The National Front, the xenophobic populist party that stands in the vanguard of the fight against Islamists in France, is doing its best these days to drag French Jews into its ranks. As I’m finishing this piece, one of the most prominent figures of the party, Gilbert Collard, is coming out with a new statement defending Israel against the so-called “pro-Palestinian” demonstrations. The Front’s headquarters, where last month I interviewed the party’s leader Marine Le Pen for Tablet, are located in an ugly two-story house with gray concrete walls in Nanterre, a western suburb of Paris of sad quiet little streets spreading in the shadow of the nearby glassy skyscrapers of the La Défense business center.
Walking through the gravel courtyard of the house, you arrive first at a guard post with a large French flag on top. Right in front of the glass door, in armor and displaying another flag, stands a golden “life-size” statue of Joan of Arc. She’s shown moving audaciously forward—in the exact reproduction of the stereotype that would illustrate primary-school history books of long ago—back when, in the imaginary France that serves as the Front’s model for the future, teachers had authority and all students were seen as Christians of rural background. Once in the hall, looking through the window at the rear of the house while the security checks you out, you can admire the gigantic rooster in dashing colors erected on the lawn, the rooster being, of course, the symbol of France. Taste in the National Front headquarters is deliberately non-Parisian, showing off its lower-middle-class refusal to show off—militantly lacking taste.
My first memory of the Le Pen family’s holdings, which now include the largest political party in France, is, by contrast, of the luxury of their villa in the southeast and much more upscale suburb of Saint-Cloud, where Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the Front and then its leader, still lives, and where he received me 32 years ago. Heavy brand-name leather couches, heavy lamps, heavy statues of black slaves supporting a marble heavy chandelier—kitschy too, for sure, but the urge to possess and to show off, and the money behind it, was unmistakable.
My second memory is not what Le Pen told me back in 1983, which I have entirely forgotten, but my own disarray at the end of our interview. The National Front, until then, had been but a marginal formation with microscopic electoral results, less a party, really, than an absurd bunch of fascist creeps. The core of the party, whose supporters might have been generously numbered in the hundreds, consisted of ex-members of the Charlemagne division—the French squad of the Waffen SS during World War II—as well as ex-OAS members from the fascist military organization set against independent Algeria. Around them had coalesced a few young students, fans of Nazi-era nostalgia. Le Pen himself was an exotic figure, a ringmaster of anti-migrant hatred known for the black eye-patch he wore and for having practiced torture during the Algerian war, where he’d served as a legionnaire. As a politician, though, nobody took him seriously.
But in the fall of 1983, in Dreux, a small town 50 miles away from Paris, his party’s candidate made news with an astonishing 17 percent score at the first round of the municipal election—and, by allying himself with the democratic right wing party of the time, the RPR, had wound up winning the town. I was in Dreux on the evening that the results came in, and I witnessed the psychodrama of the defeated socialist candidate lost in tears among a crowd of supporters who carried him in the streets and half asphyxiated him as they yelled out in an improvised demonstration against “Nazism.” As a member of the Sans Frontières team, the twice-monthly magazine that dedicated itself to covering the rising issues of the cités and fought for migrants workers’ rights, I myself had no doubt that the Dreux election, that bolt from the blue monopolizing every political commentator’s attention in the country, was indeed the sign of a fascist resurrection in France. Which is how I came to be the first reporter in France to interview Le Pen.
Thus, my severe mental disarray. For I spent most of my two hours with Le Pen fighting to keep intact what I then took as my moral sense and my solid political judgment. I fought against Le Pen’s brutal energy, which I liked, his cheeky humor, which I enjoyed, his anarchic talent for provocation, and his fun, even—not to mention the quality of his French, which betrayed a literary culture largely beyond most of the political figures I could think of. In other words, who he was didn’t fit my category of what he was.
Now, what’s toxic poison for good citizens is often nectar for writers. Le Pen was my first “villain.” Although I was too young, at 23, to understand it, his power of attraction may have come, in part, from my own literary taste for excessive natures—or maybe from a nature in me that literature was helping to tame. But it was also, I think, the product of something else: There was, all too clearly, much more in him than the easy cartoonish figure with which the bien pensant left, myself included, caricatured him and his movement. There was his reality. There was the French history of which he was one variation, and me another. Being in the same room with him was to confront the carnal thickness of the collective memory in front of which moral judgment, when not backed by serious knowledge and experience, so easily turns to cliché and misapprehension. And that misapprehension, because it made the reality of who he was all the more unexpected, made him also all the more interesting—and all the more seductive.
Who Jean-Marie Le Pen was didn’t fit my category of what he was.
Today, of course, confronted with the NF’s centrality to French politics, the Dreux election looks either like a warning or a joke. Since Jean-Marie Le Pen, now 86, retired and his daughter Marine took over the Party in 2011, the National Front has become the first party of France—and if the French economic crisis worsens in the next couple of years, as all predictions say it will, a Front victory in the 2017 presidential elections begins to look like a possible bet. (According to a new poll from July, if the elections took place today Marine Le Pen would win by 26 percent of the votes against 25 to ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy and 17 only for the current Socialist Party President, François Hollande.) Even a (still probable) defeat would look good for her. Since whoever loses to her in the first round is out of the game for a long time, and since Marine Le Pen would only lose the second round by a small margin, she would immediately become the de facto sole serious opposition leader. Which would put her in pole position for the 2022 presidentials.
Marine, as she’s called in Le Front, obviously does contemplate leading France. As she sat deep in her chair behind her desk and joined her hands either to meditate on an answer to my question (“If you’re elected tomorrow, what will be the main lines of your politics in the Middle East?”) or to enjoy the prospect of her future victory, it seemed clear that there are worse things, at 40, to envision in one’s future than becoming the first woman president of France. She’s blonde, tall, wears a jacket, and, in person, looks less like her father than it seems on TV. The massive silhouette, the heavy face are indeed the same, but those masculine traits are softened by the almost tender light in her eyes when she speaks. Her smile’s a woman’s smile—but a woman looking, it seems, for good male companionship, or maybe male acceptance, rather than seduction. Even when she burst out in anger against what she called “the system,” which happened every other minute, there was nothing in her of the verbal savagery that both repelled and amused me in her father.
“France,” she flatly and solemnly answered, “always had this balanced position that in so many conflicts was the voice of peace. I intend to maintain that. De Gaulle was pleading for a multipolar world. As you know, this is also my position.” I pointed out to her that De Gaulle never actually employed such a formula: “He spoke of non aligned countries” she quickly hit back, “same difference.”
Well, not exactly: Non-alignment was an ancient Cold War theory for middle-range powers in search of a third path between the USSR and United States. But how aware is Marine Le Pen that the Cold War frame is no longer alive? Her speech sounds like a weird patchwork of Gaullist nostalgia with some traces of Communism—the two major political forces of that bygone era when French leaders could have it both ways. Like the Gaullists, for instance, she thinks France should leave NATO, and like the Communists she thinks that “Russia is an important power upon which the USA imposed a Cold War.” In Syria, she said, “we made the wrong choice. There, we chose the fundamentalists.” She supports the Assad dictatorship, in the name of secularism and realpolitik—the values that Communists and Gaullists shared.
As for the United States, Le Pen was predictably tough. She defined herself as moderately anti-American—because Americans, she claimed, are a people who “say what’s good and evil but only according to its own interests. Not according to any moral sense ever! I do not blame them, though,” she added. “I blame us for not fighting back.”
Three things are worth noting here, as subtext. One is that Marine and her foreign political adviser Aymeric Chauprade spend a lot of time in Russia—and that, inside of the nationalist galaxy of the continent, they’re not the only ones. Last may in Vienna, for instance, Moscow backed a European summit gathering most of the nationalist-xenophobic parties of the continent, the NF included. Second, one of Marine Le Pen’s oldest friends, Frédéric Chatillon, adviser for the Front’s political communications, is also otherwise employed in “promoting Syrian public institutions in France” and is responsible for the trip made there in 2010 by the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné and his national-socialist maître à penser Alain Soral.
My third note concerns Chauprade, who is said by “Marine” to be a very possible Minister of Foreign Affairs. “The official version given by the U.S. authorities on Sept. 11 is not satisfying,” he said to me. “I believe that Islamic fundamentalism is used or even created by a secret force, a deep state hidden inside of the American state.” Chauprade never goes as far as naming this secret force as Jewish. But, when criticized in France for defending his conspiracy theory (after the release of a book on the subject and losing a teaching job at the prestigious Ecole Militaire as a consequence), he did mention “the Zionists” among the mysterious people who were trying to weaken him.
Once in power, Marine Le Pen intends to restore France’s greatness. Two things stand in her way, though. One, according to most political analysts, is the Euro—the Front wants France to leave the Eurozone and come back to the Franc, a move that the French are not said to be desperate enough or bold enough to try now. The second, at least in the Front’s leaders’ minds, seem to be the Jews.
Why, at first sight, is baffling. With roughly 600,000 people, the Jewish community of France—meaning simply the total number of Jews in the country—accounts for no more than 0.7 percent of the population—hardly an electoral threat. From 2000 on, furthermore, the Second Intifada in the Middle East and Sept. 11 in New York gave the Front a fantastic opportunity to recycle the old anti-immigrant rhetoric of the 1970s and ’80s into a republican fight against Islamism and terror. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen was able to win the first round of the presidential election and to challenge the president of the time Jacques Chirac using precisely this strategy.
Today, together with Manuel Valls on the left, Marine Le Pen appears as the toughest and most determined leader in this fight, and the most sincere. On secularism she stands firm. She has repeatedly denounced “Islamic fascism,” and it’s hard—if you don’t pay attention to the nasty subterranean currents shaping the Party—not to agree with most of what she says on those subjects. And it’s harder if you’re Jewish—look at the socialist politics in Roubaix, for instance—and more largely, if you’re dismayed by the mix of compromise and cowardice of the left in regard to the Islamic question in France. So, yes, since the early 2000s, some French Jews do actually look at the Front as a possible home, and getting a decent share of Jewish voters should be a piece of cake. So, why fulminate about dark conspiracies?
Marine Le Pen: ‘I am well placed to know that Jean-Marie Le Pen is not an anti-Semite.’
But that’s where rational thinking exits and collective memory enters. Since she took over, Marine Le Pen has felt obliged to engage in a Party laundering campaign. Known in France as the “de-demonization” of the NF, it sounds a bit like Michael Corleone trying to go legit, and it’s exactly what it is: It consists of cleaning the Front away from all “suspicion of extremism” in order to achieve its mutation from the darkness of fascism to the full legitimacy of democratic institutions. And somewhere in this process either in Marine Le Pen’s mind or in some of her advisers’, the Jews have become the arbiters of that metamorphosis.
The result, in the past months, has been so fascinating to observe because of its paradoxical effects. On May 24, the day of the Brussels Jewish museum killings, Marine Le Pen issued a strong statement. “Has this government taken the measure of the danger that confronts us? We’re told that a thousand French have gone to Syria. How many came back, how many are ready to act? I think today, the government is incapable of protecting the French people against the danger that threatens them. Because the government doesn’t want to take the measure of this green fascism that I have denounced for years.” She also was the only French politician to mention, in such a direct fashion, her solidarity with “our Jewish fellow countrymen.”
Yet in the very same sentence, however, she found, with no obvious connection, a way to bluntly attack the Council of French Jewish Organizations, which was guilty, she said, of attempting to “manipulate” Jewish opinion. What did she mean? “There is toward the Front a suspicion of anti-Semitism,” she told me, “and it is totally at odds with the real danger due to mass immigration and the rise of Islamism. And that poses the problem of the game that the French Jewish organizations are playing these days.”
How so, I asked? Aren’t French Jewish organizations denouncing Islamism? “No!” she yelled back (wrongly). “Absolutely no! That’s absolutely not true! Islam is generally not a problem for them at all! Maybe the eighth problem they mention, not more. The Jewish organizations, they do not want to see the real danger, they only attack us, and that’s out of political calculation. They’re friends with the Socialists, they’re friends with the right, they’re very politicized! They’re … They’re communautaristes,” she added, with no sense of the contradiction and using the most untranslatable common attack in French politics today
“What do you mean?” I asked (I was thinking of Nicole Yardeni, the local representative of the Council in Toulouse, and of the ordeal she went through after the shooting at the Ozar-Hatorah school there). “Well, they defend their own private interest!” answered Le Pen. I asked her why that was wrong.
“I recognize” she said, “only one community: the national one. The Republic is one and can’t be divided: That’s the Constitution! It means the Republic can’t ground its action on local community criteria. Can’t accept it. This is as true of the Council of the Jewish Institutions as it is of the Muslim ones.” So, the Jews shouldn’t have any representation in France? I asked her. “This is not possible. I do not wish it,” she answered firmly, and angrily. “To give a representation would mean that there is conflictual interests inside of the French population and that is not acceptable.”
Now, let’s reflect on that anger for a second. Far from being a modern secessionist institution, the Council of French Jewish Organizations was conceived by Napoleon in an effort to modernize the state, in the aftermath of the emancipation of the Jews during the French Revolution. This emancipation had actually been the first of its kind in Europe, and its effects were to be felt through all the continents. In the 19th century, it helped to de-ghetto-ize the Jews, it reinforced the German Jewish enlightenment known as Haskala, and, as such, it was a direct source of energy for the birth of the secular Jewish world in Europe, which lasted until Hitler. When critic George Steiner speaks of “the electric arc of the mind that links together the opening of the ghetto gates by the French Revolution and the Napoleon Empire to the Nazi catastrophe” that’s exactly what he is referring to. So, is it too far-fetched to think that the anti-Semitic obsession in today’s France has something to do with this particular and the revolutionary charge it bears? And what light does this shed on Marine Le Pen’s anger?
One week after the Brussels Jewish museum killing, on June 7, 2014, Jean-Marie Le Pen posted on the NF website a video in which he made what was understood as an anti-Semitic joke. Commenting on various French artists who had pronounced themselves to be against him—one of whom was Jewish—the Party’s founder said, “We’ll make a batch of them,” which was a lousy pun on the French word for batch, fournée, whose first syllable sounds like four, which means oven. For anyone who paid attention to Le Pen, the “joke” that he would put his opponents in the ovens was a reminder of a previous joke made some years before at the expense of a deputy named Durafour that Le Pen had nicknamed “crematorium.”
Silly jokes like these are simply the usual tricks for Le Pen, who is a godfather to one of Dieudonné’s children, and they usually bring him instant echoes from the complacent media. But this one launched an unexpected reaction. “This is appalling,” said Louis Alliot, Marine Le Pen’s companion and the No. 2 of the party (or one of several No. 2’s, as we’re about to see). As for Marine herself, she stated that although her father was not—and never had been, she said—an anti-Semite, he should’ve known better than to encourage political misinterpretation; he had therefore made a “political mistake” for which he should be sanctioned. As a result, Le Pen, the “president of honor for life” of the Party, lost his right to publicize his videos on the Front’s website. A polemic ensued between father and daughter, with the anti-Semite question at its center.
To me she said: “Well, things cooled down on the matter between Le Pen and me.” (She never refers to her father other than with his family name.) “I said what I had to say and was reasonable and totally coherent with my position. I am well placed to know that Le Pen is not an anti-Semite. If one considers his life seriously … a man who went to fight with the Israelis in ’56! Many times he tried to better the party’s relationship with the Jewish community, even though I do not like the term. Take his trip to the United States to the World Jewish Congress in ’86, for instance. Then just the year after, he made that unfortunate statement about the Shoah being ‘a detail’ of history. And from then on, the positions diverged. But those are misunderstandings. I wrote that much to the Council representatives. But they do not want to talk to us.”
What part here is political calculation based on the wrong assumption—or the fantasy—that the Front needs the Jews to legitimize itself, and what part’s girlishly genuine? I have no more ability to know the answer than I do to ascertain whether or not Le Pen went “to fight with the Israelis.” But the recorded fact is that, at the very time he was launching, at the National Assembly, anti-Semitic insults against the Jewish prime minister of the time, Pierre Mendès-France, Le Pen was also publicly expressing his admiration for the IDF in its war against Egypt. Nine years later, during the Six Days War, the fanatically anti-Semitic former chief of the Jewish Affairs Bureau under the Occupation, Xavier Vallat, the man responsible for the anti-Semitic legislation of the collaborationist Vichy regime, would express the very same feeling of admiration.
So, what does it all mean? And how are French Jews supposed to deal with their perplexity, confronted with the labyrinth of French contradictions? We live in a post-Hitlerian world—or, certainly in a post-Hitlerian Europe, where words like anti-Semitism can’t be heard except against the background of the death camps. But isn’t there a deeper meaning to look for, in a country where, from the French revolution to the Dreyfus affair and World War II, what was once called the “Jewish question” has been so central to its identity?
Some two weeks after my encounter with Marine Le Pen, the news broke that Mehdi Nemmouche, the alleged Brussels Jewish Museum killer, had his appeal rejected and was finally transferred to Belgium to stand trial. The names of his two Belgium lawyers, Henri Laquay and Sébastien Courtoy, were also made public. Among the former’s previous clients were the Belgian Islamic center (tried for comparing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler), a handful of Belgian recruiters for the Syrian Jihad, and the organizer of the anti-Semitic congress planned by the right-wing Belgium deputy Laurent Louis. The name of the latter figures on a supporters list for Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2007 presidential elections. Both men are also lawyers for Dieudonné and have received from him a “golden quenelle.”
France’s Toxic Hate, Tablet’s five-part series on French anti-Semitism, will conclude next.
Marc Weitzmann is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means For Us). He is a regular contributor to Le Monde and Le Point.