Up until a fortnight ago Marine Le Pen, French presidential hopeful and leader of the National Front, was doing a decent job of convincing the French electorate of her commitment to the process known as “dédiabolisation”, meaning “dedemonising”, of her party. The fact that she is now considered to be within spitting distance of the Elysée Palace – an unimaginable state of affairs as little as six months ago – is at least partly testimony to how successful this campaign has been. Le Pen has made great efforts over the last few years to distance herself and her party from the unalloyed and undimmed Jew-hatred of her father Jean-Marie, who founded the party in 1972, going so far as to insist on a much-publicised political and familial estrangement.
Nonetheless, her manifesto commitment to prohibiting Jews from wearing a kippa in public or holding dual French-Israeli nationality should she become president has ignited the suspicion that she has not distanced herself from her Petainist father as much as she claims. Then came the bombshell. With less than a fortnight before the first round of the presidential election, she declared on television that France must not be held responsible for the mass round up of Jews in Paris in July 1942, known as the roundup of the Vel d’Hiv, which has come to symbolise the wartime collaboration of French state institutions with the Nazis. France, she said, has “taught our children that they have all the reasons to criticise [their country], and to only see, perhaps, the darkest aspects of our history. I want them to be proud of being French again.” There is much to unpack in that statement, none of it pleasant.
With the far left and the far right – the former antipathetic to Israel, the latter to Jews – riding high in the polls, it is not surprising that many French Jews are beginning to feel unusually vulnerable. But this is not just about the parties of the extremes. Ten days before the campaign officially began a cartoon was posted on the twitter account of the Les Républicains party. Les Républicains is the centre right party that held power for twelve years until it was trounced in the 2012 elections by François Hollande and the Socialist Party. It was renamed in 2015; the party faithful hoped that a change of name would bring about a change of fortune, but the exact opposite seems to have happened and its candidate for the presidency, former prime minister François Fillon, has been beset by financial scandals that refuse to go away. Polls have him languishing in third or even fourth place.
The cartoon shows the clearly recognisable figure of Emmanuel Macron, the former Socialist Party member and Minister for Economy, now running for president as an independent centrist, dressed like a City slicker, casually displaying his wealth and wielding a miniature sickle to slice the tip off the end of a cigar. Macron’s perfectly unremarkable and straight nose has been replaced with a crooked nose straight out of Der Stürmer. He is surrounded by photographs of some rich and powerful friends from the left and centre of politics offering him their support: co-owner of Le Monde Pierre Bergé, former advisor to President Mitterrand Jacques Attali, former mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoë, socialist mayor of Lyons Gérard Collomb, former secretary of the French Communist Party Robert Hue, and independent centrist François Bayrou.
Macron is not Jewish. Nonetheless, the caricature, captioned, “The Truth about Macron’s Galaxy”, consciously deploys the traditional antisemitic visual and verbal rhetoric of the “cosmopolitan” Jew and his shadowy network of influence. The nightmarish trope of the Judeo-Bolshevik banker, the bastard offspring of Trotsky and Rothschild, still has a surprising amount of traction on the French right and far right, and indeed on the hard left as well. Marine Le Pen, who frequently makes reference to the years between 2008 and 2012 when Macron worked for the Rothschild banking group, recently called him a “zealous servant of the financial superpowers” working “against French interests”. Just a few days earlier Nicolas Dhuicq, a Les Républicains deputy, gave an interview to Sputnik, the Russian government-controlled news agency, in which he sounded hardly less incendiary, calling Macron “an agent of the big American banking system”.
The furore that greeted the cartoon – which was swiftly deleted from the party’s Twitter account and condemned by Fillon himself – disguised a strange and disturbing French political reality, which is that Jews, who number less than one per cent of the population, remain an important trope in the discussion of French identity that is part and parcel of French political debate. The main targets of discussion about identity are Muslims, and it is startling to see the extent to which traditional far right rhetoric on the supposed failure of Muslims to assimilate has trickled into the language of the centre right. (This phenomenon is not dissimilar to the way in which in Britain’s Nigel Farage and UKIP succeeded in making the mainstream Conservative Party swerve to the right with the wholesale adoption of UKIP’s anti-EU and anti-immigration rhetoric).
Back in November, even before he became leader of Les Républicains, Fillon angered Jews with his statement that “Jews in the past had sought to live as a community, in a way that did not respect the rules of secularism that govern the French republic.” Chief Rabbi of France Haïm Korsia’s tight-lipped response – “If such a Jewish communal identity did exist in the past this was not the choice of Jewish citizens, but the consequence of their non-acceptance by French society” – politely avoided the words “antisemitism”, “Vichy”, “collaboration”, and “deportation”, but in a country where every high school student knows this history it wasn’t necessary to spell it out in order to get his message across.
How this plays out in next Sunday’s first round of voting remains wide open. The polls put Macron and Le Pen ahead of the other candidates, but after the earthquake of Trump and Brexit, who trusts pollsters? Fillon could still make a surprise comeback if enough centre right voters who cannot stomach Le Pen are prepared to close their ears to accusations of corruption. For the past couple of weeks, far left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon has been closing the gap, and a second round pitting him against Marine Le Pen is now being envisaged as a real possibility. Either a Melenchon/Le Pen or Fillon/Le Pen run off in the second round would be a disaster, with the high probability of a historically unprecedented rate of abstention on both left and right. In this race, where only Le Pen has an unwavering base of committed voters, every abstention is, in effect, a vote for her. France is peering down a very dark tunnel indeed this week.
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