Marine Le Pen tries to move her father's far-right party to the mainstream

EUROPEAN AFFAIRS: Marine Le Pen is a candidate for France's presidency in the elections next month.

 MARINE LE PEN visits the 58th International Agriculture Fair in Paris earlier this month.  (photo credit: JOHANNA GERON/REUTERS)
MARINE LE PEN visits the 58th International Agriculture Fair in Paris earlier this month.
(photo credit: JOHANNA GERON/REUTERS)

French citizens will be going to the polling booth next month, to choose their next president. Incumbent Emmanuel Macron leads in the polls, but who will be facing him for the second, April 24 runoff? Recent surveys estimate it will be veteran far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

The name Le Pen needs little introduction in Israel. Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, longtime president of the far-right National Front Party, was convicted of racism and inciting racial and antisemitic hatred, including for his infamous statement on the gas chambers being “just a detail in the history of World War II.”

Replacing him as party head in 2011, his daughter Marine, 53 years old, has been trying to shake off its antisemitic image, first by changing the party’s name to National Rally, and then by cultivating a different image of herself.

The renamed party calls for pulling out of the European Union, for completely stopping mass immigration from African and Muslim countries and for eradicating any form of extreme Islam in France.

In 2017, she managed to get to the second runoff, but lost to Macron. The upcoming elections will be her third attempt for the presidential seat.

Marine Le Pen, member of parliament and leader of French far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National) party, delivers a speech during a debate on migration at the National Assembly in Paris, France, October 7, 2019. (credit: BENOIT TESSIER/REUTERS)Marine Le Pen, member of parliament and leader of French far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National) party, delivers a speech during a debate on migration at the National Assembly in Paris, France, October 7, 2019. (credit: BENOIT TESSIER/REUTERS)

Last Sunday, Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal announced publicly her support for rival far-right candidate Éric Zemmour, a move described by Le Pen as “incomprehensible.” Maréchal had been instrumental in Le Pen’s 2017 campaign. After the defeat, many in the party thought the young niece should replace the aunt. Her decision to actively join the Zemmour campaign is perceived by Le Pen as treason.

To the French Jewish community, Marine Len Pen and the National Rally are dangerous, maybe even more than her father and his National Front, now that she has managed to make her way into mainstream politics. They warn against her attempts at “de-diabolizing” a party that holds radical positions on immigration and minorities and cultivates, they believe, Islamophobia and xenophobia.

In 2017, ahead of the last presidential elections, president of the CRIF (an umbrella organization of the French Jewish community) Francis Kalifat warned against “a candidate of hate.”

Last month, Kalifat reiterated his call not to vote for any of the politically extreme candidates, Marine Le Pen included.

Extremists are dangerous for France and dangerous for the Jews; history has taught us as much, he argued, referring to Marine Le Pen and Zemmour on the far Right, Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far Left. “Her attempts at ‘de-diabolization’ do not deceive anyone: the National Rally still accommodates antisemitic prejudices in its ranks,” said Kalifat.

RECENT SURVEYS show Le Pen getting 18% of the vote in the first election runoff. With millions of French citizens expected to support her at the polling stations, and to better understand the fears expressed by the French Jewish leadership, The Jerusalem Post interviewed Le Pen recently in Paris.

The interview took place at the National Rally campaign headquarters, at the fringes of the city’s 16th arrondissement, in a rather anonymous gray building. Le Pen escorted us herself to her office. Her bodyguard, also a prominent party activist, said he parachuted in Israel many years ago; other associates have also visited the country. Not her.

The crisis with Ukraine has put Le Pen in an uncomfortable position, with the media reminding her constantly of her 2017 meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom she had even said she admired.

When the invasion of Ukraine took place, she was quick to condemn it, distancing herself from Moscow, but refrained from condemning Putin personally.

Asked about that meeting, she said, “I have no regrets. I have an absolutely cold and pragmatic vision of international politics. My only compass is the interest of France and the French. Now, well, I find this witch hunt to be nonsense. In reality, we must analyze coldly why the Putin of today is not the Putin of five years ago.”

Le Pen objects categorically to sending French soldiers to Ukraine, warning against cutting ties definitively with Russia. “It would be harmful not to try to regain normal relations with Russia, because it is a European country, because it has a common culture with France, because there are long-standing relations and because it is a superpower; a superpower which, if we do not succeed in linking it to cooperation in subjects that are important for us Europeans, will obviously be pushed more and more towards China.”

President Joe Biden and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian both called Putin a dictator. Le Pen is against such thinking. She is also against the economic sanctions imposed by US and European leaders, which could generate, she believes, catastrophic consequences for French farmers and for the cost of living in France.

“I think Vladimir Putin is anything but crazy. I think he knows [where he’s going]. Will he get his way? That’s another thing. Is he wrong? I’m convinced he is.”

Her own foreign doctrine is miles apart from Macron’s, preaching for France distancing itself equally from both Russia and the United States.

Le Pen hails Israel’s cautious approach to the Ukraine crisis. “Israel defends its own interests. It is normal that nations defend their own interests. And again, Russia can behave very badly in Ukraine but can [at the same time] be an ally in Syria and [at the same time] be a rival elsewhere....

“Russia is currently a rival for us in Africa. They are maneuvering to exclude us from a number of countries in West Africa....

“So, you see, the world is not binary, and the way our democracies react is immature. When we are going to expel Russian orchestra conductors, to exclude Russian athletes out of the Paralympic Games – honestly, that’s not reasonable,” complained Le Pen. Herself a known cat-lover, she added, “They are even excluding Russian cats.”

On the issue of antisemitism, in 2017 Le Pen said in a television interview, “I think France isn’t responsible for the Vel d’Hiv [Roundup and deportation of French Jews]. I think that, in general, if there are people responsible, it is those who were in power at the time. It is not France.”

For Israel and for the Jewish world, these words contradicted the historic 1995 statement by president Jacques Chirac, taking responsibility, in the name of the French state, for what happened to Jews in the country during the war. They say she is shifting the blame away from the French state, rewriting history.

Israel’s Ambassador to France Aliza Bin-Noun clarified after the interview that officially Israel has not and will not have any contact with Le Pen or with her party.

Le Pen refuses to understand where she went wrong. “This case is incredible. Look, we have a candidate [referring to Zemmour] who explains to us that [Vichy France leader Philippe] Pétain is a wonderful guy, that he saved Jews.... I had just said one thing – I had said France was not Vichy. France [the official government] was in London. We can disagree, but in the end, [late president François] Mitterrand espoused the same position.... I have the impression that nobody listened to what I said. It’s just because I said it that, automatically, it generated a form of protest that is quite incomprehensible....

“Do you realize that I go to Poland, I visit sites where the Jews were massacred, tortured; I go to Hungary, I go to pay my respects. I have no problem with that. On the contrary, I’ll be interested in going to Israel, of course. But taking into account all the efforts I have made, I will visit at the invitation of the Israeli government only,” she emphasized.

“I don’t consider it fair to treat me like that. I think that I’m the best shield of French people of the Jewish faith. I think that I am the one who fights the most, the best, and the most fervently against Islamist fundamentalism, which endangers French people of the Jewish faith. I don’t understand why I am treated as a pariah.”

The French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, in its 2020 report, indicated a high rate of support of antisemitism amid the far-right electorate.

Le Pen rejects that. “I don’t have that problem. I don’t have any antisemites in my troops, I don’t have any in my movement. I think that’s a lie. I think it’s a lie to minimize Islamist antisemitism.”

She admits that the phenomenon of “traditional” right-wing antisemitism still exists, but believes it to be marginal. “There are [Holocaust] deniers, revisionists; obviously, there are still some. Do they have ideological power in France today? I don’t think so....

“On the other hand, what is certain is that French people of Jewish origin are most certainly among the first victims of Islamism. We can see it. They are forced to flee entire neighborhoods, they are forced to hide, they are forced to remove the kippah when they go out in the street, they have left entire regions, to flee this aggression, which is the rise in power that is this Islamism in our country.”

Over the years, Le Pen went back and forth over the kippah issue. Her controversial 2012 electoral program called to prevent wearing any ostentatious religious signs in public spaces, including public transportation. Lately, she’s been saying she is no longer against the Jewish skullcap, only against the Muslim veil.

She argues that banning the veil is part of her battle against extreme Islam. “We consider that the Islamist ideology is a totalitarian ideology, like Nazism, and therefore, it must be eradicated. We have drafted a bill to that effect. Everywhere where it is expressed, Islamist ideology will be prohibited. The words, the writings, the clothes, the financing, the proselytism, the contesting of the crimes committed in its name, etc. Everything!”

Retracting her stance against the kippah, Le Pen does not retract her objection to kosher slaughter. She knows that this is an extremely sensitive issue for French Jews, but is very much against it. “We’ll have to talk about it and find a solution, because it [slaughtering without stunning] is a problem. Not for a religious reason, but for the sake of animal welfare.... The whole market has ended up adapting to this slaughter-without-stunning for purely commercial reasons, and we can’t accept that. I am in favor of slaughter with stunning.... Public opinion today is extremely sensitive to this subject of animal suffering, and it is objectively considered as one of the great animal sufferings taking place on the national territory.”

I asked her about her visit to Lebanon five years ago, where she met with President Michel Aoun. If elected, will she dialogue with Hezbollah?

“I have to remind you that I’ve experienced terrorism myself. I’m probably one of the only French political leaders to have experienced it. I was in a building where 20 kilos of dynamite were placed. I know what it’s like to wake up with shards of glass and in the cold. So I consider terrorism to be the redline. That is, structures that attack civilians, in the most cowardly way of all, must be a redline, and this will be an element of my diplomacy.”

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Le Pen has no new vision. “I believe in the two-country solution, but I don’t have the solution,” she admitted.

No French leader had recognized so far Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel. Would she take that leap? “No. I will not take it. I think that Jerusalem should be a city under international rule, because I believe it belongs to humanity.”

Trying to reassure Israel on the Iranian nuke issue, Le Pen was quick to say that France would defend the Jewish state if it is ever attacked. Still, she kept it vague and refused to commit to any military move. She also made a point of saying she believes Iran has the right to civil nuclear power.

“Of course [we will defend Israel], of course.... From the moment when there is an aggression that is carried out, there is no more equidistance. There are aggressors, there are aggressors. And we will be obviously in support of our Israeli friends, if tomorrow they were attacked. There is no discussion about it.” •