By Robert Zaretsky
Tablet, December 12, 2011
France’s far-right Front National party, under leader Marine Le Pen, is shedding its history of antisemitism and becoming popular with Jewish voters.
As the euro crisis deepens, French politics increasingly resembles, well, French politics. Rhetorical excess is the rule. The left denounces President Nicolas Sarkozy for “appeasing” Germany’s fiscal demands and suggests that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is channeling Otto von Bismarck in her policies toward France. The right is busy lambasting the Socialists for reviving the demons of nationalism while throwing the borders open to the hordes of Arab Muslims waiting to swamp the nation.
It is hard to imagine a scenario that better serves the ambitions of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National party. While the Socialists and the Gaullists throttle one another over the economy and immigration, Le Pen has mostly watched with a smile from the sidelines. She has good reason to grin: French opinion polls now show her in third place for next year’s presidential election. At roughly 20 percent, Le Pen trails Sarkozy by 6 percentage points and François Hollande, the Socialist candidate, by 10 points. (Squabbling over the crumbs is the rest of the packed field of candidates.) Le Pen’s prospects are even more promising because Sarkozy’s future is yoked to Merkel’s—critics now refer to the twosome as Merkozy—and Hollande’s greatest electoral advantage is that he is not Dominique Strauss-Kahn. To the extreme consternation of the left and right, nearly one in three French voters now has a positive opinion of Le Pen, according to the Ipsos/Le Point poll from mid-November.
Does this sea change in public opinion include the French Jewish community? The answer, unthinkable even a year ago, is yes, for reasons both practical and historical. French Jews and a political movement once steeped in anti-Semitism now seem destined to join forces.
Since its inception in the 1970s, the Front National has wrapped itself in the repellent rags of traditional French anti-Semitism. The series of outrageous dérapages, or verbal slips, of the movement’s founder and longtime leader Jean-Marie Le Pen—Marine’s father—are legion, ranging from his remark that the Holocaust was a “detail” of history to his rhyming of crematory (crématoire) with the name of a Jewish politician Michel Durafour. Thus the question of whether anti-Semitism was incidental or central to the Front National’s ideological essence was, from the perspective of French Jewry, entirely settled.
Until now, that is. Since she assumed its leadership at the beginning of 2011, Marine Le Pen has worked to “modernize” her father’s party—a diplomatic word for purging its most reactionary elements. Nolwenn Le Blevennec, a journalist for the news site Rue89 who reports on the Front National, notes that Le Pen has demoted party figures like Christian Bouchet, a notorious fan of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and expelled Alexandre Gabriac, who gave a Nazi salute at a party rally. She’s also distanced herself from Alain Solal, a prominent anti-Semite previously identified as one of Front National’s intellectuals. Even more notably, by making her father the honorary president of the Front National, Le Pen has effectively made him a figurehead shorn of actual power.
At the same time, Marine Le Pen has made a series of dramatic overtures to the Jewish community. Her trip to the United States in early November largely passed under the radar of the American media, but it was widely covered by the French press. At first, the visit wobbled between the surreal and slapstick. At one point, Le Pen’s handlers tried to bar the pack of French journalists from following her into the U.S. Capitol; once inside, the reporters found that Le Pen’s strenuous efforts to meet with a U.S. politician—indeed, any politician at all—ultimately yielded only a furtive 10-minute chat with Rep. Ron Paul. But then, days later, Le Pen pulled off a coup de théâtre: Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, attended a gathering she hosted at the United Nations. Despite the subsequent announcement from Israel’s foreign ministry that the meeting was based on a “misunderstanding,” all the press releases in the world can’t undo the image of a smiling Prosor standing side-by-side with a beaming Le Pen.
Le Pen has not had big success with the Jewish community in France, though not for lack of trying. In March, shortly after Le Pen declared in the magazine Le Point that the Holocaust was the “summum of human barbarism,” the radio station of the Jewish community, Radio J, scheduled an interview with her. The Union of French Jewish Students deplored the invitation, and Richard Prasquier, the head of the Council of Jewish Institutions of France, condemned it as “unacceptable.” Though the radio station insisted the interview would be “no holds barred,” public pressure proved too great, and the station’s director canceled the interview.
In a subsequent interview, Le Pen described the decision as a “deeply anti-republican and anti-democratic.” (Then, just last week, the Jewish council played a leading role in preventing Le Pen from participating in a public debate at the University of Paris. Le Pen responded by bringing suit against the student union for violating her freedom of speech.) By lobbing back at the Jewish council the traditional critique aimed at her own party, Le Pen displayed the skills that have made her a formidable political figure. But is her outreach to French Jewry just a crude political calculation?
Rue89’s Le Blevennec believes that Le Pen is not anti-Semitic and genuinely wants to turn the page. In fact, “turning the page” were the very words used by Gilles-William Goldnagel, a prominent lawyer, conservative essayist, and leader of the French Jewish community, when he agreed to meet with Le Pen earlier in the year. Jean-Yves Camus, a well-respected political scientist who tracks the extreme right-wing, has also stated that Le Pen is free of her father’s anti-Semitism, not to mention his negationist reflex regarding the Holocaust.
Yet many others, such as the intellectual Caroline Fourest, the author of a controversial biography of Marine Le Pen, are not persuaded. According to Fourest, Le Pen has simply disguised her party’s xenophobia and latent anti-Semitism with the garb of republican respectability. Another observer, Valérie Hoffenburg, the former director of the French office of the American Jewish Committee, warns that other anti-Semites within the party, like her father’s closest ally, Bruno Gollnisch, remain influential. Besides, Hoffenberg argues, to condemn the death camps does not make Le Pen a true republican.
French Republicanism—the doctrine that affirms the equality and liberty of citizens and requires that the public sphere be entirely free of ethnic or religious claims—is the crossroads at which the Front National and French Jewry seem slated to either collide or collaborate. Upon their civil emancipation during the French Revolution, French Jews embraced republicanism, particularly its emphasis on a secular society, as their own.
But that might not be the case for much longer. The national debate over immigration and national identity—issues that involve the 5 million Muslims, mostly of North African origin, living in France—seems shriller by the day. The urban riots that convulsed France in 2005, followed by the appalling death of Ilan Halimi, a young French Jew tortured and murdered by several youths of North African background, have had an especially powerful impact on French Jewry. It may well be that the community has reached a point no less pivotal than 1967, when the Six-Day War, followed by Charles de Gaulle’s notorious remark that Jews were an elite and domineering race, ignited French Jewish self-consciousness.
According to Jean-Yves Camus, the political scientist, at least 5 percent of Jewish voters will support Le Pen in 2012. While he and other specialists debate the precise number—there are no surveys on the question—they agree that France’s Jewish community has been moving steadily toward the political right and, indeed, to the extreme right. Clearly, a Jewish Le Pen supporter is no longer the oxymoron it once was. Richard Prasquier, of the Jewish council, worries about this potentially tectonic shift, suggesting that French Jews are increasingly “receptive to and tempted by Le Pen’s discourse.” Perhaps the most immediate reason for this evolution is, that “for the first time since World War II, French Jews are afraid,” said the intellectual Alain Finkielkraut.
These so-called transfuges—voters who cross not just party but ideological lines—clearly welcome Le Pen’s repeated claims that current immigration policies will destroy French culture and society. As she declared at a party conference in September, France is “confronted by a multiculturalism that is wreaking havoc with her laws, her mores, her traditions, in short the values of her civilization and her identity.” The Front National promises to slam shut the door on immigration, encourage legal aliens to leave the country, and beef up the police force. Insecurity will, on cue, disappear. As for national identity, Le Pen has borrowed a few pages from her father. Earlier this year she described as a “new occupation” the practice of Muslims in Paris praying on the sidewalks, lacking sufficient space in mosques. And there is the élan with which Le Pen has continued her party’s tradition of holding an annual celebration at the statue of Joan of Arc in Paris, which makes it all too easy for the fearful to see Marine Le Pen’s battle against the barbarian hordes from across the Mediterranean as a continuation of Joan’s struggle against the perfidious invaders from across the Channel. (Or, for that matter, against Brussels. Le Pen has astutely tied fears over immigration to her denunciations of globalization and the European Union. As the euro crisis worsens, her popularity improves.)
Against this background, Le Pen’s effort to seduce the French Jewish community takes on even greater significance. It is only by channeling popular fear and loathing at Muslims that the Front National has made room under its “republican” umbrella for its previous bête noire: the Jews.
Robert Zaretsky is professor of history in the Honors College, University of Houston, and the author, most recently, of Albert Camus: Elements of a Life.