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France in Shock as Conservative Leader Embraces Far Right

France in Shock as Conservative Leader Embraces Far Right
France in Shock as Conservative Leader Embraces Far Right

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The head of France’s conservative party on Tuesday called for an alliance with the far right in upcoming snap elections, breaking a longstanding taboo and throwing his party into deep turmoil as the shock waves from President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to dissolve the lower house of Parliament coursed through the country.

No leader of any mainstream French political party has ever previously embraced a possible alliance with Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, or its predecessor, the National Front. But across Europe, barriers to what was long regarded as the extreme nationalist right have been falling as those parties have adjusted their positions and as a broader consensus has formed that large-scale illegal immigration across a porous European Union border must be curbed.

The announcement, by Éric Ciotti, the head of the Republicans, was a historic break with the party’s longstanding line and its ties to former President Charles de Gaulle. Mr. Ciotti’s call was immediately met with a chorus of angry disapproval from within his own ranks.

Uncertainty hung over France just weeks from the Olympic Games it will host. Scattered demonstrations against the far right broke out in Paris and elsewhere. Political parties scrambled to make sense of Mr. Macron’s decision and get organized with just 19 days remaining before the first round of the election, the shortest campaign in the history of the Fifth Republic. The ratings agency Moody’s issued a warning that the snap election “increases risks to financial consolidation” for a heavily indebted France.

The elections for the National Assembly, the lower and more powerful house of France’s Parliament, are scheduled for June 30 and July 7. Mr. Macron called them last week after his party suffered a bruising defeat in European Parliament elections, gaining just 14.6 percent of the vote nationwide, compared with about 31.4 percent for the National Rally, led by Ms. Le Pen’s protégé, Jordan Bardella. The Republicans fared even worse, with only 7.25 percent.

Mr. Bardella, 28, who became the new and widely popular face of French politics during the campaign for the European Parliament elections, welcomed Mr. Ciotti’s announcement and described it as “putting the interests of the French people before those of our parties.”

Mr. Macron’s centrist Renaissance party, thrown into disarray by the president’s abrupt decision and without obvious allies on its left or right to keep the far right from power, struggled to present a coherent front.

Gabriel Attal, 35, named prime minister at the beginning of the year in an attempt to revive Mr. Macron’s fortunes, disappeared from view for 24 hours after Mr. Macron’s announcement. Once a favorite of the president, he appears not to have been part of the inner circle that planned the surprise election.

He resurfaced on Tuesday to say he would “do everything to avoid the worst,” describing the far right as “at the gates of power” in France and the far left as presenting “a revolting spectacle.”

Mr. Attal said the election was a choice between “rejection of the other and respect of people.” Raising the stakes, he declared that “on one side you have a financial and social disaster, on the other stability and construction.” To all of France’s economic problems, including more than $3 trillion in debt, the National Rally’s answer, with scant hedging, has appeared to consist of spend, spend, spend.

But across wide sections of France the feeling has grown, as it did in the United States in the run-up to the 2016 election, that the country has tried everything and needs to try something new, however perilous.

The arguments of what are seen as cookie-cutter white male graduates from elite schools who run the country, and have since time immemorial, no longer wash with people struggling to get by in neighborhoods they feel have been transformed by uncontrolled immigration.

In an interview on TF1 television, Mr. Ciotti seemed to acknowledge that old methods would not work. He said on Tuesday that his party had become “too weak” to stand on its own and needed to make a deal with the National Rally to keep a sizable group of lawmakers in the lower house.

The Republicans, a party that was long a dominant force in French politics under the presidencies of Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, has only 61 lawmakers in the 577-seat National Assembly and could see those numbers dwindle even further.

If such a deal were formalized — with the National Rally agreeing not to run candidates against Republicans in certain districts — it would be the first time France’s center-right conservatives have worked in tandem with the far right. That would in turn make it more difficult for Mr. Macron to form any sort of coalition after the election that would keep Ms. Le Pen’s party from power.

“We need an alliance, while remaining ourselves,” Mr. Ciotti said. Later, asked by reporters at the party’s headquarters what had happened to the barrier that traditional parties in France usually erected around the far right, he demurred, saying the question was “totally out of step with the situation in France.”

“The French don’t see the cordon sanitaire,” he said, referring to what was sometimes called a “dam” against the extreme right. “They see diminished purchasing power, they see insecurity, they see the flood of migrants, and they want answers.”

Many high-ranking conservative politicians, who had warned against any alliance with the far right, immediately said it was unacceptable and called for Mr. Ciotti’s resignation.

Gérard Larcher, an influential Republican leader who is president of the French Senate, said that Mr. Ciotti “can no longer lead our movement.” Valérie Pécresse, the head of the Ile-de-France region, which includes Paris, said Mr. Ciotti had “sold his soul.”

It was not immediately clear how many Republican lawmakers might follow Mr. Ciotti’s lead and agree to work with the National Rally.

The Republicans, who have undergone several name changes, can be traced back to the right-wing party founded by de Gaulle after World War II, a historical legacy that for years made any alliance with the far right anathema. De Gaulle, after all, fought and defeated the Vichy government that led France in collaboration with the Nazis from 1940 to 1944.

Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister who quit the Republicans in 2017 to join forces with Mr. Macron, said that Mr. Ciotti “has signed the Munich accords and driven the Gaullist family into dishonor,” a reference to the 1938 Munich Agreement, which handed part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler and led Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Britain to declare “peace for our time.” World War II broke out a year later.

“This is shameful. French people, wake up!” Mr. Darmanin added.

The Republicans’ party line has shifted increasingly rightward, especially on crime and immigration, over the past few years. It has become torn between those who favor an alliance with Mr. Macron’s centrists and those who want to lean further right.

Mr. Ciotti is a lawmaker representing Nice, where the far right has performed exceptionally well. The National Rally came out on top there last week with over 30 percent of the vote in the European elections, while the Republicans lagged in sixth.

In a flurry of messages on social media, Mr. Ciotti’s colleagues in the party quickly tried to characterize his announcement as a personal position, not the official line.

“Éric Ciotti speaks only for himself,” said Jean-François Copé, the mayor of Meaux and former minister who used to head the party. “He must resign immediately from the presidency of the Republicans, his praise of the extreme right is unacceptable and contrary to all the values we defend.”

Asked on Franceinfo radio what the next steps were, Florence Mosalini-Portelli, the party’s vice president, was blunt.

“We fire him,” she said of Mr. Ciotti.

That may sound simple, but Mr. Ciotti’s decision to open the door to the far right was not an act of pure personal whim. It reflects a significant current within his party, as well as the ongoing broader acceptance of the notion that the National Rally might one day legitimately govern France.

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