prime minister, told BFMTV that his “hand would not tremble” before withdrawing endorsements from such candidates, whom he compared to “black sheep.” But the bar for qualifying as a black sheep appears to be quite high — indeed, at the level of a Luftwaffe cap.

With Sunday’s election drawing near, Le Pen and Bardella will increasingly be at pains to present their party as reasonable on the model of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, a right winger who impressed her peers by not embracing Putin or turning her back on the West since taking power in 2022.

But a party is only as reasonable as its members and the lawmakers who support its agenda in Parliament. In this case, it appears Le Pen’s “normalization” effort still has some way to go.

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