France's far-right National Front political party leader Marine Le Pen delivers a speech during a political rally in Six-Fours, near Toulon.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The upcoming French presidential elections once again raise for Israel the issue of how to relate to European populist parties.
This the more so when they become major forces and Israel needs their support, for instance in the European Parliament. As these parties are often nationalists, Israeli attitudes have to be individually determined for each country. The polls of the past few months consistently show that Marine Le Pen, the leader of the rightwing FN party in France, will be one of the two leading candidates in the first round on April 23 that will contest the presidency in the final round on May 7.
The polls predict about 25% of the votes for both Le Pen and the independent candidate Emmanuel Macron in the first round. Polls indicate that on May 7 Macron will be elected by well over 60%, while Le Pen is likely to receive over 35%. If as many people vote in the upcoming elections as in the first round in 2012, Le Pen would receive over nine million votes in the first and in the second round at least 13 million. This is a huge increase compared to 2012 when Le Pen received seven million votes and did not pass the first round.
On two occasions in recent years senior representatives of the FN have visited Israel. Louis Alliot, a senior vice president and partner of Marine Le Pen came in 2011. FN secretary-general Nicolas Bay visited early this year.
Bay met with Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, who afterwards said that he did not know exactly who he had met.
The parameters of the attitudes of the Israeli government concerning meetings with populists – or, as the saying is, “declare them kosher” – seems to be the following: first, avoid parties which were originally fascist.
That is the case for the FN, founded by the Holocaust distorter Jean Marie Le Pen, father of the current party leader. A second criteria is to avoid populist parties that are considered by other parties in their country not to be democratic opposition but rather a potentially dangerous influence which requires a protective barrier.
The third parameter is whether the party in question is acceptable for the local Jewish community. The argument there is that Jews are still Israel’s best allies.
Marine Le Pen herself has never been accused of antisemitism, though some members of her party have been. The ruling French socialist party and other mainstream parties try to create a protective barrier around FN. This is however less and less effective. For years Le Pen has already been a regular guest on the major French broadcast media. It was somewhat bizarre when the small Jewish Radio station, Radio J, invited her in 2011 and then canceled her appearance under pressure from Jewish community members.
CRIF, the umbrella organization of France’s Jewish organizations, has come out explicitly against FN in previous elections. In 2015 its president at the time, Roger Cukierman, said that Le Pen was irreproachable, but that the party should be avoided because the Holocaust deniers, the supporters of Vichy and Petain, all support her. Cukierman’s favorable remarks about Le Pen brought him strong negative reactions mainly from the French Jewish Left.
All this requires more discussion.
Any surviving supporters of Vichy and Petain are now in their late eighties or nineties. The French socialist party can be considered worse than the FN for Israel. The same is true for its presidential candidate, Benoit Hamon. Data on the 2012 election show that 13.5% of the Jewish vote went to Marine le Pen. That is only about 4% less than among the general public. Is it helpful for the CRIF to take a position if probably hardly anybody takes their opinion into consideration? The argument that Jews are Israel’s best allies is far from true for all Jews. A recent poll before the Dutch elections showed that almost a third of Dutch Jews voted for anti-Israel parties. This compares to 43% of the general population.
Even worse was that the Jewish vote for Labor substantially exceeded that among the general population.
Both the economic situation in France and the lack of integration of part of the large Muslim immigrant community are such that the basis for a large presence of FN is there to stay.
It is quite possible that the French economic situation will deteriorate further. If so in future elections the FN may strengthen its position. In official Israeli circles the feeling is that even if the FN becomes stronger it will still want Israeli legitimization. This could be a radically wrong concept.
Once the FN has been legitimized in France, Israel’s attitude toward it may well become an increasingly marginal consideration.
Today Marine Le Pen evidently wants official government Israeli contacts. That may not be advisable yet, but Israel should certainly look for other ways to establish contacts with the FN. All this is only the prelude for 2018 when Heinz-Christian Strache’s even more problematic Freedom Party may become the largest in the Austrian parliamentary elections.
The author is the emeritus chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.