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‘I’m the Republic!’ French leftist leader under fire for violent outburst

Eric Feferberg, AFP | Firebrand leftist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon denounced a police operation as politically motivated.

French prosecutors on Wednesday announced they were investigating leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon after he shoved a prosecutor and an officer in a fit of rage over police raids on his home and party headquarters.

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The leader of the France insoumise (France Unbowed) party has drawn a torrent of criticism over Tuesday's outburst, with ruling party members and several newspapers accusing him of placing himself above the law.

Speaking during question time in parliament, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said he was "shocked" by the "very virulent reaction to police officers who were doing their job".

Mélenchon, a 67-year-old member of parliament, said he had "no regrets", adding that he was furious because of the way the searches were carried out – and not merely because they took place.

"They searched us as if we were a band of thieves," he told BFMTV channel, adding that as a person of "Mediterranean" origin – he was born in Morocco – he had a tendency to lose his temper and there was "no need to make a big deal of it".

The leftist firebrand, who will be questioned by anti-graft investigators on Thursday, was later criticised by a journalist union for appearing to mock the southern accent of a reporter who questioned him at France’s National Assembly.

‘I’m the Republic’

The first standoff occurred when officers arrived at Mélenchon's Paris apartment at dawn and began combing it for evidence in two investigations – one into the party's use of European Parliament funds, the other into the funding of Melenchon's 2017 presidential campaign.

Filming the scene and broadcasting it live on his Facebook account, the MP cast himself as the victim of a state plot to silence him.

"Tomorrow they'll find an excuse to throw me in the slammer like [former Brazilian president] Lula... It's not normal!", he said.

Things got more heated later at the party's headquarters, which was also searched by police.

Arriving at the office housed in an apartment building, Mélenchon and a group of party officials tried to force down the door.

"I’m the Republic! I'm the one who is a parliamentarian. Get out of the way and open up this door!" an apoplectic Mélenchon shouted at the policeman standing guard outside before proceeding to try ram the door open.

After gaining entry through another door, the former Socialist minister rounded on the prosecutor overseeing the operations inside, shouting: "I'm the leader of an opposition group. You should not be treating me in this way. I'm not a cigarette thief!"

In a video shown on the Quotidien news programme, Mélenchon is then seen shoving the prosecutor and a policeman, taunting the latter: "Go on, just try and touch me!"

The Paris prosecutor's office said it had launched an investigation for "threats and acts of intimidation against judicial authorities" and "violence against people carrying out public duties".

A France Unbowed official, Manuel Bompard, said the party had filed a counter-complaint for police violence causing the injury of four people. In one video, a policeman could be seen wrestling a party member to the floor.

‘An outburst too far?’

A political veteran famous for his tirades against globalisation, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and elites, Mélenchon enjoys a cult following among leftists but is seen as a polarising figure on the centre and right.

His latest flare-up was condemned by centrist parties and the media.

"Jean-Luc Mélenchon, an outburst too far?" the leftwing Liberation newspaper questioned in a front-page headline Wednesday.

Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux accused him of using "the same arguments" as far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who has also cast the multiple investigations into her party's finances as a political plot.

The leader of the centrist Modem party Francois Bayrou stressed that it was not unusual for a French party, including his own, to be raided by police.

"A politician is as answerable to the law as anyone else," he said.

But Le Pen's National Rally party came to Mélenchon's defence, with European parliamentarian Nicolas Bay calling the raids a sign of the "interference of the judiciary in the democratic process".

An MP from the conservative opposition Les Républicains party, whose presidential candidate François Fillon was last year charged with fraud, also expressed concern about the "repeated investigations of various opposition parties".

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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