PARIS, Sept. 30 (JTA) — French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen´s campaign for the leadership of a key region in southern France has local Jewish community leaders very worried. The problem, they say, is that Le Pen´s National Front has a real chance of winning the first-round voting next March, which would lend legitimacy to Le Pen´s anti-Semitic politics.
Launching his campaign aboard a boat in Nice´s harbor two weeks ago, Le Pen said he would run for the presidency of the Provence-Alpes Cote d´Azur region — also known as PACA — an area with large Jewish communities in Marseille, Nice and other cities.
“This is not just a Jewish issue,” said Zvi Amar, president of the Marseille Consistoire, a Jewish community group. “Le Pen threatens the whole of French society, not just the Jewish community.”
Amar, a national vice president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews, said he doubts whether Le Pen actually could be elected president of the PACA region, but said there was a strong possibility that the far- right leader could top the polls in first-round voting, when a plethora of other candidates could divide the opposition vote.
“That would show the strength of the National Front base in the south of France, where the movement has had strong roots now for a long time,” Amar said.
In the national presidential election last year, Le Pen got the most votes in the PACA region in first-round voting and more than a quarter of the votes in the region in the second-round runoff against incumbent President Jacques Chirac. Nationally, 18 percent of voters cast their votes for Le Pen.
Le Pen, 75, is taking part in what is quite possibly his last major election fight, and the election represents a final chance to achieve legislative power in a region that traditionally has had a strong right-wing base.
With its large immigrant population, particularly in and around Marseille, the PACA region has given the National Front a platform to espouse its openly racist policies.
Marseille also is home to France´s second largest Jewish community, at 70,000 people. The Jewish communities in Marseille, Nice and along the Cote d´Azur shoreline have not been targeted by National Front campaigns, but Le Pen´s storied record of anti-Semitic statements is cause for alarm among the region´s Jews.
Le Pen once described the Holocaust as a mere “detail in World War II history,” has accused Chirac of being “in the pay of Jewish organizations” and has blamed Jews for erecting “invisible barriers inside the French people.”
In order to avoid division in the anti-Le Pen vote, Jewish leaders are urging candidates from small parties with minimal chance of victory to abstain from running in places like the Provence region, asking them instead to lend their support to an agreed-upon center-left candidate.
CRIF leaders raised the issue during a recent meeting with the Green Party. A similar deal may be in the works with the center-right Union for French Democracy.
That would leave Le Pen and Deputy Foreign Minister Renaud Muselier in a run against the incumbent president of the region, Michel Vauzelle of the Socialist Party.
If all three qualify for the second-round runoff, Jewish leaders say the weaker candidate should withdraw.
“Only the strongest republican candidate should be allowed to run against Le Pen in the second round,” said Clement Yana, CRIF president for the PACA region. “All republican votes should then unite to block Le Pen.”
Whether or not French Jews can convince the candidates to go along with their scenario to block Le Pen is unclear.
Already, the National Front has had success in small towns in the south of France, with mayoral victories in Orange and the larger metropolis of Toulon. In each case, the National Front was able to play on a split in the opposition´s vote in the second round.
Jews also are concerned by a change in the electoral system that grants a bonus 25 percent allocation of seats on the PACA region´s council to any party that comes in first in the initial round of voting.
That means Le Pen could win big, says Jean-Yves Camus, a Jewish journalist who has authored numerous studies on the far-right in France.
If that happens, the National Front could become the largest party in the council and may be able to persuade center-right parties — the political home of Chirac — to join its ruling coalition.
Currently, the National Front holds 37 of the council´s 123 seats.
The possibility of an alliance between the National Front and center-right parties is not so far-fetched. In the last regional elections in 1998, the center-right leader in Burgundy retained the regional council´s presidency only after securing the support of the council´s National Front representatives.
Chirac has strongly condemned alliances between center-right parties and Le Pen´s party.
However, it is the threat of Le Pen himself that has Jewish leaders in southern France most worried.
So far, the far-right leader has shied away from talking about “national preference” for native French in housing, employment and social-welfare benefits — the central policy plank of the National Front in last year´s presidential election.
But National Front representatives are talking about what it says are the two principal problems of the region:”hooliganism” and “Islamism.”
Camus says the Front´s anti-Muslim diatribes should not mask the party´s latent anti-American and anti-Israel positions.
Last time local elections were held in the region, some Jews voted for the National Front, ostensibly because they wanted to cast an anti-Muslim vote, analysts said.
Amar said such voters represent “a very, very small and marginalized group within the community.”
“Jews in Marseille and Provence are not going to fall into Le Pen´s trap,” Amar said. “He has never disguised his hatred for Jews.”