Why Le Pen's party cannot shake its 'far-right' tag

A weekend march in Paris against anti-Semitism attracted Marine Le Pen's National Rally but many remain wary of the movement's true intentions

Former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy, fifth left, and Francois Hollande, ninth left, join other senior French figures to march behind a banner that reads 'For The Republic, Against anti-Semitism' during a demonstration in Paris on Sunday. AP
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On Monday, French police arrested eight youngsters, aged from 11 to 17, suspected of chanting slogans calling for the death of Jews in an unsavoury episode on the Paris Metro last month.

Filmed on October 31 by another passenger, the group also targeted the police, sexual minorities, and France itself, before mocking one woman brave enough to intervene. “We are Nazis and we are proud,” they chanted during a tirade of hatred that lasted no less than 10 minutes, just weeks after Hamas killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel.

Since the horrific carnage of October 7, France – which has a Jewish population estimated at 500,000, Europe’s biggest – has recorded more than 1,500 acts of anti-Semitism. This alarming statistic added a bleak backdrop to the marches against anti-Semitism on Sunday that brought 182,000 people on to French streets.

It was an expression of mass concern that assumed special significance because of the presence of Marine Le Pen and others from her far-right National Rally (RN) – along with at least two senior members of Eric Zemmour’s even more extreme Renaissance party. It was also marked by the absence of Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the far-left France Unbowed, and the bulk of his supporters.

President Emmanuel Macron stayed away, too, for which he drew some criticism. He probably limited the damage by letting it be known that his “heart and thoughts” were with the marchers, even as he saw his job as decision-making in the general interest rather than joining demonstrations.

Some French political observers believe Ms Le Pen, who leads the RN group in the French parliament, is heading for power. Hers is the country’s most popular party, and with the collapse of support for the conventional left and right, there is no longer the comforting reassurance that the “republican front” that has always kept it out of high office will once again hold firm when Mr Macron completes his second and final term as President in 2027.

From being a despised, mob-like fringe that voters could be counted on to unite and defeat, RN has largely achieved Ms Le Pen’s ambition of seeing it accepted as a party like any other, no longer untouchably anti-republican. Many working-class voters who previously voted for the left have switched to her, seduced by an anti-immigrant mantra and France-first, protectionist economic policies.

RN’s show of solidarity with French Jews underlines a remarkable evolution for a movement founded by Ms Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, who was repeatedly punished in the courts for anti-Semitic and racist statements.

RN began life with the more menacing National Front as its name, gaining favour among disgruntled French military veterans appalled that Algeria had been granted independence. Its appeal extended to those who viewed Jews with disdain. According to Sandrine Rousseau, a member of parliament for the Greens, RN is now “whitewashing itself in the face of the anti-Semitism of its birth”.

Legitimate reservations linger about the true feelings of all those within a party that has in the past found room for Holocaust deniers and admirers of Adolf Hitler

Ms Le Pen’s senior colleagues point out that several years have elapsed since she distanced herself from her father’s ugly rhetoric (he has never repented for describing Nazi gas chambers as a mere detail of war history). It has been a slow process. Early in their estrangement, Mr Le Pen boasted that there were no more than wafer-thin differences in their outlooks. His daughter, though, has called the Holocaust “the abomination of abominations” and pursued a relentless policy of attempting to « detoxify » her party’s image, albeit without success in the eyes of political enemies.

Sometime before Mr Macron’s first, resounding victory to become President in 2017, with 66 per cent of the vote in the run-off against Ms Le Pen, her aides privately admitted that whereas perceptions of Islamophobia presented no difficulty on campaign trails, anti-Semitism was the issue that kept the party marginalised.

Even in its rehabilitated form, RN continues to be treated as an extremist movement that demonises France’s Muslim population, also Europe’s largest and estimated by the German data-gathering company Statista at 5.7 million.

And the stridently pro-Jewish sentiments of today still sit uncomfortably not only with RN’s past but with lingering self-denial.

Jordan Bardella, who succeeded Ms Le Pen as RN president a year ago, called the party’s record on anti-Semitism “perfectly irreproachable”. But in the same BFMTV interview, he said he did not believe Jean-Marie Le Pen was anti-Semitic, despite his brushes with the law for being just that and despite also asserting that anti-Semitism was the cause of the father-daughter split, leading to her expulsion of him from the party.

Thousands march against anti-Semitism in Paris

Thousands march against anti-Semitism in Paris

For all its indignant protestations, RN cannot shake off the far-right label. Legitimate reservations linger about the true feelings of all those within a party that has in the past found room for Holocaust deniers and admirers of Adolf Hitler.

Even so, it is a measure of Ms Le Pen’s effective leadership that an important member of France’s Jewish community warmly welcomed her support at a time of suffering and fear for those of his faith.

“For me, the DNA of the far right is anti-Semitism,” Serge Klarsfeld, 88, who helped bring Nazi war criminals to justice, told the conservative Le Figaro newspaper. “So when I see a big party of the far right abandon anti-Semitism and negationism and move towards our republican values, naturally I rejoice.”

He voiced sadness at the far-left boycott.

In France as in Britain – and beyond in the West – many socialists have concentrated their anger on Israel’s violent response to October 7, and the resulting deaths of thousands of civilians. There is deep disapproval of Israeli policy and a strong conviction that Palestinians are fully entitled to their homeland.

And while most on the left resent the suspicion of anti-Semitism, the charge has been made and – viewed from the right – sticks.

Mr Melenchon has struggled to win broad sympathy for his claims that Sunday’s demonstrations united forces offering “unconditional support” to Israel in its “massacre” of Gazans.

Only about a hundred people attended his party’s own rally in Paris “against anti-Semitism, all forms of racism and the extreme right”. A handful of Jewish counter-demonstrators tried to disrupt the event, citing the party’s refusal to categorise Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

But just as pro-Palestinian protests are joined by a few who might share Hamas’s hatred of the state of Israel, there will have been plenty among those marching on Sunday who regard Israeli actions as wholly justified however many civilians perish.

On the same day that Parisian police hauled in teenagers suspected of inciting hatred against Jews on the Metro, there were commemorations of the anniversary of the ISIS attacks that left 130 dead and hundreds more wounded in Paris on November 13, 2015.

That atrocity and others fuelled anti-Muslim hostility around France; attacks against mosques and other Islamic targets also became more common. Such incidents are as abhorrent as the targeting of Jews.

But it may be a naive and forlorn hope that selective attitudes should make way for an end to all prejudice, and for all deaths in conflict to be mourned, whether caused by militant groups or nation-states.

Published: November 14, 2023, 2:30 PM