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People of diverse backgrounds in France welcome far right's defeat, but fear a rise in hate speech

PARIS — (AP) — For many French voters of diverse backgrounds, last Sunday's parliamentary election results were a relief, seemingly an embrace of the country's ethnic variety instead of a victory for xenophobic far-right forces.

“It was a moment of joy, a light at the end of the tunnel,” Loven Bensimon said about the ballot results. She celebrated Sunday with thousands of others who rallied against the far right at Place de la Republique in Paris around a giant patchwork French flag that read, “France is the fabric of migrations.”

“But the fight is not over,” said Bensimon, 27, a Black woman who works in communications. “We have to fight against the racism we face every day, and which has been more visible in the past few weeks.”

Thought to be on the verge of seizing a majority in the National Assembly, the anti-immigration National Rally eventually came in third in Sunday's vote, after centrists and leftists joined forces. Candidates in three-way races dropped out of the runoff to favor the challenger considered most likely to beat the far right.

But civil society groups and concerned citizens say the campaign has exposed racist hate speech and occasional violence that are unlikely to vanish when the new parliament takes office.

Franco-Algerian Nacera Houngues, 61, says she experienced abuse because of her origins for the first time during the campaign. The day after the first round of the elections in June, Houngues says neighbors knocked over her trash can, called her obscene epithets and spat at her during an altercation.

“I am afraid, really afraid, a feeling I never had before,” Houngues said, fighting off tears.

She filed a police complaint the next day, but says she’s afraid of leaving her house. She has been living in Chacrise, a quiet town north of Paris, with her five children and her Franco-Beninese husband for 37 years.

It is difficult to quantify race and ethnicity as factors in French society using statistics because the country doesn’t count people by race or religion as part of its doctrine of colorblind universalism.

It isn't known, for example, if people of foreign backgrounds came out to vote Sunday in higher-than-expected numbers, though the turnout in general was high. Polling agencies do not track voting patterns by ethnic group.

A human rights panel has, however, reported a significant increase in complaints about racist and antisemitic acts. France's National Consultative Commission on Human Rights reported a 32% spike in racist incidents in 2023, and an "unprecedented" surge in antisemitic acts, up 284% from 2022. The report said the numbers were likely an undercount, given that many victims of racism don't file complaints.

According to France’s national statistics agency, one million people said that they were victims of racism at least once last year.

Neither agency gave a breakdown of the complainants by race or ethnicity, though the human rights panel said there has been a decrease in tolerance toward Black, Arab, Roma, Jewish and Muslim people in France.

The panel cites the National Rally as a key party in emboldening hate speech but says that other parties have contributed too, including militants close to far-left party France Unbowed, which has been accused of antisemitism.

A renowned Nazi hunter in France, Serge Klarsfeld, went so far as to urge voters to choose the far right party over the country’s leftist coalition if faced with the choice of just those two options, saying he feared France Unbowed because of its “antisemitic overtones.”

For Dominique Sopo, the head of civil society group SOS Racisme, the numbers reflect an especially tense political climate.

He said the essential message of the National Rally, which has seen a steady increase in support over the past decade, is that French people would be better off “if they strike, one way or another — symbolically, legally — immigrants and their children.”

His group recently filed a complaint after residents of an upper-class neighborhood in Western Paris reported receiving anonymously distributed flyers reading “Stop the Blacks.”

France's diverse population includes new immigrants and those whose foreign roots stretch back generations, including people from former French colonies in Africa. A 2022 study found that about a third of French people under 60 have an immigrant ancestor, though exact breakdowns are unknown.

Nonna Mayer, a leading expert on the National Rally, said the growth in voter support for the far right party in recent years has made people more comfortable using xenophobic and antisemitic language in public.

“The National Rally defends a ‘French first’ strategy that makes foreigners and immigrants scapegoats,” Mayer said. “Its success favors racist acts, mostly verbal aggressions.”

During the campaign, the National Rally singled out dual citizens, saying they shouldn't be given certain “strategic jobs.” One of its candidates, Roger Chudeau, sparked controversy when he said on TV that it had been a “mistake” to have appointed Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a French-Moroccan, to the position of education minister in 2014-17, saying it was “not a good thing for the Republic.”

President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist government has also tightened immigration measures, exacerbating anti-immigrant feeling in society, the human rights panel said.

For Jessica Saada, a 31-year-old Jewish woman of Tunisian origins working in a French pediatric hospital, racism is more palpable now than she can ever remember. She said she opposed the National Rally's proposals to ban Muslim headscarves in public or outlaw ritual slaughter, which would restrict French Muslims' and Jews' access to kosher and halal meat.

“It’s just going to cause problems and bring more hate,” she said.

Still, many saw Sunday's results as bringing hope.

Thomas Bertrand, who works in the advertising business in Paris, said Sunday's vote was about “individual freedoms, and also tolerance and respect for others.”

Schoolteacher Rachid Sabry said he came to France as a student a few decades ago and fell in love with the country.

"I built a family with a French woman, and a few weeks ago, there was a moment of doubt,’’ he said. “Now I feel much better.’’

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AP journalist Nicolas Garriga in Paris contributed to this report.

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