Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party leader and candidate for French 2017 presidential election, attends a campaign rally in Paris, France, April 17, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
LYON – Since taking over the National Front in 2011, Marine Le Pen has pursued a disciplined strategy to clean up her far-right party’s image, fashioning in place of a proto-fascist, Holocaust- denying political group one meant to be far more palatable and electable in the eyes of the French voter.
Throwing her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – who was primarily responsible for the party’s original firebrand reputation – out of its leadership, she for years offered a message of friendship with Israel and of a shared need to combat Islamist extremism that has repeatedly targeted the Jewish community in France.
Le Pen’s ability to move past charges of antisemitism leveled against her family has been a critical test of her national viability as a leader. But several of her comments in recent weeks undercut her strategy to detoxify the National Front, and she has demonstrated no effort to return to self-censorship heading into Sunday’s vote.
Over the course of her recent campaign, Le Pen has said she would work to scrap dual citizenship for French nationals – and force Jews to choose between loyalty to France and Israel, without the ability to maintain citizenship to both. As she rids French Muslims of the right to wear the veil, so, too, has she suggested that French Jews should “sacrifice” the kippa in their embrace of pure laïcité – a foundational principle of secularity in France.
But what spawned the greatest number of headlines was her denial last week that France had a role in the round-up of local Jews during the Nazi German occupation.
“I think France is not responsible for the Vel d’Hiv,” Le Pen said to a local radio program, referencing the round-up and deportation of thousands of Jews in Paris in 1942 – an event that has come to represent the complicity of some French leaders from that time in the Holocaust .
“I think in a general way, more generally actually, those responsible were those in power then. This is not France,” she added.
On local media stations, pundits ask whether Le Pen is operating on the belief her support is assured – or whether a strategy of detoxification was ever truly necessary, and if populist impulses on matters of immigration and globalization are going to draw supporters to her regardless of what she says. Her recent comments put to test whether such a strategy – of cleaning up the party’s image – was what has led to her unlikely rise. She is polling with support at roughly 23%.
Le Pen’s most popular opponent is Emmanuel Macron, an independent center-left candidate who is new to the national stage. Polling lower but still viably in the race are Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a communist, and François Fillon, the republican center-right candidate.
She claims measurable support among Jewish voters, pointing to a poll published in 2014 by a local surveyor that showed just over 13% of the community backing her.
That is more than political operatives in France assumed she would ever achieve. She also may be pulling Jewish support from Fillon, who himself has had trouble courting members of the community after suggesting Jews were in the past reluctant to obey French law and that kosher ritual slaughter is inhumane.
“I’m not aware of her earning much public Jewish support, though I wouldn’t be surprised if a fair number of Jews secretly support her,” said James Kirchick, who researched the dangers facing France’s Jewish community for his recently published book, The End of Europe.
“That said, her Holocaust comments revealed that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” he added.