A Divided France Splits Over Death of Robert Badinter

In a solemn ceremony, France paid its respects on Wednesday to Robert Badinter, the lawyer and former justice minister who came to represent the conscience of the nation, but sharp political conflicts shattered any show of unity.

The family of Mr. Badinter, a lifelong Socialist who led the campaign resulting in the 1981 abolition of capital punishment in France, demanded that neither the far-right National Rally party of Marine Le Pen, nor the far-left France Unbowed party founded by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, be allowed to attend the ceremony. Mr. Badinter died on Friday.

Between them, the two parties hold about 30 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, or the lower house of Parliament. A ceremony conceived to celebrate one man’s embodiment of the soul of France revealed instead a fissured country whose identity and essential values are contested.

Ms. Le Pen’s National Rally, formerly the National Front, has espoused many of the views most detested by Mr. Badinter — antisemitism, xenophobia, rejection of European unity — so the request from Mr. Badinter’s widow, Élisabeth Badinter, was perhaps predictable. The party duly respected her wishes.

But the sharp rebuke to Mr. Mélenchon, who as a fellow socialist sat with Mr. Badinter in the Senate for many years, was a stark indication of the splintering of the left in France and the eclipse of the moderate social-democrat views embraced by the former justice minister. The Socialist Party has been in sharp decline since Emmanuel Macron, a centrist, upended traditional alignments in 2017 and became president.

Mr. Mélenchon, who as a France Unbowed candidate placed third in the first round of voting for the presidency in 2022, did not react well.

“A national homage from which a part of the French people is excluded is not a national homage,” he said on X, formerly Twitter. “The Republic is one and indivisible.”

The party insisted on sending two senior representatives to the ceremony against Ms. Badinter’s wishes, but Mr. Mélenchon did not attend. Sabrina Agresti-Roubache, a junior member of the centrist French government, denounced the party’s presence as displaying “an absolute lack of decency.”

Mr. Badinter’s coffin, draped in the French flag, was carried into Place Vendôme in central Paris by six uniformed members of the Republican Guard as President Macron looked on. The site, which had never been used for such a ceremony, was chosen because Mr. Badinter worked for five years on the square when he was justice minister.

“He was a soul that cried out, a force that lives and salvages life from the hands of death,” Mr. Macron said.

It was on Sept. 17, 1981, that Mr. Badinter thundered before the Parliament words that have marked French history: “I have the honor to demand, in the name of the government of the Republic, the abolition of the death penalty in France.” Executions were still carried out at the time by guillotine, as they had been since the French Revolution.

Mr. Badinter was the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father was deported from Lyon, France, to a Nazi death camp in 1943 and never returned. Mr. Badinter parted company with Mr. Mélenchon over what he perceived as the extremist positions of France Unbowed.

He was particularly troubled by its flirtation with political Islam, which has drawn strong support for France Unbowed in poor suburbs with large Muslim populations of mainly North African descent.

“I never thought antisemitism would disappear, never,” Mr. Badinter told the magazine Challenges last year. “I always thought it would come back in one form or another. Political Islam is one variant, and not a new one. What troubles me is this alliance between political Islam and part of the left, a left looking for a new proletariat since most workers now vote for the National Rally and Le Pen.”

This variant of the left — Mr. Mélenchon’s — had turned away from the Enlightenment and universalism to embrace forms of identity politics, Mr. Badinter argued.

His widow, a philosopher, was blunter. Ms. Badinter told L’Express, a weekly magazine, last year that Mr. Mélenchon’s France Unbowed bears “enormous” responsibility for the rise of antisemitism. The party had encouraged “the worst in an entire sector of our youth” through its portrayal of French Muslims as “the victims par excellence of our society,” she said.

Mr. Mélenchon has denied any suggestion that he is an antisemite, an accusation leveled at his party by Élisabeth Borne, the former prime minister, after it equivocated over the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, blaming each side equally for the violence.

Mr. Mélenchon has since argued that Israel’s military response in Gaza “is not self-defense but genocide,” as he put it last year to Orient XX1, an online magazine focused on the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Mr. Macron vowed to be faithful to Mr. Badinter’s “lessons and engagement,” as he denounced antisemites, deniers of the Holocaust and “those who threaten the rule of law.” He suggested he would be favorable to Mr. Badinter’s induction into the Panthéon, the nation’s hallowed tomb of heroes.

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