France's anti-immigration far right gets boost from riots over police killing of teen

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FILE - A demonstrator runs on the third night of protests sparked by the fatal police shooting of a 17-year-old driver in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, France, Friday, June 30, 2023. Widespread riots in France sparked by the police killing of a teenager with North African roots have revealed the depth of discontent roiling poor neighborhoods and given a new platform to the increasingly emboldened far right. (AP Photo/Aurelien Morissard, File)

PARIS – Widespread riots in France sparked by the police killing of a teenager with North African roots have revealed the depth of discontent roiling poor neighborhoods — and given a new platform to the increasingly emboldened far right.

The far right's anti-immigration mantra is seeping through a once ironclad political divide between it and mainstream politics. More voices are now embracing a hard line against immigration and blaming immigrants not only for the car burnings and other violence that followed the June 27 killing of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk, but for France's social problems as well.

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“We know the causes” of France’s unrest, Bruno Retailleau, head of the conservative group that dominates the French Senate, said last week on broadcaster France-Info. “Unfortunately for the second, the third generation there is a sort of regression toward their origins, their ethnic origins.”

Retailleau’s remarks, which drew accusations of racism, reflect the current line of his mainstream party, The Republicans, whose priorities to keep France “from sinking durably into chaos” include “stopping mass immigration.”

“As soon as we want to be firm,” Retailleau said Tuesday on RTL radio, “they say, ‘Oh la la. Scandal! The fascists are arriving! You’re like the National Rally,'” the main far-right party. “We’re sick of being politically correct.”

His response marked the latest fracture in a crumbling concept dubbed the “Republican Front,” under which French parties, whatever their political color, used to stand together against the far right.

By linking immigration to the riots, Retailleau violated France’s near-sacred value of universality by which all citizens, whatever their origin, are recognized only as French.

The far right appeared to capitalize on a sudden shift in the national mood to make further inroads: Shock and horror at Merzouk’s death quickly morphed into shock and horror at the violent unrest, which spread from the outskirts of major urban areas to cities to small-town France. In just four days, an extreme-right crowdfunding campaign raised more than 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million) for the family of the police officer accused of killing Nahel.

Far-right figures have long blamed immigration from majority Muslim North Africa, and some immigrants' failure to assimilate into French culture, for France’s social problems.

“We suffer an immigration that is totally anarchic,” the National Rally's Marine Le Pen, the leading far-right figure in France, said last week on France 2 television. She claimed the riots were the work of “an ultra-majority of youth who are foreign or of foreign origin,” and said there was “a form of secession of these youths from French society.”

Le Pen’s critics note that successive French governments have failed to integrate new arrivals, and that communities with immigrant backgrounds face disproportionately higher poverty, unemployment and deep-seated discrimination.

But the far-right leader's voice resonates ever more loudly in France. Le Pen has spent years scrubbing up the image of her National Rally, and gained a powerful perch in parliament in legislative elections a year ago with 88 lawmakers. Le Pen now sits at the heart of institutional France.

Le Pen’s party has progressively anchored itself among French voters. She won more than 41% in the runoff presidential vote last year.

“There are practically no more categories of the population immune to a (far-right) vote,” polling agency Ifop said after a recent survey showing a steady rise in voters who have cast a ballot for Le Pen’s party.

President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist government took a tough line against the recent violence, but disputes Le Pen’s characterization of those who rioted, with Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin stressing that only 10% were foreigners. At a Senate hearing last week, he noted that some children with immigrant roots enter the police force.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne criticized the GoFundMe campaign for the police officer's family as unhelpful in tense times. But its success appeared to reflect a clamor for security, another prize issue of the far right.

Jean Messiha, a former official in the National Rally and the upstart hard-right Reconquest party, called the enormous response to the fund that he started a “tsunami” in support of law enforcement officers “who in a certain way fight daily so that France remains France.”

The French far right has many faces, inside and outside the political sphere, ranging from the National Rally to Eric Zemmour’s Reconquest, whose vice president is Le Pen’s niece Marion Marechal. Both Zemmour and Marechal espouse the racist “great replacement” theory that there is a plot to diminish the influence of white people and replace cultures, particularly through immigration.

On France's fringe is an ultra-rightist movement, which includes conspiracy theorists, whose potential for violence worries authorities.

“The terrorist risk it engenders has grown in recent years within Western democracies — France, in particular,” Nicolas Lerner, head of France’s internal security agency, DGSI, said in a rare interview published in Le Monde newspaper. The ultras believe, he said, that they must do the job of the state in protecting Europe from terrorists and the "great replacement,” and one way to do that is to “precipitate a clash to have a chance to win while there is still time.”

Ten attacks have been thwarted by people from the fringe movement since 2017, he noted.

Mainstream politics is not inoculated.

The tone of political discourse, even in mainstream politics, can contribute to forging ultra rightists, Lerner warned.

“Last year’s presidential and legislative elections ... marked by debates reflecting traditional concerns of the far right, notably on migratory issues, had a tendency to channel energy,” he said.