President of French National Assembly: ‘The far right’s ideas remain as radical as ever, we must not drop our guard’

Elected head of France’s lower house a year ago, Yaël Braun-Pivet says the chief opposition party’s ideas must be combated, but underscores that its lawmakers ‘have their place in this institution’ because they were placed there by voters

The president of the French National Assembly, the Macronist Yaël Braun-Pivet, on March 20.
The president of the French National Assembly, the Macronist Yaël Braun-Pivet, on March 20.Victor LOCHON (Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Marc Bassets

It happened a little over a year ago: for the first time, legislative elections in France saw a far-right group, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN), become the chief opposition party in the country’s National Assembly. Suddenly, after decades in which the far right had been on the outside looking in, the RN had enough seats – 89 – to form an official group in parliament. And it took its place in France’s lower house pledging to establish itself as a trustworthy, respectable party.

Coinciding with the RN’s arrival in the National Assembly, the chamber chose its first ever female president. Yaël Braun-Pivet, 52, is a lawyer who only entered politics as recently as 2016, joining the movement which, a year later, took President Emmanuel Macron to power. Over the last year, Braun-Pivet has had to contend with the emergence of this new, far-right opposition, adopting what she describes as a “balanced” approach. The National Assembly’s chair is committed to taking the fight to the RN ideologically, but, at the same time, has no intention of shutting the party out when it comes to its role in the institution.

“We cannot forget that these are far-right members of parliament, that their ideas remain as radical as ever, and that we must not drop our guard despite their election by French voters,” Braun-Pivet tells reporters in an interview with EL PAÍS and fellow members of the Leading European Newspaper Alliance. “But, and this is where I qualify that statement, it isn’t a battle that should be waged on an institutional level. It is a political battle, a battle against the ideas that they promote and defend.”

For Braun-Pivet, the distinction between these two considerations is key – particularly given her role as the president of all members of parliament, from the far right to the far left. At the beginning of the new term, one of the first sources of criticism against the Macronists was their support for the election of RN members as two of the National Assembly’s vice-presidents.

“I’m among those who believe we shouldn’t make distinctions between members of parliament,” Braun-Pivet says. “Having been elected by the French people, every one of them has their place in this institution. The voters have entrusted them with responsibilities, and as a result, they should be represented in [the National Assembly’s] positions of authority.”

However, the president again qualifies her remarks: “To be part of a culture of compromise, there has to be a willingness to debate and a capacity to work towards consensus. Structurally, the parties that embrace radicalism don’t have this as their objective. Rejection of compromise is somewhat inherent to their mindset.”

Braun-Pivet is speaking from her office at the Hôtel de Lassay, a mansion of immense, opulent halls that is the official residence of the president of the National Assembly – albeit she continues to live at her family home close to Paris. Braun-Pivet isn’t a career politician, and you can tell: though she has been a member of parliament for six years now, she doesn’t resort to the same age-old turns of phrase. During the interview, she talks about the loneliness she sometimes feels on the National Assembly dais, when everything seems to be spiraling out of control and she has seconds to make a decision. It’s the kind of human insight you cannot imagine coming from her predecessors, who pompously embraced the role of the state’s fourth-highest authority.

During Braun-Pivet’s moments of doubt and loneliness, it is the members of what she terms the other “party that embraces radicalism,” on the other side of the chamber, who have caused her the greatest headaches. She is referring to France Unbowed (LFI), currently the leading political organization on the French left, given that the Socialist Party has plummeted in popularity during the Macron years. LFI has been at the center of moments of high tension in the National Assembly, such as the day one of its members of parliament called a minister a murderer. Or when, during March’s motion of no confidence in Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne’s government, the party’s MPs stood up and sang La Marseillaise as Borne spoke, holding up placards condemning Macron’s pensions reform.

“In that moment, I thought: ‘We have to hold firm,” Braun-Pivet recalls. “Because we cannot allow those who promote turmoil and try to bring chaos into the National Assembly to win out. A minority cannot paralyze the institution and challenge the workings of democracy.”

The pensions reform was adopted in April, but the battle in parliament isn’t completely over. On June 8, a small group of centrists and regionalists are planning to table a proposal to abolish the reform. Braun-Pivet is not expected to allow the motion to proceed, deeming it to be in violation of the French constitution.

A more diverse chamber

It’s only to be expected that the National Assembly has become a noisier place during this political term. Although they remain the party with the most seats, the Macronists have lost their absolute majority. The chamber is more diverse; a more faithful reflection of the reality of France. In a country where power is focused on the head of state, parliament’s influence has been strengthened. Debates are animated; however, they can descend into downright rudeness, too. And a culture of coalition is lacking: in part, the pensions crisis is a consequence of Macron’s inability to find allies, and the refusal of the opposition, even those who are ideologically in favor of the reform, to help him.

“In France, we have to learn to get the job done with a National Assembly in which there isn’t a net majority and all the country’s political forces are represented,” Braun-Pivet says. “We’re going through something that all European countries tend to go through. The learning process is, unavoidably, long and at times a bit chaotic. But, thankfully, upheaval isn’t permanent.”

The granddaughter of German and Polish Jews who sought refuge in France, Braun-Pivet has received anti-Semitic threats. She isn’t the only politician to have been threatened or insulted in the highly tense France of today. Indeed, Macron has even spoken of the danger of the country becoming “decivilized.”

Asked whether she sees a relationship between the tensions in the lower house and the atmosphere in French society, Braun-Pivet replies. “The violence that exists in society, is it a cause or an effect of what we’re witnessing in the National Assembly? That’s the big question. Either way, I firmly believe that if we offered a better image to our citizens at all times, we would contribute to calming the debate in society.” She concludes: “The National Assembly is France in a snapshot.”

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