France’s National Front is neither anti-Semitic nor racist, but merely wants to ensure the country’s security and preserve its identity, just like Israel or the Trump administration in America, the secretary general of the far-right party claimed in an interview with Haaretz on Thursday.
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Nicolas Bay, speaking on the last day of his three-day visit to Israel, said the party was extending its hand to Israel and voiced hope that the Israeli government would end its policy of boycotting the National Front. With three months to go until France’s presidential election, Marine Le Pen, the party’s leader, is currently one of the front-runners in the race.
Many people in France, Israel and other Western countries consider the National Front to be nationalist, racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic. In addition, both the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the French Jewish community say that many of the party’s activists, including some in senior positions, hold anti-Semitic views.
Consequently, the government’s declared policy is to boycott the party, and all cabinet ministers and official Israeli representatives overseas are instructed not to have any contact with National Front officials. The French Jewish community has adopted a similar policy.
Bay, 39, is also a member of the European Parliament on the National Front’s behalf and is considered very close to Le Pen. His visit to Israel and his meetings here were arranged by Prof. Aaron Meirov, an Israeli physician who has lived in Italy since 1991 and maintains close ties with the Israeli health system.
Meirov has been working for years to nurture ties between Israel and the European far right. In the past, he was involved in forging ties between Israel and Italy’s National Alliance, which is considered the heir of the country’s neo-fascist party. Meirov even accompanied the party’s leader, Gianfranco Fini, on his visit to Israel in 2003.
Meirov tried to arrange meetings for Bay with several Knesset members and ministers. Most refused, including Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely and MK Yehuda Glick (Likud). Both Hotovely and Glick demanded to know exactly who Meirov was bringing with him, and when they found out that Bay was coming and who he was, they said they wouldn’t meet with a member of Le Pen’s party.
But by use of subterfuge, Meirov did manage to arrange meetings for Bay with quite a few political activists and senior government officials, a senior army officer and even Health Minister Yaakov Litzman. Almost all these people subsequently told Haaretz that either they hadn’t been aware Bay would also be attending the meeting, or they weren’t aware of his job.
For instance, David Shain, who heads the Likud party’s youth wing, did meet with Bay, but claimed he learned of Bay’s political affiliation only after the meeting began. The deputy director general of the Health Ministry, Arnon Afek, similarly said he had no idea who Bay was or what his political job was until after the meeting began; Afek said he thought the meeting’s purpose was to discuss medical cooperation via the Israel-Lombardy friendship association.
Meirov also arranged a meeting for Bay with the commander of the medical corps in the army’s Home Front Command, Col. Eyal Furman. The Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit said that in requesting the meeting, Meirov had presented himself as a professor at the University of Milan seeking to discuss a lecture he was slated to deliver at a medical conference in that city in March. “The officer didn’t know that the a member of the party in question was going to take part in the meeting, and when he understood who the man was, he politely left the meeting,” the unit said.
Shain, Afek and Furman all later found pictures of themselves smiling alongside Bay on the latter’s Twitter account.
But the most significant meeting was the one with Litzman. Litzman’s spokesman, Yaakov Izak, said that Meirov contacted the minister’s office on Wednesday and requested an urgent meeting on the subject of medical cooperation during emergencies. Litzman was acquainted with Meirov from various Health Ministry projects, so he agreed.
On Thursday, when the meeting occurred, he was surprised to discover that Meirov had arrived together with several French nationals. When they introduced themselves, including their jobs and their political affiliation, Litzman apologized, left the room and asked his aides why he hadn’t been told that foreign politicians would be coming to the meeting and discussing political issues. His aides responded that they were as surprised as he was.
At that point, Litzman returned to the conference room and told Meirov, Bay and the other French visitors that they had to obtain permission from the Foreign Ministry. He then ended the meeting, roughly five minutes after it began.
One person who agreed to meet with Bay even after discovering his political affiliation was Gavri Bargil, the former secretary general of the Kibbutz Movement. But he, too, initially agreed because the request came from Meirov, who had hosted him in the past at a conference in Italy.
“If I had an official position, I wouldn’t have met with him,” Bargil explained. “But I believe that as part of the fight against anti-Semitism, you have to meet with anyone who’s willing. I told him he had to demonstrate action, and not just make statements. When there’s a party for which anti-Semitism is considered a hallmark, no Israeli party will agree to be in contact with it.”
'We aren’t anti-Semitic'
During his interview with Haaretz, Bay didn’t discuss the underhanded way in which his meetings were arranged. It’s not clear whether he was aware of Meirov’s “creative” tactics.
Throughout the interview, which lasted a little less than an hour, he spoke in French. His parliamentary aide translated for him.
When asked about the Israeli government’s boycott of his party, Bay tried to downplay its importance. He said it doesn’t bother him and he doesn’t consider it a boycott; rather, he thinks it stems from a misperception of the National Front.
What doesn’t the Israeli government understand?
“I think they haven’t clearly understood that the National Front only wants to protect the security of French citizens, the French economy, France’s borders and French identity – just like the Israeli government, and just like the Trump administration in the U.S. We don’t want to interfere in your decisions, but we’re extending our hand to the Israeli government.
“I came here because of the possibility that Marine Le Pen might win the election. We want friendly ties with all countries, and Israel is one of them. If we win, it would be only natural to think that Israel would change its policy toward us.”
According to recent French polls, Le Pen has the support of 10 to 15 percent of Jewish voters. Based on the latest poll of the general electorate, which was conducted a few days ago, Le Pen would win the most votes in the first round of the election, but would lose the second round.
Bay said he came to Jerusalem to show his party’s friendship for Israel and the Jews and the importance it attaches to Israel’s security, but above all, “to reduce suspicion and refute accusations that the National Front is an anti-Semitic party.”
The National Front was established in the early 1970s by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who held clearly anti-Semitic views and on several occasions even dabbled in Holocaust denial. In 1987, for instance, he said the gas chambers at Auschwitz were a mere “detail” in the history of World War II.
This statement violated French law, and he was convicted and fined more than a million French francs. But he has made similar statements several times since then, and even expressed support for France’s Vichy regime, which collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.
In 2011, Jean-Marie Le Pen was replaced as head of the party by his daughter Marine, who subsequently even kicked him out of it. In 2015, she said she would not allow people with anti-Semitic views to be party members.
On Thursday, a few hours before his interview with Haaretz, Bay visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial. “Six years ago, when she was elected head of the party, Marine Le Pen made it clear that the Holocaust is a symbol of barbarity,” he said.
He also noted that in 2015, Roger Cukierman, the former president of CRIF, the umbrella organization of the Jewish community in France, said that Marine Le Pen couldn’t be held personally responsible for the fact that her party included anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers.
“We aren’t anti-Semitic,” Bay said. “In the past, the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made provocative statements, but he’s been ousted.”
Do you also think the gas chambers were a mere detail in the history of World War II?
“I absolutely do not agree with what Jean-Marie Le Pen said about the Holocaust. What he said about the gas chambers is shocking. This is both my personal opinion and the opinion of the party. I absolutely do not deny the existence of the gas chambers. Our views are clear, and anyone whose view of the Holocaust or of anti-Semitism was ambiguous was ousted from the party.”
Bay repeatedly insisted during the interview that the National Front was the main party speaking out against anti-Semitic attacks on French Jews. The people behind these attacks, he said, are Muslim immigrants.
“In France, we have many members from the Jewish community,” he claimed. “They understand that we’re the only ones who are clearly pointing to the source of the anti-Semitic attacks – the Islamists. Marine Le Pen has already said that the National Front is French Jewish citizens’ shield against these attacks.”
Perhaps the reason for your visit to Israel, like the visits of the heads of the Austrian Freedom Party, is an attempt to gain legitimacy?
"We don’t need to gain legitimacy from anyone. We have the support of 30 percent of the voters in France. We of course want to erase the misunderstanding and mistrust of us, especially on the part of Jewish citizens in France and in Israel."
Are you looking for a kosher stamp of approval from the Jews and Israel?
"The National Front was never anti-Semitic. We've always had Jews in our party. There were Jews in the party already upon its establishment, but when [Jean-Marie] Le Pen began speaking as he does he found himself at a disagreement with most of the party's voters and members.
"When Marine Le Pen was chosen to head the party, she wanted to put a clear stop to these statements so that our real messages and values would be heard. Judge us not only on words, but also on actions. Each time there's anti-Semitic attacks by Islamists we clearly point it out and condemn it. Our political rivals don’t condemn it as clearly."
If Le Pen is elected as France's president in April, what will you do against anti-Semitism?
"There are anti-Semitic attacks on Jews in France, but there are also attacks on Christians. We will fight hard against all these attacks, which are carried out as a result of uncontrolled immigration."
Bay, who demonstrates knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, disapproves of the Paris peace conference, and believes that France shouldn’t interfere in the conflict, but only help Israel and the Palestinians renew negotiations.
"We don’t want to force a solution, but want to ensure Israel's security and that there'll be a Palestinian state."
His position on the settlements doesn’t differ from the European consensus on the matter, but he believes that there's room to look ahead and determine the boundaries in a compromise.
"There will be negotiations on the borders based on the 1967 lines, and there'll be boundary adjustments, so that we anyhow won't return to the original lines. Some of the settlements will stay part of Israel and others will be dismantled. But that's only my personal opinion."
What is your position regarding the demand for recognition of a Jewish state?
"It is imperative that the Palestinians recognize Israel. A country is borders but also an identity, and the Palestinians need to respect that."