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MARSEILLE, France — France’s newly created left-wing alliance is showing signs of strain ahead of the parliamentary election in June, as one of its candidates was forced to stand down this week over sexual assault allegations.
The architect of the left-wing coalition, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, came in a close third behind Marine Le Pen, with 22 percent of the vote in April’s presidential election. But the far-left champion converted his defeat into a fresh challenge for President Emmanuel Macron’s hold on a parliamentary majority ahead of the parliamentary election by cornering rival parties on the left into an advantageous alliance for his France Unbowed party.
The alliance, called the New Popular, Ecological and Social Union, or NUPES, has come under attack over sexual assault allegations against a controversial candidate who was forced to drop out of the race this week.
Taha Bouhafs, a 25-year-old activist, pulled out of the race for a constituency near the southeastern city of Lyon on Monday, over what he described in an open letter as a “storm of unprecedented attacks, with every day … a new insult, a new death threat.” In the wake of his decision to quit, the top brass of the party rallied to denounce a so-called smear campaign against him.
However, it emerged on Wednesday that France Unbowed had opened an internal investigation against Bouhafs related to the allegations, raising questions over whether the party had initially sought to cover up the real reasons why Bouhafs had pulled out of the race.
Speaking to French outlet Mediapart, Bouhafs refused to comment on or deny the accusations against him, but said they involved a former girlfriend and were “part of the slander” he condemned in his open letter.
On Thursday evening, Mélenchon will face questions over what he did or did not know about the allegations against Bouhafs at a parliamentary campaign launch event in the coastal city of Marseille. Mélenchon, who is an MP from Marseille, is not expected to seek reelection and will back a close ally instead. He will also call on people to vote in huge numbers for the left in what he calls “the third round” of the presidential election and force Macron into cohabitation with a left-wing majority in parliament. Taking a very long shot, Mélenchon says he is preparing to become the next prime minister of France.
Mélenchon’s alliance has come under fire from left-wing moderates who balked at his ambitions to leave NATO, disobey parts of the EU treaties, and pursue economic policies that would tip France into greater levels of debt.
However, despite criticism from Socialist stalwarts such as former President François Hollande and former PM Bernard Cazeneuve, the new alliance appeared to be hitting its stride and successfully fielded candidates in all 577 parliamentary constituencies, including a lion’s share of potential seats for France Unbowed. Mélenchon has also drawn impetus from the disappointment of left-wing voters who were forced to choose between a far-right and a centrist, pro-business candidate in the runoff of the presidential election.
A recent poll by Harris Interactive suggests that the left-wing alliance would get 28 percent of the vote, ahead of Macron’s parliamentary alliance at 26 percent and Le Pen’s National Rally at 24 percent. While the win would not give the left a majority in parliament due to the way the votes are counted, it would make the left the main opposition force to Macron after years on the sidelines.
A controversial candidate
Bouhafs’ parliamentary bid was controversial from the start. Last year, Bouhafs, who has been active in movements against police violence, was found guilty by a Paris court of making a racial insult after he accused a police officer of North African origin of being “a token Arab” in a tweet.
Bouhafs also gained notoriety after footage he filmed showing a police officer rough-handling protesters in Paris later identified the officer involved in the incident as one of Macron’s bodyguards, Alexandre Benalla (who had been authorized to attend events as an observer). The filming of the May Day incident in 2018 was one of the first political crises to shake Macron’s presidency.
Far right politicians, as well as left-wing figures, including the leader of the Communist Party Fabien Roussel, called on France Unbowed to drop Bouhafs’ candidacy in favor of a more consensual candidate.
But the allegations of sexual misconduct have taken the controversy to another level in France.
According to information obtained by Mediapart and confirmed by POLITICO, France Unbowed was contacted last week by a woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted by Bouhafs.
“The description [of the alleged attack] we received last Saturday is of a seriousness that we had never yet faced,” said France Unbowed MP Clémentine Autain in an interview with Mediapart. On Monday, after the woman said there was “a confrontation” with Bouhafs, the decision was taken to unplug his candidacy. Autain also said the party has since been contacted by more alleged victims.
However, on Tuesday morning, Autain herself tweeted in support of Bouhafs and against “the injustice, the violence of the attacks from the far right, from Macron’s camp … against a young man.” Mélenchon himself slammed a “mob that has been hounding” Bouhafs and wrote that he regretted “not being able to comfort him enough.”
Asked why the party continued to support Bouhafs despite knowledge of the allegations, a France Unbowed lawmaker told Paris Playbook that Mélenchon and others were unaware of the allegations.
“Only a handful of people knew … to protect the identity of the victims,” she said on condition of anonymity.
In any case, the candidates and the vetting process of France Unbowed, a party that was only founded in 2016, will come under increasing scrutiny in the upcoming weeks of campaigning.