The new poll showing that Marine Le Pen would defeat Francois Hollande in a run-off election for president of France raises an ironic question. Is it conceivable that the daughter of a rightist demagogue who rose to prominence making remarks at the expense of the Jews, an agitator who called the Nazi gas chambers “a detail in the history of World War II,” could emerge, as Marine Le Pen says she will, as a protector of the last Jews of France?
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If there is a basis for the question it is that the National Front is the nemesis of France’s Arab immigrants, from whose ranks sprang the latest attacks on French Jews. This was underscored during the fighting in the Gaza Strip, when pro-Palestinian protesters attacked the synagogue on Rue de la Roquette. The demonstration of violence horrified at least some of the constituencies that are important to the National Front, I was told by the premier French reporter on the beat, Michel Gurfinkiel.
This is showing up in two ways. One is that it at least partly contributes to Marine Le Pen’s growing strength. Another is that even within the Jewish community of France there is growing sympathy for the National Front. The numbers are still tiny — moving to 10% from 5%. But that’s a doubling of the number of French Jews inclining toward the National Front. And I’m told that Marine Le Pen’s key foreign policy aide, Aymeric Chauprade, who has a record as being pro-Arab and anti-American, is now saying that “Israel is not the enemy of France,” while radical Islam is.
“During the last summer,” Gurfinkiel tells me, “the National Front has taken a much more pro-Israel line than it used to. The constituencies — these 30% to 35% of the people who do vote for the National Front — have been instinctively more supportive of Israel this time for two reasons: There has been a revulsion regarding the Islamic State and the feeling that Hamas and the Islamic State are the same thing; and those people likely to vote for the National Front have been shocked by the pro-Palestinian demonstrations.”
Gurfinkiel and I mark that trend for its newsworthiness. But can one put much stock in it? My own reservations go back to a lunch I had a generation ago with Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. At the time I was based in Brussels and editing the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal’s European edition. We were getting queries about whether Le Pen, then leading the National Front, could be an ideological partner for the Reaganite revolution, and I invited him to lunch.
This took place in May 1986 at an elegant eatery near the Hotel La Madeleine. In my naiveté I nursed doubts about whether the rightist firebrand would be even welcome in the restaurant. But, as Le Pen’s car arrived, the restaurant’s entire staff formed a receiving line. It extended the length of the restaurant, and as Le Pan passed, they bowed. I witnessed that myself. Then we repaired to a private dining room, where, at a round table for four, we opened up all the questions, starting with immigration.
The Wall Street Journal was — and still is — the most pro-immigration newspaper in America (and probably the world). The idea is that if one is for, as we were, the free movement of capital and the free movement of trade one also has to have the free movement of labor. This cut no mustard with Le Pen. His central point, I later wrote, was that he was in favor of France — the nation, its culture and its language.
Le Pen insisted that immigration itself was not what bothered him, but the rejection by North African Arab immigrants of assimilation. He argued that it was not racist to want to preserve a national culture and identity. He said, as I later summarized his argument, that this should no less true of France, say, than Israel. He made his case in a cheerful, friendly way. It was the following year that he made his notorious remark about the Nazi gas chambers.
Where our conversation found its dead end was economics. Le Pen, I wrote, may be an anticommunist, but he was not pursuing economic liberty. The idea of free movement of people, goods and capital, he just had no feel for it, and I doubt he would even accept it in principle. In the event, no common cause was ever made between American free market conservatives and Jean-Marie Le Pen, and if there’s sympathy among American conservatives even for Marine Le Pen’s National Front, I’ve been unable to detect it. A shidduch between American conservatives and the French nationalists, I suspect, will have to await a party that gives a central role to the principles of economic liberty as an engine of growth — and assimilation.