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La Manifestation

On Monday night, a crowd of about 250 packed into a hall on the second floor of the mairie du 3 arrondissement, the town hall of Paris’ third municipal district. Like all officialdom in France, the mairie has the stately bearing of something from a different time.

Up a marble staircase and down a red-carpeted corridor I found myself in a room with an ornate ceiling and peeling paint. A heavy red curtain hung behind the stage. The wooden floor was badly scuffed. As in much of Paris, this was beauty covered by a layer of grime.

The same could be said of the rally’s subject that evening: Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front party whose invitation to a Jewish radio program — followed by a disinvitation amid broad communal outrage — precipitated the rally.

Le Pen has much in common with conservatives the world over — a desire for a return to traditional (often religious) values, a longing for a time before globalization and mass immigration diluted the national identity, skepticism of international institutions deemed to be undermining national sovereignty. But her party has been saddled with accusations of anti-Semitism due largely to statements minimizing the Holocaust and making light of Jewish suffering during World War II by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. And it’s that layer of filth that the younger Le Pen has been trying to excise in her attempt to sanitize the party’s image.

For most French Jews, this formulation gets it precisely backwards: It’s not that the National Front is a values-based party with an anti-Semitism problem. It is a structurally anti-Semitic entity now headed by a brilliant communicator who, they fear, is savvier than her father and threatens to seduce — that word was used several times — Jewish voters fearful of France’s Muslim community.

"If the Jews host her," said Richard Prasquier, the president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, "she is respectable."

The word Prasquier used was "frequentable," a tasty bit of French etymology I picked up this week. Like a bar that you frequent — and is, therefore, implicitly kosher — Le Pen’s apearance on Jewish radio would make her "frequentable," someone you can do business with.

I was struck by the repeated invocations of World War II. Collaborationist is still an adjective with some bite in France. One speaker described Le Pen as bringing a "brown wave" over France, a reference to the shirts of Nazi paramilitaries. Le Pen’s comparison of Islamic prayer in the streets of Paris to an "occupation" was noted several times.

The irony, if you can call it that, is that Le Pen’s chances of actually winning the French presidency — despite recent polls showing her outpacing Nicolas Sarkozy and the Socialist candidate Martine Aubry — is universally regarded to be zero. The danger is a symbolic one, I was told repeatedly.

Over lunch today with a woman who spent several years researching the National Front, sometimes covertly, I asked her to imagine a hypothetical in which Le Pen did win. The Jews would leave, she told me, out of fear that they wouldn’t be able to later if it became truly necessary. "Either they leave the country right away, or they take the risk to be stuck," she told me. "We have history here, you know."

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