France went to the polls on Sunday in regional elections and the far-right National Front party, formerly known for its anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant stances but now known for its support of Israel and opposition to radical Islam, came out as a winner across the country.
The regional election outcomes are taken seriously since they are thought to be a bellweather for what will come when France votes in the 2017 national elections.
Though some have pinned the party's success on its occurrence so soon after the November 13 terror attacks in Paris, one Israeli expert told The Jerusalem Post
on Monday that France has been moving to the right for years and is part of an overall trend in Europe of far-right parties becoming the mainstream.
Dr. Esther Lopatin, director of the European Studies program at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, said that Europeans are frustrated by leaders who have ignored their concerns about rapid immigration and radical Islam on the continent.
So while National Front leader Marine Le Pen has gone to great lengths to show that her party is no longer anti-Semitic (even to the point of saying she is a Zionist and kicking out the party's founder, her own father, Jean-Marie Le Pen
), Lopatin was careful to note that the party's fairly-recent rejection of anti-Semitism has not come from a sudden love of Jews, but rather from a realization that they share with the Jewish community a common enemy in radical Islam.
Lopatin said that other far-right parties in other parts of Europe that used to view the Jews as an enemy are now some of the most supportive of Israel as well.
"It's like they all of a sudden had the realization that the Jews are not really our enemies," Lopatin said of similar trends in other parts of the continent. "[Jews] contribute to society, they don't want to destroy our society or impose Shari'a law on our society. More and more people believe that."
"Europe is going through a makeover," she said, noting that overall voters are moving to the right politically because "the public is not happy." The voters for far-right parties, Lopatin said, used to be only racists but now include the average French voter "the type that would have voted for [former French president Nicolas] Sarkozy"
"They have the feeling that they have been deserted by the leadership who didn't take their concerns [about immigration and radical Islam] seriously," she said.
Regarding the sudden support for Israel, Lapotin said that "[Le Pen] understands that people would have voted for her if not for her father."
"Every time she has to vote regarding Israel, she usually votes in support ... and we saw that with the labels." Le Pen was among the minority that voted against the European Union's Israeli settlement labeling policy.
Another factor contributing to the rise of the far-right is that the parties are becoming more sophisticated, Lopatin said. Wheras the senior Le Pen was an outright racist with unrealistic platforms, Lopatin described Marie Le Pen as being more diplomatic, realistic and reserved.
Given all this, why is the European Union still so harsh on Israel if it is moving to the right?
According to Lopatin, "it takes time to abandon a central mantra that the Europeans have believed for many many years ... that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a problem and if this is solved, then we will live in a better world."