By Jimmy Quinn, Nastassia Maes, and Megan Evershed
Reims got a taste of the action surrounding the presidential election mid-Friday as Marine Le Pen appeared at the city’s cathedral for a surprise visit.
Before Le Pen arrived, students and other Reims citizens conversed in front of the cathedral. One elder man, who had served as a teacher, claimed that the FN has moved away from their roots of anti-Semitism, saying that a few years ago he never would have thought to vote FN, but that Le Pen had made the party more inclusive and less extremist.
Another man present at the protest had a different viewpoint. Clad in a “Macron Président” t-shirt, he spoke about how Le Pen encouraged division and that France should unite against hatred. He passionately led surrounding demonstrators in protests ranging from “Macron Président!” to “France ensemble!” (France together!)
Arnaud Robinet, the mayor of Reims, cited the history of Reims as a peaceful city, tweeting:
Reims:ville de la réconciliation franco-allemande,cité tournée vers l’Europe,ville de la Paix: @MLP_officiel ne perdez pas votre temps!
— Arnaud Robinet (@ArnaudRobinet) May 5, 2017
Despite Robinet’s calls to not waste her time in Reims, Le Pen arrived at around 11am to the Reims Cathedral.
With an entourage that included Front National officials and her Prime Minister designate, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, she toured the cathedral and discretely departed from a side door that leads out of the Palais du Tau, the museum and UNESCO world heritage site next to the cathedral. Meanwhile, activists gathered outside in a spontaneous demonstration against Le Pen.
Le Pen deputy Florian Philippot emerged by another door on the side and managed to dodge eggs hurled his way by protesters.
The crowd on the plaza was made up of approximately one or two hundred individuals of different ages, social backgrounds, and political orientations, many of whom were Sciences Po students. They chanted anti-fascist slogans and “Give back the money!” in an apparent allusion to the allegations of a fictitious employment scandal leveled against the National Front’s candidate. Another popular chant included: “F comme Fascho, N comme Nazi. À bas, à bas Le Front National!” (F like fascist, N like Nazi. Down with, down with Le Front National!)
Quentin Pujol, Euraf 1A, was happy to see the wide range of political viewpoints assembled in opposition to Le Pen this afternoon. He noted the unity of the students present, many of whom had mobilized for candidates other than Emmanuel Macron in the first round of the presidential election. Pujol supported Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon two weeks ago, but says that today “there’s a bigger fight.”
Supporters of Emmanuel Macron were out in full force waving En Marche! signs and balloons, alongside backers of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his France Insoumise movement and self-described anti-fascist groups.
According to POLITICO Europe, polls show 62% of the French population would vote for Macron if the election was held today. This increase in popularity follows Macron’s strong performance in a televised debate on May 3rd. His surge in support could also a prime example of “republican front,” a political phenomenon whereby defeated political parties join the movement of a particular party candidate to fend off their opponent. And this seemed to be the mentality of many Mélenchon and Hamon supporters in Reims today as they protested Le Pen.
Le Pen and her allies responded on Twitter, criticizing the demonstrators for disrespecting a revered national symbol and engaging in violent political activity. They said that the Macron campaign had assembled this group as a malicious political stunt. Florian Philippot’s tweet featuring a screenshot was later found to be “fake news.”
Les soutiens de M.Macron agissent dans la violence partout, même à la cathédrale de Reims, lieu symbolique et sacré. Aucune dignité. MLP
— Marine Le Pen (@MLP_officiel) May 5, 2017
— Florian Philippot (@f_philippot) May 5, 2017
While Le Pen toured the cathedral, National Front supporters clashed with Sciences Po students outside. Thomas Dury, Euram 1A, Teddy Paikin, Euram 2A, and Ignacio Leon-Bustos, Euraf 1A, say they were attacked by backers of Marine Le Pen for brandishing a flag with anti-fascist messaging.
One man grabbed the flag Leon-Bustos was holding from behind and punched him before running off. After Paikin unsuccessfully attempted to retrieve it, the man took cover behind a line of police officers standing in front of the cathedral and performed a sieg heil salute, flag in hand. Paikin told The Sundial Press that he and his friends had come to make their voice heard by Marine Le Pen and the FN and were disappointed by the lack of concern shown by the authorities.
“I am disgusted by the fascist, racist and violent FN supporters who targeted us, as well as the police who did not stand against their violence. The day after Le Pen says in the debate that the French police didn’t round up Jews, a man does a Nazi salute to my face,” he said.
Eventually the police escorted the man and the group he was with from the plaza for their disruptive behavior. There were a few other scuffles in the crowd as people ran between different doors of the cathedral once Philippot exited via the side door of the cathedral.
Zak Vescera, Euram 2A, recounted a chaotic scene in front of the cathedral as demonstrators tried to anticipate the door from which Le Pen would emerge. “People were angry and wanted to make themselves heard,” he told The Sundial Press. He was one of around 15 people present when she exited and noted that the group lurched at her upon her appearance, leading her to stumble before getting into a car. Despite the tense atmosphere and occasional scuffles, however, he doesn’t believe that the anti-Le Pen demonstrators had come to start fights.
Iyad Kaghdad, a Franco-Canadian exchange student, was among the few people who entered the cathedral following Marine Le Pen’s arrival. He says of his experience: “Inside, everything was very calm. We soon found ourselves behind closed doors with the most important figures of the FN: Marine Le Pen, Florian Philippot, David Rachline, and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan. They went around the cathedral, accompanied by a few supporters, and the bodyguards were watching us. Without apparent aggressiveness, they kept an eye on us. We stayed about thirty minutes inside, following Le Pen and her circle closely. They were chatting and taking photos, with an apparent but somewhat forced smile. No one could ignore what was going on outside.”
Looking back on the day’s events, Maximin Wion, Euraf 2A who supported far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first presidential round, said: “In the end, in terms of facts, nothing extraordinary happened, in the strict sense of the word. Then again, it is important to point out that what happened, or what the people and students of Sciences Po who came did, is an act that should be normal, and that unfortunately does not appear so. In the face of an extremism and danger for what makes our society and our coexistence, every citizen should mobilize. For this reason, I was very pleasantly surprised to see this spontaneous citizen movement that was formed to react to the arrival of a sower of hate. And the people present were not a small circle of politicized Sciences Po students considered as ‘children of the bourgeois’ by Marine Le Pen, but society and citizens in all their diversity. It goes to show that maybe there still remains a bit of hope…”
After the crowd largely dispersed, supporters of Macron and Le Pen stayed to face off in front of the cameras. Heated arguments pitted partisans of the two candidates against each other on racism, labor, and the nature of the election itself.
— Jimmy Quinn (@realjimmyquinn) May 5, 2017
One Le Pen voter defended his candidate from charges of racism in front of a circle of Macron supporters, remarking that he comes from a North African ethnic background. He particularly opposed the former minister of the economy’s support of liberal labor market reforms.
This was one of Le Pen’s final public appearances before official campaigning comes to an end tonight. It is a reminder of the fraught energy and the profound divisions in French society that are shaping this election.
The election also has global implications, a theme that Nicole Chong, Euram 2A, touched upon. “I don’t have the power to vote in the French election, but as an EU citizen I felt it was really important to show up and be a voice for France remaining in the EU, a cause that I care very deeply about. Even if Le Pen doesn’t win, her party and their ideology still have the power to influence the field of French politics, and European politics more broadly.”
Voters will go to the polls on Sunday, May 7th to decide who will become the next president of France.