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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. More ▸

  • At the Quai d’Orsay

    Valerie Hoffenberg is the kind of Jew I was told did not exist in France. A former director of the American Jewish Committee field office in Paris, and a bigwig at the CRIF (the rough — and I stress rough — equivalent of the Conference of Presidents), Hoffenberg has been serving for over a year as Nicolas Sarkozy’s special representative for the economic, cultural, commercial, educational and environmental dimensions of the Middle East peace process.
    This in a country where, I’m often told, Jews feel they shouldn’t advertise their identity too much, where wearing a yarmulke to work or asking for time off for religious holidays just isn’t done. All these things runs afoul of France’s commitment to secularism — or less charitably, of its seething underbelly of anti-Semitism.
    Hoffenberg was all too happy to disabuse me of that notion, and to reassure me that she does, in fact, exist.
    “It’s not easy,” she said. “There are not so many people like me. It’s true that there are many people who are Jewish who try not to say it openly, or not to mention it too much. But that was not my case.”
    I met Hoffenberg Monday afternoon in her high-ceilinged office on the second floor at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a sprawling fortress of a building along the Seine. After passing through security, I was led down a dimly lit hallway lined with high resolution photos of French diplomacy in action, including one section detailing the Ministry’s efforts in the Palestinian territories.
    My escort was a stern woman in a fitted white jacket who clearly didn’t abide pleasantries. I trailed three feet behind her except when we reached a door, whereupon she’d hold it open for me to walk through before scurrying back in front. She led me up a flight of winding carpeted stairs, through a glass door inscribed "Secretariat d’Etat aux Affaires Etrangeres Cabinet," and deposited me on a low couch. She never once looked back. More ▸