PARIS — French lawmakers erupted in turmoil last week when a member of Parliament from the far right interrupted a Black colleague’s speech about shipwrecked migrants in the Mediterranean by shouting, “Back to Africa!”
Grégoire de Fournas, and his far-right National Rally party, said he was talking about the boat carrying the migrants, and not his leftist colleague, Carlos Martens Bilongo. Both men are members of the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament.
But the remark — which the body’s president determined to be racist no matter who it was referring to — drew the harshest sanction possible. Mr. de Fournas was barred from the building for two weeks and deprived of half his pay for two months. It was only the second time such a punishment had been meted out since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958.
The incident more than any other has laid bare fundamental challenges both for France and its nationalist party. For France, it underscored its struggle to come to terms with the reality that the far right — for the first time — sits as the country’s main opposition party in Parliament since crossing a new threshold in elections in June.
And for the National Rally it raised fresh questions about the party’s long effort to sanitize its image, move beyond its narrow anti-immigrant appeals and break out of its decades-old quarantine on the fringes of French politics.
In June, French voters elected a record 89 National Rally deputies, transforming the party from an insignificant cluster of just eight near-voiceless members to the second biggest political party in the 577-seat lower chamber.
Just what they can do with that position is hamstrung by the French Constitution, which places most of the power in the office of the presidency. But as the leading opposition party, the National Rally suddenly has an unprecedented perch with national visibility.
The far-right Alternative for Germany party became that country’s leading opposition party after elections in 2017, but watched its standing at a national level slip away in elections last year.
The National Rally’s new place in Parliament may provide the ideal opportunity to show French voters that it is potentially capable of governing someday. But the spotlight can also expose deficiencies and flaws.
Enter Mr. de Fournas.
“Free democratic debate cannot permit everything,” said Yaël Braun-Pivet, the president of the National Assembly, after announcing the censure against him. “Certainly not racism, whatever the target,” she added.
The episode violated the National Rally’s strict internal orders to its members to “behave irreproachably” in Parliament, where they have tried hard to blend in.
That strategy had been working. Already, just a few months after the election, 39 percent of French citizens said they believed the National Rally was capable of governing the country — an increase of 14 percentage points from 2017, a recent poll by the progressive Jean-Jaurès Foundation found.
For the first time, the party was no longer considered the most pernicious for French democracy. Instead, that distinction went to the country’s radical left party, France Unbowed, according to the same poll.
“Everything has changed,” Renaud Labaye, the National Rally’s chief of staff in Parliament, said in an interview before last week’s events, describing the turnabout in the party’s fortunes.
Last term, so few National Rally lawmakers were elected that they couldn’t even form an official group in Parliament. Instead, they were relegated to the “unenrolled” — with no standing, no funding and little speaking time or input into governing.
Under government rules, the former leader of the party, Marine Le Pen, was permitted to ask just two questions during her last five-year term.
“Now, we have four a week,” Mr. Labaye said.
In addition, two of the party’s members were named as vice presidents of the National Assembly, meaning they often sit at the top of the chamber, overseeing the debate as the very face of French democracy.
“It was unimaginable years ago,” said Sébastien Chenu, one of the two and the National Rally’s spokesperson. “Unimaginable.”
After years of relying on loans from Russian, Czech and Hungarian banks because French banks refused to fund it, the National Rally is now set to receive 10 million euros ($10 million) per year of public funding, as political parties are funded by the French state based on election results.
That windfall has launched the party on a hiring spree, going from less than a dozen staff to more than 140 in the National Assembly, according to Mr. Labaye.
National Rally members have also been assigned a seat on France’s Court of Justice of the Republic, which tries government officials; on a parliamentary committee overseeing intelligence work; and on regional commissions and public company boards where they represent the French government.
The institutions themselves will help legitimize the party through association, Mr. Labaye said.
Even some of the newly elected members were surprised by their acceptance, given the years of ostracism the party faced.
“I told myself, ‘Am I going to be able to be a full-fledged member of Parliament?’” said Thomas Ménagé, a 30-year-old lawmaker from central France.
“I really am an elected official like any other,” he said. “That’s really cool.”
For years, a system was in place to ensure the far right didn’t achieve this. Formed in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen, Ms. Le Pen’s father, the party, then called the National Front, was rooted in France’s darkest political traditions — antisemitism and xenophobia — and in the nationalist idea of “the French first,” proposing drastic cuts to immigration, a toughening of law and order and a defense of traditional social values.
In response, mainstream politicians devised the “dam strategy” — often called a “Republican front” — beseeching the electorate to vote for anyone but the nationalists, particularly during the critical second round of an election.
Cracks first appeared a decade ago, allowing the party to capture cities and seats in regional councils. While the dam held to keep Ms. Le Pen from the presidency last spring, deeper fissures emerged during the June legislative elections.
Most of the National Rally’s success in that vote was the fruit of Ms. Le Pen’s 11-year campaign to “un-demonize” her party. She expelled her father, known for his casual antisemitism and racism, from the party and drew more moderate politicians into the fold.
Ms. Le Pen softened the party’s longtime populist economic agenda, dropping a proposal to leave the European Union, and broadened her platform to include pocketbook issues like energy prices.
At the same time, the party has stuck to many of its hard-right positions on immigration and security, many of which have become increasingly mainstream.
It is too soon to tell what, if any, long-term effect last week’s episode will have on the National Rally, said Jean-Yves Camus, the co-director of the Observatory of Radical Politics at the Jean-Jaurès Foundation.
Though polls show that a majority of the French remain concerned about the flow of migrants into the country, they won’t support overt racism — particularly in the National Assembly, he said.
“The problem with this party, they are so obsessed with ethnicity — if one of them says something so politically incorrect, the party will be seen as unable to really change, regardless of what they are able to achieve in other fields,” Mr. Camus said.
“You can’t imagine a minister of the interior or a minister of immigration saying ‘Go back to Africa,’” he added. “It’s undignified.”