Back in February, the right-wing Jewish website Dreuz reported on an unprecedented meeting: The Confederation Of French Jews And Friends Of Israel, it disclosed, had recently met with Louis Alliot, the vice president of France’s National Front party, a far-right group long associated with Holocaust denial and historical sympathies for France’s wartime collaborationist regime with the Nazis.
Many in the media described this as a historic event for France’s Jewish community.
But while France’s influential former chief rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, has described the National Front as “against our religion” and “not compatible with our values,” a rather important proportion of the Jewish community was being drawn to the beckoning call of Marine Le Pen, the National Front’s leader, even before this year’s seminal election.
“It is a secret vote,” explained Raphael Marciano, coordinator for the interfaith NGO CoExist. In 2012, more than 13% of French Jews reported voting for the National Front, attracted, presumably, by the animus against Arabs and Islam that today stands at the forefront of the party’s xenophobia.
Racial and ethnic polls are illegal in France prior to an election, so it is not possible to say how many will vote for Le Pen this year. But until April 14, most observers believed it was likely the percentage would increase.
That was the day that Le Pen—whether by mistake, design or simple refusal to publicly disavow her deepest beliefs—reminded voters of her party and her own family’s enduring record of Holocaust denial.
Speaking more than two decades after French President Jacques Chirac broke through decades of denial and publicly apologized for France’s deportation of thousands of Jews into the hands of the Nazis during World War II, Le Pen told an interviewer for LCI television: “I don’t think France is responsible for the Vel d’Hiv.”
It was the role French police played in the 1942 corralling of more than 13,000 Jews at the Vel d’Hiv cycling track that Chirac specifically referenced in his groundbreaking 1995 apology. But Le Pen told her interviewer, “I think that, generally speaking, if there are people responsible, it’s those who were in power at the time. It’s not France.” She instead laid the blame on the country’s collaborationist Vichy regime.
To many observers this was a turning point.
“Her statement has stirred so much tension in the community that she might lose the Jewish constituency,” said Michael Emsellem, a French IT consultant.
More broadly, Le Pen’s statement and the public reaction to it could prove a huge setback to her decades-long project of convincing the French people that the National Front, founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972, has shed its ties to Holocaust denial and subtle sympathy for Nazi ideas and history.
Her father, who several times referred to the Holocaust as “a detail” of World War II, was convicted at least six times of Holocaust denial or of statements inciting racial hatred—both of which are subject to prosecution in France. But since assuming leadership of the National Front in 2011, his daughter has sought to “gentrify” the party. She has, among other things, fired her father’s entourage, who were close to the Third Reich during World War II. In a country that has been traumatized recently by multiple terrorist attacks, she has also stressed her concerns about immigration, safety and unemployment, and railed against the European Union, which she vows to take France out of, if elected.
Earlier this year, Nicolas Bay, the Front’s general secretary, travelled to Israel to meet with the youth director of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party. The youth director later on denied being aware of who, exactly, Bay was.
For some, this repositioning toward Israel and Le Pen’s tough stance against Arabs and Muslims in the context of Muslim anti-Semitism in France is enough. William Golnadel, a French-Israeli lawyer and author who has close ties with the National Front and a widely followed Twitter account, advised his fellow Jews following Le Pen’s Vel d’Hiv remarks, “Instead of dwelling on the Shoah we should focus on the jihadists.”
His tweet was shared on Twitter by Europe Israel, a popular right-wing Jewish website. And La Ligue de Defense Juive, one of the most extreme right-wing groups in France, has been encouraging its members to vote for the Front.
“The goal is quite simple,” said E. Kamokha, a 25 year-old marketing specialist. “They want Jews to vote for Le Pen as her policy is deeply rooted against Arabs. Once she will become President, the Ligue will push Jews to make their aliyah and leave France.” The group she said, encourages a part of the Orthodox community to vote for Le Pen.
But for others, Le Pen’s Vel d’Hiv statement was a clarifying moment. Edmee, a 25 year-old French comedian who declined to give his last name, felt “pretty happy about what she said. It was a good reminder for the people who were [thinking about] voting for her that Le Pen is only a copy of her father. She is as anti-Semitic and racist as her father.”
France’s presidential election, which is seen as seminal thanks to the serious prospect that Le Pen might win it, will proceed in two stages: an initial round on April 23 featuring numerous candidates, and a run-off for the top two vote getters on May 7, with the winner emerging as president.
According to Kamokha, as French Jews head into this election there are two clearly identifiable branches within the community: those who think Israel is the solution and those in deep denial about the extent of anti-Semitism in the country. “I believe I stand in between,” she said.
There is, to be sure, another extreme candidate on the far left who is given a chance to emerge as one of the top two winners on April 23, which would allow him to advance to the runoff: Jean-Luc Melenchon, a former Trotskyist, who is also running on an anti-EU—albeit also anti-racist—platform. Melenchon has publicly endorsed a pro-Palestinian policy.
“I receive calls from Jews who are as worried by Melenchon as they are by Le Pen,” reported Bernard Abouaf, director of Radio Shalom, a mainstream Jewish news outlet. “They are both extreme.”
In France, support for the pro-Palestinian movement is often seen as a slippery way to endorse pro-Hamas policy and to spread an anti-Israel feeling among the crowds.
That leaves two major centrist, broadly pro-business candidates who are seen as having a significant chance of making it into the run-off: François Fillon, who served as prime minister from 2007 to 2012 under the center-right president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Emmanuel Macron, a former aide to France’s current, deeply unpopular president, François Hollande of the Socialist Party. Macron now describes himself as an Independent. Fillon, meanwhile, represents the Republicans, the country’s largest center-right party. But he has been damaged by the emergence of multiple financial scandals involving gifts to himself and alleged no-show government jobs for his wife.
Leonie, a 26 year-old young interior architect will vote for Fillon. “I am completely aware that he is swamped in corruption scandals and is likely to be as hated as Sarkozy was,” she said. “But I think that because of his Catholic roots and his devotion to a religious community, [he] will know how to protect the Jewish community. He knows how to speak to people who are religious and conservative and I’d rather vote for him than the other candidates who have very unpredictable programs”.
Meanwhile, the media remain focused on Le Pen in a way that compares to the U.S media fascination for Donald Trump during his presidential campaign.
Le Pen’s speech on Sunday 16 April, one week before the first round, consisted of stigmatizing refugees, hitting hard at Islam and criticizing the EU. She vowed to reduce the number of asylum seekers given refugee status in France to 10,000 a year and said they would only be able to apply from abroad. She repeated that France needed to get out of the EU, of which it is an anchor.
Her support for withdrawing from the EU, which it is widely believed will hurt France’s already ailing economy, might be an additional strike against her with France’s Jews. But her “secret” admirers, who tend to lie about their voting intentions in the polls, added to an expected high abstention rate among voters discouraged by all the choices, might play in her favor.
Contact Annabelle Azade at firstname.lastname@example.org