When Benoît Loeuillet, head of France’s right-wing Front National (FN) in Nice, was caught on camera denying the Holocaust in a documentary aired in mid-March, he was quickly suspended from the party.
It was bad timing for the FN’s leader, Marine Le Pen, who is still considered the frontrunner in the first round of voting in the French presidential election on April 23. Her position, unthinkable a decade ago after the party’s near electoral wipe-out in elections in 2007 and 2008, is the fruit of a seemingly successful process of “dédiabolisation”, or detoxification, of the party’s brand. One of the pillars of this process has been her attempt to break with her father’s record of anti-Semitism and court voters from France’s Jewish electorate.
Dédiabolisation was the invention of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the FN party in 1972. His goal was to revive a moribund and fractured far right, convinced that many people in France secretly supported its ideas, but were put off by its image. Le Pen wanted to attract different voters: supporters of France’s collaborationist and anti-Semitic Vichy regime, monarchists, conservative Catholics and those who were nostalgic for French Algeria.
Out to detoxify
At the end of the 1970s, Le Pen found the “winning formula” that gave his party the respectability he desired. He shifted focus from his previous obsession with the “Jewish-Communist threat” to channel mainly anti-Arab racism through the use of generic words such as “immigration” and “insecurity”. The FN was then able to appeal to racism while claiming to speak “common sense”.
Nonetheless, throughout the bumpy rise of the FN in the last few decades, Le Pen’s anti-Semitism often defined the way the public perceived the party – and he never failed to produce anti-Semitic “gaffes”. He asserted that gas chambers had only been a marginal “detail” in the history of World War II, for example.
Le Pen’s youngest daughter, Marine, took the idea of dédiabolisation more seriously. She kept her father’s strategy of channelling nationalistic, anti-Muslim sentiment, albeit with a polished, media savvy focus on eradicating any overt racism. She also sought to break with the party’s anti-Semitic record.
Even as Jean-Marie Le Pen was still in power, Marine Le Pen sought to clean up the party’s appearance and control her father’s toxic comments. She would meticulously scrutinise her father’s appearances on weekly videos the party posted directly to its website and remove any “provocations” about the Holocaust.
Taking over the party from him in 2011, she lost no time to distance herself from her father and described gas chambers as the “pinnacle of barbarity”. In 2015, as Le Pen senior, in an interview with the far right journal Rivarol, repeated his old line about concentration camps, his daughter dramatically excluded him from the party he had founded.
An appeal to French Jews
Yet Le Pen has also actively courted Jewish voters, some of whom feel abandoned by the French political left in the face of rising anti-Semitism. The Jewish community used to be aligned with established left-wing parties and institutions, but in recent decades has turned to the right. In 2007, Jews voted heavily for the right-of-centre Nicolas Sarkozy.
Aware of this shift, the FN has cultivated its Union of French Jewish Patriots, founded by Michel Thooris, a half-Jewish nationalist and “ultra-Zionist” supporter of Le Pen.
While the organisation remains small and has attracted no support of any notable members of France’s Jewish community, Le Pen has often showcased Thooris in an effort to demonstrate that she could not be considered personally anti-Semitic. In 2011, Thooris accompanied Le Pen’s partner Louis Aliot on a trip to Israel.
Le Pen has sought to actively exploit Jewish fears of the rise in Muslim anti-Semitism. In 2014, she summarised this approach in an interview with the weekly newspaper Valeurs Actuelles. She said:
I do not stop repeating to French Jews … that the Front National is not your enemy, but that it is without a doubt the best shield to protect you against the one true enemy, Islamic fundamentalism.
Ever since, the FN has brandished itself as the defender of Jewish “self-defence” against a “Muslim threat”. The party has become a staunch supporter of the hard-line taken by the Isareli government of Benjamin Netanyahu to portray itself as “pro-Israel” and simultaneously “anti-Islamist”.
Le Pen is also the only French politician who openly supports the League of Jewish Defence (LDJ), a violent, right-wing French movement that the Israeli and US governments still consider a terrorist organisation, involved in inciting clashes with Muslim youths and pro-Palestinian activists. In so doing, the party has not only encouraged previously marginalised hard-line elements in France’s Jewish community. It has also exacerbated existing tensions in order to articulate an image of French Jews as an embattled community forgotten by the French “establishment”.
Anti-Semitism runs deep
Despite Le Pen’s attempts to “detoxify” the FN’s brand through tight control over what goes into the press, the party’s old penchant for anti-Semitism has continued to resurface. In particular, regional officials beyond the control of the party’s central press office often “blabber” on social media. Examples include Marie d’Herbais, FN candidate in Savigné-l’Evêque, who wrote on her Facebook page that “Islam is the instrument of international Jewry”.
There is a vast cleavage between Le Pen and her party base, many of whom still perceive anti-Semitism to be part-and-parcel of the nativist idea of the French far right. For the identitaire current – those elements within the far right who see France as a white nation – that Le Pen seeks to attract, French Jews have never been and never will be truly French.
Ultimately, Le Pen’s concentrated appeal to French Jews is not about their electoral power. Even though France boasts Europe’s largest Jewish community, French Jews make up less than 1% of the general electorate and Le Pen’s growing success with small parts of it is a drop in the ocean.
For Le Pen, however, winning over more Jewish voters would deliver the final proof that her detoxification project had been a success. It would be a way to articulate her vision of “Judeo-Christian” France locked in a clash of civilisations against the Muslim world. For many Jews this is frightening, not least as it uses them as pawns to rewrite French history. But it remains to be seen whether longstanding Jewish animosity to the Le Pen brand holds in a time of growing fear and insecurity within France.