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In the Belly of the Beast

The headquarters of France’s National Front party is located in Nanterre, a middle class suburb in the west of Paris. It was cold and overcast when I arrived there in mid-afternoon, the coldest and grayest day all week, and it gave the neighborhood a bleaker quality than it probably deserves.

On a quiet residential street of two-story homes and neatly tended gardens, the National Front building stands out. It’s a cold, modern office building amid the area’s century-old architecture. Le Corbusier might have liked it, but I found it soulless and conspicuous. It was the only building around with an enormous French flag hanging from the facade.

Inside, Marine Le Pen, the party leader and youngest daughter of the notorious Jean-Marie Le Pen, was due to hold a press conference at 5:00 p.m. I signed in (no ID check necessary) and took my place among the journalists milling about. At the stroke of the hour, Marine entered.

Her father famously described her as "a big, healthy, blonde girl, an ideal physical specimen," and I can vouch that at least half that statement is true. Marine is tall and stocky, her face framed by cascades of golden hair. Healthy? Her teeth are dark, most likely from the cigarettes she was quick to remove from her desk when we sat down later for an interview. And ideal? Well, that’s a matter of taste.

The occasion for the presser was the release last week of 2010 earnings reports for the companies in the CAC40, France’s benchmark stock index. Suprise! The companies did rather well, which presented Le Pen the opportunity to assail them for making obscene profits, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy for allowing them to do so. She invoked themes of social justice and fairness that, taken together, amount to a textbook example of the link between economic crisis and the rise of extreme parties.

When it was over, Le Pen took a few questions and hammed it up for the cameras. An Australian reporter asked her for a private audience, which she declined. Then her press secretary led me up two flights of stairs to Le Pen’s office on the top floor. It was gently lit by a lamp. A flat screen monitor and an ashtray with several butts sat on a wooden desk. On the wall was a blue painting that Le Pen told me was done by an Israeli artist.

The access afforded JTA was no doubt a result of the rescinding of an invitation to Le Pen to appear this week on the Jewish radio station Radio J. The incident made news here and abroad, and led to the rally I wrote about yesterday. Jewish organizations in France — the CRIF, the FSJU, the Jewish students union — are of the view that Le Pen has been eager to talk to Jewish media (she gave an interview to Haaretz in January) in an effort to clean up her image and earn the community’s seal of approval.

I asked her whether this was indeed the reason she wanted the Radio J interview — and implicitly, if this was the reason why JTA alone gained access to the inner sanctum. She replied that Radio J had approached her about an interview — not the other way around:

I went first of all to clear up a certain number of ambiguities. And to reassure my Jewish compatriots, whom a number of organizations have tried to scare, notably by trying to convince them that the National Front represents some kind of danger to them.

I wanted to tell them they have nothing to fear from the National Front. Quite the contary.

Again, I want to clarify that I went in order to alleviate the past of misunderstandings, fear and suspicions that might have existed between the Jews of France and the National Front. And if there is anti-Semitism today in France, it has its roots in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has been brought to the territory of France by fundamentalist Muslims organizations.

I’d like to finish by asking you a quesiton: Are these associations going to prevent me from answering these questions, alleviating the anxieties, and ending all the distance that exists between French Jews and myself?

By all indications, the answer to that question is yes. French Jewish leaders are intent on branding Le Pen beyond the pale, an unworthy interlocuter. She is seen as a brilliant communicator capable of lulling Jewish voters into complacency, perhaps convincing them that no dark underbelly of anti-Semitism exists within the National Front.

Which raises an interesting question about the duty of Jewish media here. The Jewish establishment wants the community protected from dangerous voices. The media feels its duty is to interrogate a woman who current polls indicate is likely to advance to the second round of presidential voting.

In the case of Marine Le Pen, the French establishment won. For now.

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