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France ـ Far right tries to move away from anti Semitism

Nov 20, 2023 | Studies & Reports

European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, Germany & Netherlands – ECCI

France’s far right tries to move away from past anti-Semitism – France’s far-right National Rally has used the war between Israel and Hamas as a way to bolster its support for French Jews – a U-turn for the party founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who famously called the Holocaust a “detail” of history. By shifting away from anti-Semitism and focusing on the threats of radical Islam, daughter Marine Le Pen is transforming far-right tactics in a way that has divided French politics.France’s Jewish community has been facing an unprecedented wave of anti-Semitism since the militant Palestinian group Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October, and Israel retaliated with a massive bombing campaign on Gaza.

As of 14 November, 1,518 anti-Semitic offences had been officially recorded since the Hamas assault, nearly three times as many as in all of 2022, according to the Interior Ministry.Last weekend’s march, organised by the heads of both houses of parliament, unified most political leaders across the spectrum – with some notable exceptions.President Emmanuel Macron did not attend, though he expressed support for it and other members of his party were there.

But the hard left stayed away because of who else was marching: Marine Le Pen and the leaders of the far-right National Rally.Days after the Hamas attacks on Israel, Le Pen received applause for a speech in parliament calling them “pogroms”. She then called for French Jews to be protected, “physically, but also morally”. The mainstream politicians at the front of the march refused to walk beside members of the National Rally, so they went to the back – about 50 elected officials, many wearing their official tricolour sashes.

Into the mainstream?

Their presence, even at the back of the procession, marked the culmination of more than a decade’s effort to deliberate move the party away from the anti-Semitism of its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen.Some in France are readier to accept the change than others.While Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne commented that the presence of the National Rally at the march was “not fooling anyone”, other mainstream politicians were more sanguine about the party’s participation.

Former prime minister Édouard Philippe, now mayor of Le Havre, told FranceInfo radio the day after the march that you “do not chose who joins the fight [against anti-Semitism] with you”.Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who marched at the front with other political leaders, told the JDD newspaper that he did not want to dwell on the anti-Semitism of Jean-Marie Le Pen – with whom, he said, the National Rally had “cut ties”.

Shift from anti-Semitism

Marine Le Pen took over the leadership of the party in 2011 and soon started moving away from its anti-Semitic roots.“She is different from her father. It’s another generation,” says Nonna Mayer, a researcher at Sciences Po university and the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) who studies anti-Semitism and the far right.“She has had real confrontations with her father against his anti-Semitism.”The National Rally was founded as the National Front in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen. One of the founding members was Pierre Bousequet, a former commander in the Nazi Party’s Waffen-SS.

Jean Marie Le Pen, who famously dismissed the Nazi gas chambers as a “detail in the history of World War II”, has been tried and convicted for anti-Semitism and hate speech several times over the years.His daughter ended up expelling him from his party in 2015 because he would not stop. She realised her father was a liability if the party wanted to wield any real power.

Focusing hate elsewhere

The shift has been accompanied by a singular focus on another minority group in France: Muslims.According to Mayer, Le Pen “has a very clever strategy, saying to French Jews: ‘Vote for me because I’m the best shield you can have to protect you from the threat of Islamic terrorism'”.This resonates with a community, and a country at large, that has been hit by several attacks perpetrated by radical Islamists.Yet the rhetoric of the National Rally targets not just Islamic terrorists, but all Muslims.

“It turns very quickly to Islam and Arabs and Maghrebis,” says Mayer.Muslims make up an estimated 11 percent of the French population – many of them immigrants, or the descendants of immigrants, from France’s former colonies in North Africa.But while Marine Le Pen has denounced anti-Semitism and expelled elected officials who have made anti-Semitic statements, there seems to have been little change in her supporters’ attitudes towards Jews.“Every time we do our surveys, we see that people who are voters or sympathisers of the National Rally are the most anti-Semitic of all, even though their first target is Arabs, Muslims, Maghrebis,” says Mayer.

Scapegoats for Israel

Far-right anti-Semitic ideology is still very much alive in France, along with the Nazi chants that accompany it.And it intersects with an anti-Semitism that arises whenever a conflict erupts in the Middle East, with French Jews finding themselves blamed for the actions of the Israeli government.With the Second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising of 2000 to 2005, “the very moving images of civilian victims and the Israeli army in the occupied territories created a big wave of emotion [in France] and a big wave of anti-Semitic aggressions”, says Mayer.

The same conflation of Israel and French Jews is being made today.Jews in France “become the scapegoats of the anger against Israel”, says Mayer. “It’s the idea that the policies of Israel are bad, Israel is a Jewish state, so French Jews are responsible of what’s going on in Israel – in the same way that French Muslims are attacked every time you have a terrorist attack.”

Electoral pay-off?

The shift from vilifying Jews to focusing on Muslims appears to be working for the National Rally, which has seen a jump in the polls for next June’s European parliament elections.In an Ipsos Sopra Steria poll for the Tribune Dimanche last week, the party – with Marine Le Pen and current party president Jordan Bardella at the top of the list – would beat President Macron’s Renaissance party by 7 percent.And in French legislative elections last year, the National Rally achieved its best results to date, going from seven seats in parliament to 89.That gave it the clout to form a parliamentary group, currently the largest opposition group in France’s National Assembly.

European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, Germany & Netherlands – ECCI

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