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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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LePen’s National Front: A Threat to the Jews of France

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Europe and Israel
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

 370     November 1997

[Editor’s Note: Nearly sixty years after the fall of France to Germany in 1940 and the establishment of the Vichy regime, the French are finally beginning to come to grips with the criminal side of that puppet government, not merely its collaborationist orientation. After so long a suppression, a few years ago the truth began to come out in relation to a few of the old men who had served Vichy including the late Francois Mitterand who became a president of the republic. Now the center of attention is Maurice Papon, a career civil servant who had been one of the Vichy officials most responsible for the deportation of French Jews to their deaths in the concentration camps.

Given France’s prominent history as the great revolutionary force of modern Europe, we must remind ourselves that throughout the period from the French Revolution to the beginning of the Fifth Republic there was a substantial bloc in the republic who rejected the results of the revolution and argued for regimes of the right. In the period between World Wars I and II this bloc included many fascists or proto-fascists. In the postwar period, once it again became respectable to do so, the banner of those far-right ideologies was picked up, first by those who opposed France’s granting independence to Algeria and then by those who saw the influx of foreign workers into France, principally but not exclusively from North Africa, as subversive of French culture and society. In the last twenty-five years, Jean Marie LePen has become the leader of that group and he and his National Front have given it voice. This issue of the Jerusalem Letter examines that movement and its leader as a threat to the Jews of France.–D.J.E.]


15 Percent of the Electorate

In early July 1997, Chaim Musicant, Director of the Conseil Representif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF), France’s most important Jewish organization, told this writer with a combination of anger and astonishment: “It is incredible that fifty years after World War II, a racist party has arisen in France that was able to capture 15 percent of the vote in the May 1997 legislative elections.”

This look at the National Front, led by Jean Marie LePen, will analyze the reasons for its popularity, how both Jewish and non-Jewish French organizations are seeking to deal with it, and its future prospects.

Initially founded in 1972 by a group on the extreme right in French politics, including French members of the Nazi Waffen-SS and former members of the terrorist OAS Algerian settler organization, the National Front did not begin to make a real mark on the French political scene until the early 1980s. By 1995, LePen received 15 percent of the vote in the French presidential elections won by Jacques Chirac of the center-right RPR-UDF alignment. In May and June 1997 the National Front got more than 15 percent of the vote in the first round of the French legislative elections, although after the second round it received only one seat in the 577-person parliament due to French voting rules. Nonetheless, the party increased its share of the legislative vote in 1997 by more than 2 percent over its vote in the 1993 legislative elections. In the local arena the National Front now controls the mayor’s offices in four French cities: Toulon, Orange, Marignane and Vitrolles.


Unemployment, Immigration, and National Identity

Three major factors are behind the rise in National Front influence. The first factor is unemployment, a now chronic problem in France where 12.8 percent of the working-age population has no job. Almost a quarter of working-age youth under 25 are looking for jobs. The other two factors relate to immigration and France’s growing identity crisis. The influx of Moslem immigrants from North Africa, their concentration in suburbs around major cities in France, particularly in the South and East, and the perception among some Frenchmen that these immigrants are not only a major source of crime but also that they are not assimilating properly into French culture (Moslem girls are wearing veils to school, etc.) all creates an identity crisis in France, a country with no tradition of pluralism.

This is compounded by growing unease about the subordination of France and “French civilization” to the European Union. For hundreds of years France has been proud of its “mission civilatrice” (“civilizing mission”) where a superior French culture was spread throughout the world by the French government. Now it appears to many Frenchmen that French culture is being subordinated to a vaguely European culture which is dominated by Germany, while at the same time it is being undermined from within by inassimilable Moslem immigrants who, the National Front contends, not only take the jobs of “good Frenchmen” but also are the causes of France’s sharp increase in crime. Thus LePen asserts that the National Front, by opposing immigration, alone is the defender of French civilization from within and without; that a vote for the National Front is a vote for French civilization, and against European domination and foreign (read Moslem) immigration. Cleverly, LePen has adopted Joan of Arc, who fought to free France from the English invaders, as the Front’s national symbol and organizes special Joan of Arc programs and annual marches.

Facilitating LePen’s message (there is a new word in French for it–“LePenisme“) has been the failure of the major parties of the center-right (the RPR-UDF) and the center-left (the Socialist Party) to adequately deal with France’s unemployment and other social prob-lems. During the period that Socialist President Francois Mitterand was in power (1981-1995) these problems festered, and despite promises by Chirac during the 1995 presidential election campaign to solve these problems, and the domination of the French Parliament by the RPR-UDF from 1993 to 1997, the problems only got worse. With the blurring of the traditionally strong distinction in France between the right-wing and left-wing parties, and the implication of members of both right and left in political scandals, as well as the weakening of the French Communist party following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the resulting sharp drop in the Communist vote which historically had served as France’s protest vote, LePen’s National Front inherited the old role of the Communists as the protest vote against politicians who are seen as either too corrupt or not understanding, incapable of dealing with, or too aloof from the problems of the common people.

While unemployment, immigration problems, and the crisis of French identity were the main causes of the growth of influence of the National Front, there is also the factor of anti-Semitism. In France, from Napoleonic times to the present, the question has been whether or not Jews can be part of the French nation. Given the religious divisions in France today (approximately 76 percent Catholic, 5 percent Protestant, 4 percent Moslem, 1.2 percent Jewish, and 10 percent “other”), Jews are a clear minority. However, for Frenchmen on the extreme right from the anti-Dreyfus forces at the end of the nineteenth century to Marshall Petain (who oversaw both the enactment of anti-Jewish legislation and the deportation of French Jews to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps during World War II), to LePen today, Jews are not part of the French nation. LePen’s anti-Semitism has been made clear not only by his visit to Saddam Hussein, his embrace of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and his comments about how B’nai B’rith has manipulated Chirac, but also by the treatment of the eminent French Jewish writer, Marek Halter. Halter was due to receive a literary prize in the National Front-controlled city of Toulon until the National Front mayor of the city, Jean Marie LeChevallier, overruled the selection committee and determined that the prize should be given to a “true” exponent of French culture–Brigitte Bardot, a supporter of the National Front.


CRIF Combats the National Front

Although anti-Semitism is not the central focus of LePenisme, it is an important component of the National Front ideology, as even a casual reading of the major National Front newspapers (National Hedbo, Rivarol, and Presente) reveals. There are also the often not so veiled anti-Semitic comments of LePen himself such as his recent affirmation of the “inequality of races” and his statement that the gas chambers were only a minor footnote in the history of World War II.

To combat LePen, CRIF has embarked on a three-fold strategy. First, whenever LePen or one of his colleagues in the National Front makes anti-Semitic or other racist remarks, CRIF is quick to publicize them in an effort to raise the sensitivity level of Frenchmen to the problem. Second, CRIF is pushing for legislation to penalize those who make racist remarks. With the Socialists, who have been traditionally more sympathetic to immigrants and less tolerant of racism, now in control of the French Parliament, CRIF is guardedly optimistic about its chances, although public opinion polls have revealed a French public that is not only tolerant of racist remarks but also increasingly opposed to immigration.

The third major activity undertaken by CRIF to combat LePen and the National Front has been to build as broad as possible a public alliance against it (in other words, a genuine “National Front” against LePen’s National Front). According to Chaim Musicant, the Jewish community does not want to portray its battle as a struggle between LePen and CRIF, but between anti-democratic and democratic forces in France. Thus CRIF seeks alliances with Catholic, Protestant, and Moslem religious leaders, and is organizing anti-racist programs with teachers and students throughout France.

Yet the ability of CRIF to deal with LePen is limited. First, given the small percentage of Jews in France’s total population, and despite the strong representation of Jews in journalism and other areas of French public life, Jewish influence in France is limited (whatever LePen might say), and on a comparative basis French Jewry has far less influence than does American Jewry. Second, and a significant problem for CRIF and other Jewish leaders, is the fact that not all Jews in France see LePen and the National Front as a serious danger. Indeed some, seeing themselves on the same side of the barricades as LePen against the Moslem immigrant threat, have reportedly said, “if I were not Jewish, I would be a member of the National Front.”

The Role of France’s Political Leadership

In any case, the actions taken by the organized Jewish community against LePen, while serving as a catalyst for rallying anti-LePen forces, cannot be the decisive factor in the struggle against the National Front. It is the leaders of the major political parties who must play the key role in weakening the appeal of the National Front, such as Lionel Jospin, France’s new Socialist prime minister who came to power as a result of the May-June 1997 elections. Yet Jospin also faces a major constraint.

According to the European Union (EU) agreement for a unified currency by the year 1999, France must reduce its budget deficit to 3 percent of its Gross National Product. Yet Jospin’s predecessor as prime minister, RPR leader Allain Juppe, appeared to be so constrained by the budget deadline of 1999 that he took no serious action to cope with France’s unemployment problem. For his part, Jacques Chirac made a major political error by calling for early elections in May 1997 in the mistaken hope that he would get more support for his financial policy in 1997 than he would get from unhappy Frenchmen in the election originally scheduled for 1998. In this he miscalculated because these elections repudiated Chirac’s policy, with LePen’s National Front getting 15 percent of the vote and Jospin’s Socialists scoring a major victory.

During the election campaign and after he took office, Jospin said that employment was as high a priority as meeting the 1999 deadline, and that the Socialists would take action to help the employment situation by reducing the work week from 39 to 35 hours at the same pay, creating 350,000 jobs in the public sector, encouraging the private sector to hire another 350,000, and raising the minimum wage by 4 percent. The problem for Jospin is to pay for these policies, given the 3 percent deficit limit, while at the same time maintaining France’s extensive social welfare system (5 weeks annual paid vacation, school allowances, socialized medicine, and generous retirement benefits).

The choice is stark. Either France, using Keynsian economic strategy, spends state money to create jobs and thereby increases the government budget deficit, at least in the short run, or it sticks to the 1999 financial limit posed by European monetary requirements. This might make Germany happy (although German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, facing his own country’s unemployment problems, has been trying rather unorthodox measures to meet the 3 percent limit, including reevaluating Germany’s gold holdings and selling oil from Germany’s strategic reserve), but would aggravate France’s unemployment and social problems. The end result of the process may well be either a delay in the 1999 deadline or the ratcheting-up of the deficit limit to between 3-1/2 and 4 percent of GNP, as European politicians led by Jospin, in reacting to the increasingly restive moods of their populations who see little benefit and much harm from European monetary union, decide that dealing with unemployment at home is more impor-tant than meeting artificial European deadlines. In any case, at least in the short run, Jospin’s activist employment program may slow the growth in support for the National Front. Whether his solutions will work in the long run remains to be seen.

Regarding the other two issues exploited by LePen, immigration and the threat to French national culture, Jospin has not yet taken any major steps, although he has begun to reinterpret in a more liberal way the harsh immigration law passed by the government of Allain Juppe under the leadership of then-Interior Minister Jean Louis Debre in late 1996 in an obvious effort to steal LePen’s program. Jospin’s decision to slow down the process of meeting the European currency requirements may also demonstrate to the French population that he is acting to defend French interests against the Europeans, and together with his prickly criticism of the U.S., this should strengthen his position as the protector of France. In any case, Jospin’s initial steps during his first months as prime minister proved very popular and his soaring public approval rating should bolster, at least in the short run, his ability to deal with France’s problems and thus limit LePen’s influence.

If Jospin has the primary responsibility for meeting the challenge of LePen, the newly elected leader of the RPR, Philippe Seguin, also bears a major responsibility. Seguin was elected after the legislative election disaster which befell the RPR-UDF coalition which dropped in parliamentary representation from 464 (258 RPR and 206 UDF) to 248 (139 RPR and 109 UDF), while the Socialists increased their representation from 56 to 246 and the Communists slightly increased their seats from 24 to 37. Seguin shares with Jospin a desire to slow the process of Europeanization–something that will sooner or later bring him into conflict with his fellow RPR party member President Chirac. Unlike Jospin, however, Seguin faces pressure from within his party to make election deals with the National Front to regain control of the French legislature from the Socialist-Communist alignment. Seguin clearly realizes the need to regain RPR defectors who voted for the National Front and, immediately upon being elected RPR leader, asserted that neither ignoring the problem of the National Front nor merely denouncing it was the best way to achieve this goal. He declared that it was necessary to convince the ex-RPR voters who defected to the National Front to return to the RPR. He ruled out any election cooperation with the National Front, which he denounced both for “disparaging Gaullist values” and “as a classic formation of the extreme right” with which the RPR would not cooperate “lest France be humiliated.” While Seguin, for the time being at least, has taken the high road of refusing cooperation with the National Front, other members of his party, including Alain Peyrefitte, Robert Pandreau (the former RPR Minister of Security who in early July 1997 had dinner with LePen), and Jean Louis Debre (author of the restrictive 1996 immigration law), have advocated just such cooperation to enhance the political (if not moral) standing of the party.

Interestingly enough, just as Seguin currently opposes such cooperation, so does LePen, who has bitter memories of being rejected by the Gaullists. However, his presumptive successor, Bruno Megret, is in favor of such coalition agreements and this is an issue that divides the National Front.


The Future of the National Front

Despite being the ideological successor of the anti-Dreyfus forces and Marshall Petain, LePen and the National Front are far weaker in terms of popular support. Two major groups in French society that traditionally have been anti-Jewish, the Catholic Church and French right-wing intellectuals, are conspicuous in their absence from the National Front. In fact, the leadership of the Catholic Church has recently leaned over backwards to adopt a more philo-Semitic, as well as philo-Protestant, attitude. On St. Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, the date of a major massacre of Protestants by Catholics in the year 1572, the French Catholic Church made a major public apology to the Protestants, and in October 1997 apologized to the Jews for past acts of persecution. In addition, Catholic leaders have joined with their Jewish, Protestant, and Moslem counterparts to denounce racism.

Very few intellectuals have joined the National Front. Some commentators feel this is because LePen’s program is unlikely to provide intellectuals with the kind of employment they want–which does not include the street sweeping jobs currently held by immigrants. Others feel that the intellectuals have perhaps learned a lesson from the Holocaust and from the experience of Vichy collaboration with the Nazis, topics that have increasingly become matters of public discussion in France in recent years. In any case, the current lack of support from French intellectuals can be seen as a major weakness of the National Front.

Another weakness is the possibility of a breakup following the death of LePen, who is currently 68 years old. None of his potential successors, neither Bruno Megret nor Bruno Gollnisch, appear to have the charisma or personal magnetism needed to hold the disparate elements of the movement together. Thus, one possibility for the future is the dissolution of the National Front and the adherence of at least part of it to the RPR-UDF alignment, or even the splitting of that alignment into a more center-rightist grouping around Seguin and Chirac, and a more right-wing party composed of right-wing Gaullists such as Robert Pandreau, Alain Peyrefitte, and Jean Louis Debre, and such National Front leaders as Bruno Megret. Finally, as his profile and that of the National Front have risen, LePen and his colleagues have gotten themselves increasingly in trouble with the law. LePen has been indicted for assaulting a member of Parliament, while Bruno Megret’s wife Catherine, the mayor of Vitrolles, has been charged with making racist comments. While their actions may be aimed at increasing support among the disparate rank and file of the National Front, they may also have the effect of bringing down the wrath of the French government and serving to discredit the National Front among broad sectors of French society.

On the other hand, the National Front also has a number of strengths. Not only does it deal directly with issues that concern many Frenchmen, it has also begun to build a significant infrastructure on a local and even regional basis. In addition to the four cities now under the control of the National Front, it is also seeking to expand its influence in social organizations such as clubs and Chambers of Commerce, and plans to compete in the regional elections in March 1998, especially in the region of Provence-Alpes-Cote D’Azur. Furthermore, as the National Front consolidates its position in localities such as Toulon, it has begun to conduct both anti-Semitic and anti-democratic activities, including the banning of marches by anti-National Front organizations in the name of “preserving public order.”

In sum, if Prime Minister Lionel Jospin takes serious action to deal with France’s unemployment, immigration, and national identity problems, then the influence of the National Front may be curbed. On the other hand, however, if France’s problems are allowed to continue to fester, and the French public increasingly loses faith in the ability of the major parties of the right and left to deal with their problems, LePen’s National Front may well continue to gain in influence. Such a consequence would be dangerous not only for French Jewry, but also for French democracy.