'We won’t stay silent in the face of the far right'

French protesters denounce far right ahead of elections; some chant ‘Free Palestine’

250,000 people turn out to demonstrate amid fears the vote will produce France’s first far-right government since World War II

Demonstrators stand next to and on the statue The Triumph of the Republic on Place de la Nation as they take part in an anti far-right rally in Paris on June 15, 2024 (Sameer Al-Doumy / AFP)
Demonstrators stand next to and on the statue The Triumph of the Republic on Place de la Nation as they take part in an anti far-right rally in Paris on June 15, 2024 (Sameer Al-Doumy / AFP)

PARIS (AP) — Anti-racism groups joined French unions and a brand-new left-wing coalition in protests in Paris and across France on Saturday against the surging nationalist far right, as frenzied campaigning is underway ahead of snap parliamentary elections.

The French Interior Ministry said 250,000 people turned out to protest, 75,000 of them in Paris. Despite rainy and windy weather, those who fear that the elections will produce France’s first far-right government since World War II gathered at Place de la Republique before marching through eastern Paris. Up to 21,000 police and gendarmes were deployed.

The protesters held placards reading “Liberty for all, Equality for all and Fraternity with all” — a reference to France’s national motto — and “Let’s break frontiers, documents for all, no to the immigration bill.”

Some chanted “Free Palestine, viva Palestina,” and wore keffiyeh scarves. Among them was Nour Cekar, a 16-year-old high school student from the Paris region, who has French and Algerian parents and wears the hijab.

“To me, the extreme right is a danger because it supports an ideology based on the fear of the other, whereas we are all French citizens despite our differences,” she told The Associated Press.

Cekar said she will vote for the left-wing coalition because “it is the only political party that addresses racism and Islamophobia.”

Protesters sing chants during a demonstration in Marseille, southern France, against the surging nationalist far right. Saturday, June 15, 2024 (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

“I fear the rise of the National Rally because I am afraid that they will ban the hijab in the name of women’s liberty. I am a woman and I should be able to decide what I want to wear. I am a free woman,” she said, adding that she is insulted on social media and in the streets on a daily basis because of her headscarf.

Against the backdrop of music of French-Malian singer Aya Nakamura, the crowd chanted “Everyone hates racism.”

“France is made up of people of different origins. It is its strength. The National Rally wants to break that,” 68-year-old Mohamed Benammar, a French doctor with Tunisian roots who works in a Paris public hospital, told AP.

“We provide medical care to everyone, without worrying about their nationality, the color of their skin or their religion, unlike the fascists (extreme-right leaders) that single out Black, Arabs or Muslim people,” he said.

Although his son told him that it was useless to protest, Bennamar said he’s convinced that it is important to make his voice heard. “I am here to send a strong signal to politicians. We won’t stay silent in the face of the far right,” he said.

Demonstrators hold a union banner reading “CNT – against fascism, class struggle” during an anti far right rally in Paris on June 15, 2024. (Zakaria ABDELKAFI / AFP)

Police in Paris reported “numerous attempts at damage” by protesters. They said that nine protesters were arrested and three officers were injured. An AP journalist said police used tear gas against demonstrators who tried to vandalize a bus stop and advertising boards.

In the French Riviera city of Nice, protesters marched down Jean Médecin Avenue, the city’s main shopping street, chanting against the National Rally, its leader Jordan Bardella as well as against President Emmanuel Macron. Local police said 2,500 people took part.

Nice is traditionally a conservative stronghold, but has over the past decade turned firmly in favor of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and her far-right rival Eric Zemmour.

Crowds have been gathering daily ever since the anti-immigration National Rally made historic gains in the European Parliament elections on Sunday, crushing Macron’s pro-business moderates and prompting him to dissolve the National Assembly.

New elections for the lower house of parliament were set in two rounds, for June 30 and July 7. Macron remains president until 2027 and in charge of foreign policy and defense, but his presidency would be weakened if the National Rally wins and takes power of the government and domestic policy.

Protesters march during a demonstration in Marseille, southern France, against the surging nationalist far right. Saturday, June 15, 2024 (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

“We need a democratic and social upsurge — if not the extreme right will take power,” French unions said in a statement Friday. “Our Republic and our democracy are in danger.”

They noted that in Europe and across the world, extreme-right leaders have passed laws detrimental to women, the LGBTQ+ community, and people of color.

To prevent the National Rally party from winning the upcoming elections, left-wing parties finally agreed Friday to set aside differences over the wars in Gaza and Ukraine and form a coalition. They urged French citizens to defeat the far right.

French opinion polls suggest the National Rally — whose founder has been repeatedly convicted of racism and antisemitism — is expected to be ahead in the first round of the parliamentary elections. The party came out on top in the European elections, garnering more than 30% of the vote cast in France, almost twice as many votes as Macron’s party Renaissance.

Thousands of protesters march as they demonstrate against the far right, in Rennes, western France on June 15, 2024. (LOU BENOIST / AFP)

Macron’s term is still on for three more years, and he would retain control over foreign affairs and defense regardless of the result of the French parliamentary elections.

But his presidency would be weakened if the National Rally wins, which could put its 28-year-old party leader Bardella on track to become the next prime minister, with authority over domestic and economic affairs.

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