With presidential elections approaching, French Jewish leaders see an opportunity to air their grievances with a government they believe has waffled in its response to anti-Semitic aggression.
The election landscape became slightly more treacherous this week as Jean-Marie Le Pen, longtime leader of the extreme-right National Front, announced he has the signatures of 500 elected officials needed to run in the first round of presidential elections this April.
During some three decades on the national stage, Le Pen has made no secret of his anti-Semitic views, a tactic that has contributed to his support in conservative areas of southeastern France.
On a national radio show in 1987, Le Pen called the Nazi gas chambers a mere “detail” of World War II. The comment earned him widespread notoriety — and was followed by the strongest electoral returns of his career.
Le Pen amassed 4.4 million votes, nearly 15 percent of the French electorate, in the first round of the 1988 presidential election.
Since that time his support has been waning — a situation that led a large contingent of National Front members to defect in 1999 and form a new center-right party, the Republican National Movement, under the former party secretary of the National Front, Bruno Megret.
Following Megret’s lead, Le Pen is trying to reinvent himself as a more “respectable” candidate of the center-right.
“I am not perfect,” he responded recently to a question about his history of anti-Semitic remarks, which Le Pen now refers to as “unfortunate phrases.”
Le Pen, 73, appears to have toned down his rhetoric for his fourth — and, in all likelihood, final — presidential bid.
But his “France First” platform still contains an anti-Jewish plank.
In December, a National Front primer entitled “Le Pen Was, Is, And Will Be Right” revisited the candidate’s past views on the Jewish “lobby” in France.
“We would be wrong to forget the role of the Jewish Masonic International of B’nai B’rith,” Le Pen claimed. “This powerful and hidden minority has chosen to erect invisible barriers inside the French people.”
So far, it appears doubtful that Le Pen’s new posture of “respectability” will appeal to many voters in the political center.
The French daily Le Monde, for example, greeted his campaign announcement with derisive cartoons and the caption, “He presents himself as ‘a man of the center-right,’ but his program has not changed.”
While Le Pen may not be a viable candidate for president, however, his presence in the contest may prove problematic for Jewish organizations seeking a stronger governmental response to a rise in anti-Semitic attacks.
In the latest such incident, anti-Semitic vandals defaced a statue in Paris honoring Alfred Dreyfus. The vandals scrawled a Star of David and wrote the words “Dirty Jew” on the statue.
In a case that sparked a wave of anti-Semitism in France, Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army, was falsely convicted of treason in 1894, publicly degraded and sent to Devil’s Island, a penal colony in South America. He served five years of a life sentence before receiving a presidential pardon.
In three other anti-Semitic incidents earlier this year, groups of Arab youths stoned Jewish teen-agers and schoolchildren in Paris suburbs.
Those incidents largely passed under the radar of the French media, but the French dailies did provide substantial discussion on anti-Semitic violence at the end of 2001.
In a campaign that thus far has emphasized rising juvenile delinquency and the need for greater security from attacks by teen-agers, French Jews are depending on media attention to force the two presidential front-runners, incumbent Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, to take more assertive positions on anti-Semitic aggression.
Many French Jews view the inclusion of such discussion in the presidential campaign as a key objective, more important even than who wins.
French Jewish leaders long have criticized both leading candidates for downplaying the seriousness of the anti- Semitic incidents.
With Le Pen’s entry into the race, Jewish leaders potentially will face an additional challenge as they seek to make their voices heard.
Le Pen has in the past made insinuations about the “Jewish lobby’s” alleged power over the national media — a message that some fear could color and confuse coverage of Jewish issues.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.