France’s Far-Right, Once Known for Anti-Semitism, Courts Jews
PARIS — For years, France’s far-right National Front was synonymous with anti-Semitism. Its founder, Jean Marie Le Pen, was notorious for anti-Semitic outbursts — including a comment that the Holocaust was just a detail of history.
But since Mr. Le Pen’s daughter Marine took over the party’s leadership in 2011, the National Front has attempted a remarkable about-face: Today, the party positions itself as a champion of French Jews.
Although Ms. Le Pen, one of the front-runners in the coming presidential election, still alludes to anti-Semitic stereotypes on the campaign trail, she now promises that her party will be the protector of French Jews.
It is a surprising twist that has resonated with some French Jews who feel abandoned by what they see as the government’s tepid response to the anti-Semitic violence that has plagued the country for years.
But experts say the National Front’s shift may be intended more as a message to non-Jewish voters looking for moral cover in supporting a party that vilifies their primary sources of fear and anger: Muslims and immigrants.
The National Front has long been widely viewed in France as toxic, but by declaring itself a shield for French Jews, it may have found an effective way to allow many voters to justify breaking a taboo. That reflects a concept known as “moral license.” Framing the party as a champion of one minority enables voters to justify supporting its agenda in suppressing another.
The result is not a more racially tolerant National Front, but rather a party that has found nearly unprecedented success in persuading mainstream voters — many of whom may be quietly sympathetic to its anti-immigrant agenda — to embrace far-right ideas once considered off-limits.
“They are instrumentalizing us,” said Jonathan Arfi, vice president of the Council of Jewish Institutions in France, which goes by the French acronym CRIF. “We are a small minority,” he said, “but we have an important symbolic role to play.”
Becoming a ‘normal’ party
Mr. Arfi can point to the precise month when the new age of anti-Semitism began in France: September 2000, the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising. That brought about attacks on Jews in France, particularly those who lived in poorer neighborhoods on the outskirts of large cities — areas that had gradually become dominated by Muslim immigrants from North Africa and their families. Since then, anti-Semitic violence has remained high.
But the French government and civil society were slow to respond to the attacks, Jewish leaders felt. For many years, Mr. Arfi said, politicians were in denial about the attacks, preferring to see them as an “imported conflict” rather than as resurgent French anti-Semitism, although he was careful to note that the response had improved in recent years.
“It was uncomfortable for them to see that in France, the country of human rights, you had anti-Semitism coming up again,” said Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s advocacy in Europe.
That the attacks came from immigrant and Islamist communities, Ms. Rodan-Benzaquen said, deepened that discomfort: “It requires admitting that a population that suffers racism also harbors it.”
The situation created an opportunity for the National Front. The anti-Semitic attacks tracked with its narrative about the dangers of Muslim immigration: Mainstream parties had allowed the Islamist threat to grow by refusing to admit it was happening, and only the National Front could undertake the harsh measures needed to solve the problem.
It was also a way for the National Front to delegitimize charges of racism against Muslims, Mr. Arfi said. “They are trying to say ‘these people are committing anti-Semitic attacks, so they cannot be victims of anything.’ ”
‘Everything is between the lines’
In 2014, Ms. Le Pen summarized her message to France’s Jews in an interview with the French magazine Valeurs Actuelles. Her party, she argued, “is without a doubt the best shield to protect you against the one true enemy, Islamic fundamentalism.”
In early 2016, the party began to publicize the support it had received from a new group, the Union of Jewish Patriots. It is not legally affiliated with the National Front, but was founded by Michel Thooris, a National Front city councilor in Carros and a member of the party’s central committee.
Mr. Thooris said that he had made his peace with the National Front’s legacy of anti-Semitism. “There are anti-Semitic personalities in the party,” he said, “but it happens in every political party.”
He had decided to support the party, Mr. Thooris said, because he believed it would offer protection from anti-Semitic violence. “It’s the only political party that actually offers to fight against insecurity, the rise of radical Islamism,” he said.
Still, no mainstream Jewish organization in France has endorsed the National Front, whose support among Jewish voters remains relatively low. But the group’s message may be about more than recruiting Jewish voters.