The secretary-general of France’s National Front party, Nicolas Bay, arrived in Israel on Wednesday for a visit, during which he will meet with members of the French community here and met with Young Likud chairman David Shayan.
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The visit by an official from the party headed by Marine Le Pen, less than three months before France’s presidential election, is highly unusual. The Israeli government officially boycotts the National Front, many of whose members hold anti-Semitic views.
Haaretz has learned that Bay’s visit is defined as “private” and it was deliberately kept quiet, almost secret. He came to Israel with a Jewish activist in the National Front who organized the trip and arranged the meetings for him. The purpose of visit is to meet French citizens living in Israel in an effort to enlist the support of French Jewry, and to meet Israeli politicians.
According to polls conducted recently in France, Le Pen, a leading candidate for president with the election scheduled for April, has the support of between 10 to 15 percent of Jewish voters. The most recent poll done among the general population in France, conducted several days ago, shows Le Pen winning a plurality in the first round of voting, but losing in the second round.
Bay is not meeting any member of the government and apparently not with any MKs, either. Still he met Wednesday with Shayan, a leading Likud activist who in the past served as an adviser to Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and to former minister Yossi Peled. Shayan confirmed that he had met with Bay, but said that he didn’t know before the meeting exactly what his political affiliation was. “Only during the meeting, which wasn’t an official one, did I learn that Bay is from Marine Le Pen’s party,” Shayan said. “In any case I never boycott anyone.”
Bay is considered close to Le Pen, and as party secretary he played a central role in soliciting the emergency loans she took two months ago to allow her to continue her presidential campaign. In September 2014, after data was published on the number of anti-Semitic incidents in France, Bay blamed the increase in anti-Jewish attacks on the immigration policy of the right-wing Sarkozy government, which permitted Muslims to enter.
Bay’s visit to Israel is part of a comprehensive effort in recent years by the extreme right-wing parties in Europe to get closer to Israel. Like Austria’s Freedom Party, the National Front sees relations with Israel as a way to gain legitimacy both within France and on the international scene. Some of these parties, which support racist, anti-Islamic policies and oppose the European Union, have found a sympathetic ear among certain elements of the Israeli right.
The National Front was established in the 1970s by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who holds anti-Semitic views and on several occasions made comments that sounded like Holocaust denial. In 1987 he said that the gas chambers in Auschwitz were a marginal detail in the history of World War II. That remark violated French law and he was convicted and fined more than a million francs. Le Pen repeated these remarks several times and even lauded France’s Vichy regime, which collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.
In 2011 Marine Le Pen replaced her father as party chairman, and later expelled him from the party. Under the younger Le Pen’s leadership the National Front continued to espouse nationalist, racist and xenophobic positions, particularly against Muslim immigrants. In 2015, Le Pen declared that she would not allow people with anti-Semitic views to be party members and said she opposed boycotting Israel. Nevertheless, Israel’s Foreign Ministry and the French Jewish community believe that many party activists, including senior officials, are anti-Semites.
The Israeli government’s official policy is to boycott the National Front, with all ministers and official Israeli representatives abroad instructed to avoid any meetings with members of the party. The French Jewish community has a similar policy. “There’s a sterile area around them,” said a former senior Israeli official. “You just don’t touch them.”
In November 2011 Israeli Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor attended a luncheon at the UN building that Marine Le Pen sponsored. He was part of a conversation that she had with several envoys and was even photographed with her.
Afterward Prosor claimed that he had come to the event by mistake and that he left as soon as he realized that Le Pen was hosting it. The Foreign Ministry spokesman at the time said it had been an error in judgment and that it did not reflect any change in Israel’s position on the National Front.