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Are French Jews Falling for Marine Le Pen’s Xenophobic Siren Song?

In France, we have just been reminded that historical time is now divided by an avant, before, and après, after, November 13. The results are in from the first round of regional elections, and they are striking. Marine Le Pen’s xenophobic and authoritarian Front National political party has made big gains, finishing first in six out of the 13 regional council elections.

Avant, a single first-place finish would have been unprecedented, and a half-dozen such finishes unthinkable. Après? The unthinkable is fast becoming the unremarkable. And France’s Jews are by no means passive bystanders in this alarming voting trend.

In the weeks leading up to the December 6 vote, some commentators tried to downplay its importance: These elections are, after all, for the country’s regional councils. Not quite dogcatcher, but certainly not the Elysée, National Assembly or even City Hall. Created 40 years ago, the councils were designed to be an intermediary body between Paris and the departments (such as transportation and infrastructure), which since 1789 have formed the country’s basic administrative unit. Invested with control over issues that overlapped several departments, the councils struck many French as one bureaucratic layer too many. It is not surprising that many French do not know or care who sits on their regional councils, or which party controls them.

This, too, has changed. Rarely has a political institution so irrelevant for so long suddenly counted for so much. How could it be otherwise, given the perfect storm that preceded this election? For a nation whose government seems incapable of a coherent and effective response to crises ranging from the great waves of immigrants to the growing lines of the unemployed, the Paris massacres of November 13 were galvanizing. François Hollande’s government responded forcefully, imposing a state of emergency, sending the army into the streets and train stations, and proposing significant constitutional changes that would increase the powers of the executive.

Ironically, a government that won office three years ago on the vow of “Now Is the Time for Change” is only now realizing that promise. Yet the changes it offers — from reimposing border controls, reassuming control of the borders and requesting greater surveillance powers — are the very same ones long associated with the extreme right. As if to underscore this point, after Hollande announced these proposals, Marine Le Pen found herself in the unusual position of supporting the man she has spent the last three years skewering.

The Socialist government’s rightward lurch helps explain the seemingly irresistible rise of Marine Le Pen’s party. The FN, long the beneficiary of the country’s deepening sense of economic and cultural insecurity, was ideally poised to profit from the existential insecurity created by the attacks of November 13. For a party that has long riffed on the “invasion” of illegal immigrants and railed about the threats they pose to the nation’s identity, the Paris massacres seemed to legitimate their worldview. Just weeks earlier, Le Pen had been ridiculed by her opponents for referring to the “bacterial invasion” represented by illegal immigrants — namely, that they carried diseases unknown in France. Yet now, in the eyes of her supporters, such claims seem prescient rather than preposterous.

For this reason, we can no longer dismiss a vote for the FN as a protest vote. As political scientists like Jean-Yves Camus and Nicolas Lebourg argue, the typical FN voter no longer votes against: against the mainstream parties, against imagined enemies, against their lot in life, against the system. Instead, she now votes for: for the FN’s platform, for specific FN candidates, for giving the FN a greater role and voice in the system. No longer the personal vehicle of Jean-Marie Le Pen that veered between vaudeville and violence, the FN has become, under Le Pen’s daughter, a party that has redefined the country’s political landscape. While we can dispute Le Pen’s claim that the FN has become France’s “premier party,” we cannot dismiss it. From a two-party system divided between the Socialist Party and the conservative Les Républicains, France has become, perhaps for the long haul, a three-party system.

Since December 6, the Socialists and Républicains have been running around with their hair on fire, debating strategy for next week’s second round of voting. Announcing that Socialist candidates will step down in those regions where they ran third, Prime Minister Manuel Valls has urged the party’s supporters to vote for the conservative candidate in those instances. This call for a “Republican front” to prevent the FN from prevailing in the second round was, however, rejected by the Républicains. The consequent disarray spells disaster for both parties come Sunday.

What does this mean for French Jewry? That depends which French Jew you ask. On December 7, the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF) denounced the “xenophobic and populist” FN and declared its support of a Republican front. CRIF’s president, Roger Cukierman, added his own emphasis to this declaration. While he had sparked a controversy earlier this year when he described Marine Le Pen as “irreproachable,” he now insists “it is unworthy of a Jew to vote for the FN.”

Yet a growing number of French Jews beg to differ. Long thought to be the community most allergic to the FN, French Jewry is no longer deaf to Le Pen’s populist siren call. In the presidential elections of 2012, nearly 14% of French Jews voted for Marine Le Pen, a dramatic leap over the meager numbers who voted for her father in previous elections. With another 50% voting for Sarkozy, who has been pulling the Républicains ever more toward the right, this number becomes even more significant. As the pollster Jérôme Fourquet concludes, Jewish support for the FN is no longer “residual”— a fact that helps explain Cukierman’s panicked warning against such support.

It is impossible to predict the results of the second round of regional elections, slated for December 13, much less next year’s presidential contest. But it is now clear that French Jewry’s relationship with the FN, like so much else in the country, is trending from the unthinkable to the unremarkable.

Robert Zaretsky is a contributing editor to the Forward.

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