From ISIS to Le Pen: After Far-right Victory, French Jews Feel Surrounded by Enemies

Following the National Front’s win in the first round of regional elections, French Jews fear they will be more vulnerable to attacks from extremists of all colors.

Shirli Sitbon.
Shirli Sitbon
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A man wearing a kippa outside Lyon's synagogue. (illustrative)
A man wearing a kippa outside Lyon's synagogue. (illustrative)Credit: AFP
Shirli Sitbon.
Shirli Sitbon

An umbrella group representing French Jews called Monday for “massive” voter participation to block the far-right National Front from capitalizing on its historic victory in the first round of France’s regional elections.

The CRIF, the representative council of French Jewish institutions, described the National Front as “xenophobic and populist.” In its statement, it tried to get out the vote ahead of runoffs Sunday that could hand Marine Le Pen’s party control of major areas around the country.

“We need to create a barrier against the National Front,” the statement said. “Don’t let the Republic retreat!”

In the aftermath of the Islamic State's attacks on Paris last month, French Jews have been increasingly on the alert. While the army guards Jewish schools and other possible targets, the Jewish community’s security body, the SPCJ, has organized training courses to help people be prepared for an attack.

“You can’t count on the army. You have to be able to detect dangerous situations and protect yourselves,” an SPCJ official told parents at a recent meeting in a school outside Paris.

One parent asked: “What if the National Front wins the elections? Will they scrap security measures?”

Jewish leaders fear that if the far right wins the runoffs, it might lift the security protection from Jewish institutions; that’s just one reason to be fearful.

“Parents and people going to synagogues have to understand the danger of the Islamic State group, but we have no weapons, so confronting terrorists on our own would be difficult,” CRIF head Roger Cukierman told Haaretz.

“But the main problem is the atmosphere of having fascists in power, like in the lead-up to World War II. Those of us who lived here during the war hoped they would never have to see this again.”

As a result, Jews feel surrounded by hostility, he said.

“There are anti-Semitic attacks and people boycotting Israel, while countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia have a growing influence over the country; they control major French companies,” Cukierman said. “And now, on top of that, the National Front is winning elections, a party full of revisionists and people still in favor of the World War II Vichy regime. We called on people not to vote for them, but nobody listens to us. Sunday was a very bad day.”

The results of the first round were thus worrying in the least.

"The National Front is now the biggest party by number of voters,” Cukierman said. “It’s expected to win whole regions, and this dynamic might continue until the National Front is even a governing party.”

Many people in the Jewish community share those feelings.

“This victory is frightening. I feel that people who vote for the far right don’t understand what this party is really about,” said Eric Haddad, a Jewish man from Paris.

“Imagine what will come next. If [the National Front] wins more elections and manages the country, France might turn into a police state where officials feel free to persecute foreigners. Maybe I’m paranoid, but that’s what I imagine when I think of the possibility that this party will govern.”

There are no estimates of how many Jews voted for the National Front on Sunday. Still, the party has made inroads among Jewish voters, even though it remains far less popular than among the general population.

According to a survey last year by IFOP, the French Institute of Public Opinion, some 13 percent of French Jews voted for Le Pen in the 2012 presidential election, compared with a national figure of 18 percent.

Many Jews who back the National Front don’t do so openly, fearing that their choice would anger others in the community. Some turned to the party because they were exasperated with Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republicans party and the governing socialists.

“At least the National Front will fight the source of terror and not just pretend to protect the Jewish community,” said Georges, a Jewish supporter who asked that his last name not be published.

“The right and left are hypocrites. They pretend to protect Jews but they let Muslim extremists prosper and choose the Saudis for allies. The National Front doesn’t do that.”

Since the previous decade, even before she became party leader, Le Pen launched a campaign to soften the Front’s image. At least two party officials are Jewish, and party Vice President Louis Aliot has repeatedly mentioned that his grandfather was Jewish.

Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a young National Front MP, has played down the World War II deportation of French Jews to Nazi Germany. At least she didn’t echo her grandfather and former party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who said the gas chambers during the Holocaust were a “detail” of history.

Still, she told weekly Valeurs Actuelles that thousands were deported form France, some of them Jews, when actually more than 140,000 were deported, the majority of them Jews.

Maréchal-Le Pen, the MP favored to win in the southern Provence-Alpes Cte-d’Azur region, told newspaper Présent that French Muslims did not have the same status as French Christians because France was a country of Christian culture and heritage.

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