PARIS (JTA) — On the second floor of the town hall in Paris’ third Arrondissement, leaders of France’s major Jewish institutions gathered to denounce the leader of the far-right National Front party and to assert that she remains unworthy of dialogue with the Jewish community.
Last week’s gathering was precipitated by two developments that the community found alarming, though for very different reasons.
The first was an online poll, published in early March in Le Parisien, that found that National Front leader Marine Le Pen was outpacing both major party candidates, President Nicolas Sarkozy of the UMP and the Socialist Party’s Martine Aubry.
The second was the decision by a French Jewish media outlet, Radio J, to give Le Pen a hearing on its popular Sunday morning political program.
If the first development unsettled France’s Jewish leadership, the second enraged it.
Radio J, one Jewish leader said, was going to give Le Pen the “certificate of respectability” she so desperately craves. Pressure on the station grew so intense that its director, Serge Hajdenberg, canceled the interview.
“If the Jews host her,” said Richard Prasquier, the president of the French Jewish umbrella group known as the CRIF, “she is respectable.”
Across Europe, the growth of minority immigrant communities, the encroaching authority of the European Union and a lingering economic crisis have fueled substantial gains by far-right parties. But perhaps nowhere else since the rise and fall of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party last decade have those movements been as successful at the ballot box as in France.
In 2002, Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, then the party leader, sent shockwaves throughout the world when he defeated the Socialist Party candidate Lionel Jospin in the first round of French presidential voting. He was trounced in the next round by Jacques Chirac.
The new Le Parisien poll, among others, suggests that his daughter is poised to equal her father’s electoral achievements, if not better them.
The polls notwithstanding, few people believe Le Pen has a serious chance of winning the presidency. Still, the French Jewish community remains overwhelmingly opposed to the National Front, even if some pockets of support have cropped up. Much of the backing is said to be motivated by a common fear of France’s restive Muslim population.
The elder Le Pen was seen as an unreconstructed anti-Semite and Holocaust “negationist,” or minimizer, even if he did try to soften his image by touting minority affiliation with the National Front. His statement that the Nazi gas chambers are but a “detail” of history is cited frequently as evidence of his innate hostility toward the Jewish people.
Marine Le Pen has taken steps to distance herself from her father’s more controversial pronouncements, saying several times that she does not share his view of history. But within France’s Jewish community, this is widely seen as a tactical move aimed at mainstreaming the party and improving its electoral prospects. The party remains, in this view, unrepentantly anti-Semitic.
“They have this vision of the world — white Christian people on one side and the other on the other side,” said Emmanuelle Joseph-Dailly, a researcher who spent years studying the National Front. “They would accept a Jew, an Arab, on an individual level.
“What they don’t like is the community. They don’t like that a Jewish person would put a mezuzah on the door. But if the Jewish person is acting like a French person — eating pork, celebrating Christmas — it’s fine.”
Last week, Le Pen held a news conference at party headquarters, a modern office block on a residential street in the western Paris suburb of Nanterre. The occasion was the release of 2010 earnings reports for the CAC40, France’s benchmark stock index. Le Pen seized the opportunity to pillory the companies for making obscene profits while much of the country remains mired in recession.
Later, in an interview with JTA in her private office on the top floor, Le Pen showed off a painting she said was done by an Israeli artist and denied that she harbors anti-Semitic feelings. Anything that contributes to feeding suspicions about the party’s feelings toward Jews, she said, was “particularly unwelcome.”
“The National Front is neither racist, nor anti-Semitic, nor xenophobic,” she told JTA. “It is, I think, Israelis who can understand this better than anyone. It has a desire to protect our borders, to be master of its own domain — that is, to choose who enters and who remains on our territory. It analyzes, from an economic and social viewpoint, the consequences of immigration, but also the consequences to national identity of what appears to be massive immigration.
“The National Front defends France’s identity — that is to say its values, its culture. I do not believe it can be condemned for these things.”
Le Pen went on to accuse the Jewish establishment of preventing her from reaching out to her “Jewish compatriots,” suggesting that the Jewish leadership is insulated from the social problems plaguing France and is afraid of allowing her message to reach the French Jewish masses.
In this, Le Pen has an unlikely ally in Frederic Haziza, the political editor of Radio J. Haziza, a veteran journalist, has interviewed many of France’s leading political figures. He also has run afoul of mainstream Jewish opinion by supporting JCall, a group that like the American J Street, supports Israel’s existence but actively opposes its continued control of the West Bank.
Haziza has been branded a traitor by a community that, he says, fears an open debate.
For years Haziza abided the community leadership’s view of the elder Le Pen, declining to interview him because of his views on the Holocaust. But the younger Le Pen’s efforts to distance herself from her father, and in particular her statement saying that the Nazi war against the Jews was “the pinnacle of inhumanity,” led Haziza to extend her an invitation.
“I am on Jewish radio, but I am first a journalist,” Haziza said. “And I have to make my work as a journalist to question all political leaders like the other media. For me it’s only to know if she has changed — if between Jean-Marie Le Pen and Marine Le Pen, they are thinking the same thing about Judaism and racism, or if there is a revolution between the father and his daughter.”
For some, however, that’s not the right question. Even if Le Pen’s sentiments are sincere, they say, the party’s membership rolls are filled by the same extremists who once supported her father.
“She has to ask all the people before who were supporting her father to go away,” Valerie Hoffenberg, a French Foreign Ministry official charged with working on the Middle East process, said when asked how Le Pen could prove she had moved the party decidedly beyond its past. “This is maybe the first thing.”
Hoffenberg is a former director of the American Jewish Committee’s Paris office.
For her part, Le Pen says she already has done all she can. In her quest for the party leadership, she said she made clear that there was no room in the National Front for “extremist subgroups” — anti-Semitic or otherwise. She was elected by a margin of more than two-thirds.
“The overwhelming majority of the National Front share in my vision,” she told JTA. “One cannot judge a political movement on the basis of a few individuals, who for that matter are either outside the movement or no longer hold any responsibility, because it’s unfair. It is as simple as that.
“As for me, quite honestly, I say quite clearly, once again, and with much sincerity, I cannot do much more.”