Samuel Johnson’s riff on female preachers and walking dogs — “It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all” — comes to mind with the news from France of the creation of the UPFJ, a bland acronym that stands for the Union des Patriotes Francais Juifs, or the Union of French-Jewish Patriots.
That Jews can be French patriots is, of course, not surprising. Ever since the events of 1789 transformed them into citizens, French Jews have long privileged their Frenchness over their Jewishness. What is surprising, though, is that French Jews would join the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and (formerly) anti-Semitic party Front National.
Yet this is the raison d’être of the UPFJ. The organization, which recently held its first meeting, is the brainchild of Michel Thooris. When not working as a gendarme, Thooris — whose mother is Jewish — serves on the FN’s central committee. While the UPFJ has no formal ties with the FN, Thooris coordinated its creation with Louis Aliot, vice president of the FN and companion of Marine Le Pen. (A few years ago, Aliot, who accompanied Thooris on a visit to Israel in 2011, revealed that his maternal grandfather was an Algerian Jew.) Thooris acknowledges the informal but intriguing ties between his fledgling movement and the FN: “Everything that I say or do [as president of the UPFJ] will be seen” in the light of his membership in the FN.
Will Thooris, to echo Johnson, do it well? Will the UPFJ become a robust organization, dedicated to the goal of proportional voting (a mainstay of the FN platform) and to the ideal of a “non-communitarian” France (which aligns with Le Pen’s repeated attacks against the “communitarianism” of French Muslims)? Or will it, instead, remain little more than an idea? (As such bringing to mind another Johnson riposte, this time against a dim-witted critic: “Sir, you’ve just one idea, and it is the wrong idea.”)
For the moment, the organization is as skeletal as its website, carrying little more than its logo: a Jewish star framing Marianne, the personification of French republicanism. Only the coming months, as the political parties prepare the ground for the 2017 presidential election, will tell if Thooris can make this logo stick — if he, in a word, can do it well.
Should we be surprised, though, that Thooris has done it at all? It was not that long ago that the sight of a French Jew rallying to the FN was not just surprising, but shocking. The Front National, after all, is the 40-year-old vehicle of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Bolted together with scratched but salvageable parts from the ideological junkyard of France’s dimmer past, the FN at times sputtered, at times soared on the fumes of anti-Semitism. A political movement many believed was destined to become a detail of history instead proved to be remarkably resilient, not least because its leader insisted the Holocaust was itself a mere detail of history. While Le Pen’s repeated anti-Semitic forays limited the FN’s appeal to a wider public, they also galvanized his party’s base, composed of those who waxed nostalgic for the days when France was still Catholic, Algeria was still French, and the nation’s watchwords were “work, country, family.” (As for “liberty, equality, fraternity,” not so much.)
Inevitably, the occasional Jew nevertheless insisted on joining a club that, in principle, did not want him in the country, much less in its ranks. Most notable is the case of Robert Hemmerdinger, who after having fought in the Resistance became, like Jean-Marie Le Pen, a diehard militant of French Algeria. In the 1980s, after losing as an FN candidate for the European Parliament, Hemmerdinger founded the Cercle National des Français Juifs. While Hemmerdinger failed to square this particular circle — under his watch, the CNFJ never amounted to more than a curiosity — the FN nevertheless resurrected it in 2011. Its aim, as Aliot announced, was to counter the attacks made against the FN by the leaders of the French Jewish community.
But since Marine Le Pen took over her father’s party in that same year, it appears as if everything and nothing has changed in the relationship between the FN and French Jewry. Her efforts to “de-demonize” the FN have centered on its anti-Semitic past. Not only did she declare that the Holocaust was the “summit of human barbarity,” but she also gave the bum’s rush to the party’s collection of Holocaust deniers and revisionists. Of course, this housecleaning ultimately swept up her own father when he revealed himself to be a recidivist on the matter of historical details. Last year, when asked during a radio interview whether he still held to his position on the Holocaust, Jean-Marie Le Pen replied, “Yes, absolutely, I still maintain this opinion, because I believe it is the truth and it should shock no one.”
Except, perhaps, his daughter. Shaken by this paternal attempt to undermine her authority, Marine Le Pen launched the process that eventually led to her father’s removal from the party he created. While the series of events burnished her image as a reformer, she had already impressed Roger Cukierman, head of CRIF, the country’s umbrella organization for Jewish institutions. Shortly before the falling-out between father and daughter, Cukierman had announced that Marine Le Pen, unlike her father, was “personally irreproachable” — a remark he quickly walked back in the resulting firestorm of criticism.
To his credit, Cukierman had all along insisted that, Marine Le Pen’s personal character notwithstanding, French Jews should never vote for the FN. Yet in the presidential election of 2012 — three full years before the eviction of her father from the FN — nearly 14% of French Jews had already checked off Marine Le Pen’s name on their ballots. While hardly a landslide, her showing was 10% higher than her father’s in his 2002 presidential bid. More important, it may well be a harbinger of things to come.
Pollsters like Jérôme Fourquet argue that events since 2012 have sprung the “lock” placed by French Jews on the FN. Not only have Marine Le Pen’s efforts at dédiabolisation begun to pay off, but so, too, has the cascade of jihadist terrorist attacks in France. Fear, Fourquet concludes, is driving the “Jewish vote” ever further to the right — a fear adroitly exploited by Le Pen, who recently declared that in the face of “Islamist totalitarianism,” the FN was French Jewry’s “best shield.”
Hemmerdinger justified his support of Jean-Marie Le Pen with the old chestnut, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” With Marine Le Pen, Thooris has taken this claim one step further: My friend also happens to be the enemy of my enemy. The tragedy is that both of these claims disguise what is always already true: This particular enemy of my enemy has never been and never will be my friend.
Robert Zaretsky is a contributing editor to the Forward.