The strong showing of far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of France’s presidential elections holds some bitter ironies for the nation’s Jews.
Notorious for the anti-Semitic views he has espoused, Le Pen until recently had seen support for his National Front Party waning.
But in a campaign dominated by France’s rising crime and delinquency rates, the National Front’s anti-immigrant and law-and-order rhetoric caught the attention of French voters.
On Sunday, Le Pen staged a huge upset, coming in second behind President Jacques Chirac, who won about 19.6 percent of the vote. With 17 percent, Le Pen edged out Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who finished third with 16 percent.
After hearing initial results, Jospin said Sunday night he would retire from politics.
As a result, the far-right leader who once called the Holocaust a mere “detail” of World War II will square off against Chirac in the May 5 runoff.
In protest, up to 10,000 people marched in Paris shouting “Le Pen is a fascist” while riot police fired teargas and drove back a crowd of hundreds of demonstrators who began throwing barriers in the historic Place de la Concorde.
Above a photo of Le Pen, the left-leaning daily Liberation ran a single-word headline on its front page: “Non,” French for no.
“The French political system, tottering for years, has imploded,” it said in an editorial.
“The Earthquake,” commented right-leaning Le Figaro.
Le Pen’s surprise showing, which was not predicted during weeks of opinion polling before the election, came at least partly as a result of the attitude held by most Jews — and many other French citizens — that neither Chirac nor Jospin had done enough about what has become an epidemic of anti-Jewish aggression since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000.
The fact that much of the violence was carried out by the children of North African immigrants played into the hands of Le Pen, whose platform was heavily laced with xenophobia, some political commentators said.
Other commentators considered the results more of a fluke, citing the record low voting rates among an electorate certain that Jospin and Chirac would be the candidates left standing for the runoff.
Also helping Le Pen were his campaign efforts to re-invent himself as a more “respectable” candidate.
During some three decades on the national stage, Le Pen has made no secret of his anti-Semitic views, a tactic that contributed to the strong support for his National Front Party in conservative areas of southeastern France.
It was in 1987, on a national radio show, that he 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.
The 73-year-old founder and head of the National Front, Le Pen amassed 4.4 million votes, nearly 15 percent of the French electorate, in the first round of the 1988 presidential election.
When his support waned after that, a large contingent of National Front members defected in 1999 to form a new center-right party, the Republican National Movement, under the former secretary of the National Front, Bruno Megret.
Following Megret’s lead, Le Pen recently tried to reinvent himself as a candidate of the center-right.
Part of this involved abandoning his Jew-baiting tactics.
“I am not perfect,” he responded recently when asked about his history of anti-Semitic remarks, which Le Pen now refers to as “unfortunate phrases.”
Surprisingly, given some of those remarks, observers are divided over whether “xenophobe” or “anti-Semite” is the correct term for describing him.
“Le Pen is a xenophobe first and foremost,” Theo Klein, a former leader of France’s Jewish community, was quoted as saying by the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. “His attitude toward Jews is a product of his theory that only someone who was born in France, and has no other affiliation, is French.”
On the day after the election, Jewish leaders joined a chorus of critics, from the center-right to the far left, in decrying the strong show of support for the extreme right.
“This is a shock,” said Roger Cukierman, president of CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations. “But when we think about it more, we understand it as the result of French people’s reaction to problems of insecurity.
“This is a defensive reaction which I deplore,” he added, “but I understand it.”
In a further irony of the election, many Jews are now hoping that Le Pen’s own mission to build walls within French society will help break down those existing between Jews and Muslims.
Indeed, given Le Pen’s xenophobic stance, the two communities now have a shared goal — to keep him from office.
Patrick Klugman, president of UEJF, France’s largest Jewish student union, called for a “republican tidal wave against xenophobia.”
“The attacks against our religious institutions actually targeted the whole republic,” the student leader said in a statement. Now that the republic “has been hit, we will be its first and most fearsome defenders.”
Others vowed to work to make sure not only that Le Pen loses the May 5 runoff, but loses by a margin large enough to restore France’s standing in the eyes of the world.
Leading members of Jospin’s Socialist Party said Sunday they would vote for Chirac in the runoff to ensure that Le Pen does not win.
The series of anti-Semitic attacks in Paris and other French cities in recent months was on the minds of many Jewish voters Sunday.
Outside the polling stations of the concentrated Jewish neighborhoods of Paris’s 19th district, Jewish voters generally were pessimistic that there would be any significant change in the government’s stance toward the violence if either Chirac or Jospin were elected.
Jonathan, a twenty-year-old software engineering student, described feelings of “indecision and apathy” among many of his Jewish friends.
“Nobody really knew how they were going to vote today, even up until the last minute,” he said. “In one sense, Jospin seems more sympathetic to Israel, but his record on anti-Semitism here is not encouraging.”
Sentiments like these appeared to have caused many Jews to look for alternative candidates in some of the smaller parties on the right.
Sitting at a local cafe after casting their votes, Elie Smadja, a business executive, and Catherine Taieb, a jeweler, explained why they voted for Alain Madelin, the candidate for the moderate right Liberal Democracy Party.
“Madelin was the only candidate who marched with the Jews” in a massive anti-violence demonstration in Paris earlier this month, and was the only one to call the repeated anti-Semitic attacks “acts of terrorism,” Taieb said.
Smadja was also swayed by Madelin’s commitment to Jewish issues, but was not hopeful for change after the elections.
“Whatever candidate wins, the Jews will not be heard,” he said.
Madelin, who took only 3.9 percent of the vote nationally, garnered almost twice as much in Paris’s 19th district.
In addition to his participation in the demonstration, Madelin may have benefitted from a lengthy pre-election interview in the Jewish daily Actualite Juive, in which he labeled anti-Jewish aggression as terrorism and criticized French support for Syria on the grounds that it sponsors terrorism.
Many Jews apparently used their vote to register support for these views, even though the candidate holding them had little chance of advancing to the runoff.
Like most French voters, few leaving the polls seemed to take seriously the idea that Le Pen would surpass Jospin on Sunday — and in the process grab a spotlight he has always coveted.
Now, with analysts expecting Chirac to win the runoff by a margin of 80 to 20, Le Pen has little to lose as he presents his views to the nation during the next two weeks.
What is certain is that he will continue advocating restrictions on immigration and calling for the repatriation of non-citizens found guilty of felonies or misdemeanors.
With Jewish immigration no longer a factor in such stances, it remains to be seen whether Le Pen will pull out all the stops and combine these calls with an anti-Jewish plank.
Le Pen managed to shelve his anti-Jewish message in the first round but, as recently as last December, National Front literature included anti-Semitic material.
Among a list of Le Pen’s views in a pamphlet titled “Le Pen Was, Is, And Will Be Right” was a warning about the influence of 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.”
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.