French Jews imagine life under President Marine Le Pen


PARIS (JTA) — Like many Jews in France, Ludwig Fineltain is hoping against hope that Marine Le Pen will not be elected president of the country five weeks from now.

At the moment, the head of the far-right National Front party is leading in the polls with 26 percent of the vote. But Fineltain, a 78-year-old psychoanalyst, said he thinks France’s two-round system for the presidential elections will ultimately keep Le Pen out of Elysee Palace.

“Even if she wins in the first round on April 23, the French people will get behind whoever runs against her in the second and final round,” Fineltain said.

He points to an unofficial coalition that is known here as “the republican front” in which the majority of French voters, who are neither the extreme left or right, put aside their differences and vote for the candidate likeliest to beat National Front. It was demonstrated in a crushing defeat of National Front in 2002 — the only time a candidate from the party made it to the second round.

However, just in case, Fineltain said he’s already stocked up on “certain provisions.” He declined to elaborate, citing strict laws in France on “what one is and is not allowed to possess” — he would not specify whether or not he was referring to weapons.

Pointing to Donald Trump’s election in the U.S. and the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, Fineltain said, “I guess there’s a slight chance that she’ll win after all. And then there will be civil war.”

French Jews share Fineltain’s oscillation between confidence and insecurity. Over the past year, French citizens have endured a dramatic campaign season amid growing nationalism, Islamist terrorism, financial stagnation and deepening resentment of a political establishment that is widely perceived as corrupt or incompetent.

In such a deeply divided nation, National Front has made considerable electoral gains since Le Pen became its leader in 2011, succeeding her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a Holocaust revisionist and openly anti-Semitic nationalist. The party advocates pulling out of the European Union, stopping immigration from Muslim countries and imposing limitations on religious freedoms, as well as harsh punishments for violence and incitement.

In the European Parliament elections of 2014, National Front stunned the world when it received the highest number of seats. The same year, National Front increased its showing in municipal elections to 7 percent from 1.6 percent in the previous general vote. Then, in the 2015 regional elections, the party won the first round in six regions – a historic gain — though “republican front” votes in the second round ultimately prevented it from winning any of France’s 13 regions.

In a Paris Match poll of 800 respondents from March 21, Le Pen and the centrist independent candidate, Emmanuel Macron, each received 25 percent of the vote, with the center-right candidate Francois Fillon trailing by 6 points. Le Pen was ahead in most previous major polls from the past six weeks.

National Front gains under Marine Le Pen are a testament to the success of her efforts to distance the party’s image from the open racism of her father, whom she kicked out in 2015 following his latest conviction for inciting racial hatred against Jews. (He suggested a Jewish singer critical of the party be “put in the oven.”) She has kicked out several party members for anti-Semitic rhetoric.

But in Fineltain’s nightmare scenario, he fears Le Pen’s election could trigger “an armed uprising” in heavily Muslim areas, triggering violent retributions by government forces and right-wing militias in a spiraling cycle of violence that could ultimately end 2,000 years of significant Jewish presence in France.

“I’m a bit too old to partake in civil war, so I and people like me may need to leave,” said Fineltain, who two years ago became a member of a section of the CRIF umbrella of French Jewish communities “because of a growing sense of anxiety about the rise of the far right in France.”

In the first round, Fineltain may vote for Macron, whom he considers “lacking a spine and any stature of a real leader,” he said Wednesday at a town hall meeting with the candidate organized by CRIF for 700 Jews. Or perhaps Fillon, whom Fineltain calls a “a little crook” in reference to the pol’s indictment last week for allegedly pocketing public funds.

But he will vote for anyone but Le Pen in the second round.

“It makes no difference,” he said.

Like Fineltain, Benjamin Oni, a French Jew in his 50s, said he cannot exclude a National Front victory in May. But Oni told JTA that he plans to “stay right here in France, in Paris, and fight Le Penism, and all forms of fundamentalisms come what may.”

“Jews will not abandon France in the hour of trial,” he said.

Michel Thooris, a Paris-born Jewish police officer, agrees with Oni about staying in France. But rather than fight National Front, he is among a growing number of French Jews who have decided to join the party.

It’s “difficult to make predictions about how France under Marine will look like,” he told JTA. “But of all the candidates, she is the one likeliest to defend the community against the main threat facing us: the rise of Muslim fundamentalism.”

Thooris joined the party in 2006, when Jean-Marie Le Pen was still its president. He said he had “real issues” with the elder Le Pen’s “clearly anti-Semitic and unacceptable statements.” But Thooris, 37, said he is more interested in what tomorrow holds for the party, especially from Marine and her life partner, Louis Aliot, who has Jewish roots.

A 2014 poll suggested that National Front’s popularity among French Jewish voters rose from nearly nonexistent under Jean-Marie Le Pen to 13.5 percent under his daughter. CRIF has said it will continue to shun her and her party, which the group regards as a threat to democracy.

Le Pen has said that if elected, she will ban the wearing of all religious symbols in public, including the kippah. She has said she does not oppose the Jewish skullcap, as such, but it will be banned to preserve equality and facilitate the prohibition on Muslim garb, which Le Pen does view as a threat.

She has asked French Jews to “make this sacrifice” and promised to “be their shield” against radical Islam.

Though Thooris said he sees a false equivalence between Judaism and “the proselytism of political Islam,” he is willing to make that sacrifice.

“In reality, Jews are already unable to wear kippahs in many parts of France for fear of attack and, in case of ban, can easily wear a hat without making any real religious concession,” he said.

As for anti-Semites within National Front, “all parties in France have them, and in no smaller number than in ours,” Thooris said. “What matters is the party program.”

Still, like Fineltain, Thooris also has nightmares of a civil war in France — something he sees as “likelier now than ever before” because of the prevalence of weapons in predominantly Muslim areas where police fail to enforce French law.

But, he said, Le Pen’s aggressive agenda on Islam is the “best guarantee for preventing this conflict.”

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