The National Front and the quest for the Jewish vote
Less than six months ahead of the presidential and legislative elections, France’s far-right National Front is on a mission to gain respectability among the Jewish electorate despite its traditionally anti-Jewish stance.
It was a moment of shock for Thierry Solere, vice-president of the Hauts-de-Seine administrative district on the outskirts of Paris, when he approached a stylish young woman, wearing a Star of David necklace, and handed her party campaign leaflet in January.
“No thank you,” she told Solere, who represents France’s centre-right ruling UMP party. “I’m voting for Marine Le Pen.”
Ten months later – and five months before the presidential election - Le Pen’s far-right National Front is now officially courting the Jewish vote.
Louis Aliot, Le Pen’s partner and deputy leader of the party, was in Tel Aviv, Israel, this week to meet “expatriate French citizens who want to know more about the party’s programme.”
“More and more French Israelis adhere to our cause,” he told FRANCE 24. “They are attracted to Marine Le Pen’s ideas, which is proof that the image of the FN as anti-Semitic is false.”
Making an all-out effort to attract Jewish voters is a new direction for a party whose founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen (Marine’s father), once famously described the gas chambers of the Nazi death camps “a detail of history”.
“The FN is reaching out to the Jewish community,” said Jean-Yves Camus, an expert in European far-right movements and member of the Institute for International Relations (IRIS) in Paris. “And courting the Jewish vote is all about regaining a veneer of respectability that was lost to past anti-Semitism,” ahead of next May’s French elections.
Marine Le Pen has continually denounced the Nazi concentration camps as "the pinnacle of barbarism", in stark contrast to her father’s well-known penchant for belittling their centrality in European history and even dismissing them as a “Jewish conspiracy.”
And by focussing all its efforts on confronting Islamism, the FN may be able to garner “a small number of Jewish votes,” Camus said.
“But to talk of a major FN victory because of growing Jewish support is wide of the mark,” he said. “It is a marginal phenomenon.”
“The FN ideology in 2011 is fundamentally the same as it ever was under Jean-Marie Le Pen,” Camus added. “Behind these warm words Marine Le Pen’s stance is every bit as hard. For example, the party still intends to end all state subsidies that go to religious projects, including Jewish ones. It’s a new and younger generation, but the ideas are still the same.”
Fear and confusion
Camus’ views are echoed by Richard Prasquier, president of the French Council of Jewish Institutions (CRIF).
“Marine Le Pen is focusing on a small core of potential voters, using fear of Islamism and fear of insecurity and violence,” he told FRANCE 24. “These are all recycled themes.”
He admitted that “some members of the Jewish community feel disappointed with the president. They worry about [Nicolas] Sarkozy’s Middle East policies, for example the French support of Palestine’s accession to UNESCO.
“Some are disappointed with Sarkozy’s domestic record, some condemn policies that they see as anti-Zionist. And while many of these voters are turning to the Socialists and the Greens, there are some who are attracted to the reactionary policies of the FN.”
But Prasquier insists that this represents a minority of voters who are “confused” about the realities of FN politics and that most of France's Jewish citizens know “the real face of the National Front” only too well.
“Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose anti-Semitism is on record, has always been the mentor behind the National Front’s politics,” he said. “No one is fooled.”
Not everyone shares Prasquier’s optimism. Jonathan Hayoun, president of the French Jewish Students’ Union (UEJF), believes Marine Le Pen represents a whole new danger “because she does not hesitate to put her Jewish party members in the spotlight to boost her respectability.”
“But behind them lurk FN politicians like Bruno Gollnisch [head of the FN group in the Rhone-Alpes regional Council] and other notorious anti-Semites.”
From the beggining of 2011 the UEJF has been on a mission to educate other students with the campaign “No Jewish Voices in the FN”.
“It’s at times of economic crisis that populism in politics becomes appealing,” said Hayoun. “We shouldn't overreact, but we nonetheless refuse to let a party like the National Front saunter into our community.
“That is why we refused to allow Marine Le Pen to enter the Paris-Dauphine University at the beginning of December. She is and will remain persona non grata, here in France and also in Israel.”
But for how long? In January, the respected Israeli daily Haaretz called Marine Le Pen the “de-demonizer” of the FN who was “determined to make France's National Front a respectable party.”
“But does Marine Le Pen's moderate image make her a more insidious threat than her father?” asked Haaretz.
That question will be answered after next May’s elections.