This week, I attended a campaign rally for Marine Le Pen and saw the true and toxic face of her appeal. It's an experience I suggest for those commentators suggesting that Jews in France, Israel and elsewhere should give a sympathetic hearing to the newly sanitized, allegedly 'post-fascist' National Front candidate and her party.
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Amiel Ungar’s column defending French presidential frontrunner Marine Le Pen (Le Pen Is Right About Muslims, Wrong About Jews) falls into the same trap as much foreign-language comment on France's National Front and its presidential candidate. By engaging in soundbite politics – the analysis of a complex election almost exclusively through the lens of the various controversies that filter through to the foreign press - Ungar neglects the importance of observing politics in its rather more mundane, day-to-day form – the way most of the French electorate experiences it.
If he had done, he would not be so complacent about the consequences for French Jews of a President Le Pen.
The National Front is within touching distance of power largely thanks to the fact that Le Pen has convinced many French voters that her party has broken away from the Petainist fanaticism of its founder, her father Jean-Marie. Marine has purged the most visible Nazis, racists, and homophobes from her inner circle and is publicly estranged from her father. Increasing numbers of voters see a real discontinuity between her party and that of Jean-Marie’s. “Her father, I couldn’t possibly, but she’s different,” one National Front voter recently told an interviewer.
Le Pen and her loyalists are seasoned media operators, accustomed to dealing with a press almost universally hostile to her political tendency. “Jack the Ripper: that was us, too!” is how Le Pen mockingly brushed off an accusation of yet another apparatchik indiscretion. She and a select few eloquent allies – Gilbert Collard, Florian Philippot, Marion Maréchal Le Pen – take turns representing the party in the media, creating in the minds of the electorate an equivalence between these smooth talking, conciliatory figures, and the party as the whole. Marine is the party; the party is Marine.
This image is reinforced by the Le Pen media strategy, which Ungar and others appear to have bought into. The primetime television footage of the Paris rally I attended, when it pans out to the audience, focuses on the first few rows of seats, those occupied by the Front National’s core cadre. They are smartly dressed, young, often female, as ethnically diverse as an ethnic nationalist party’s membership gets. These are the activists the party is eager to show off.
The faces of those in rows further back are barely lit, the only sign of their existence the timid blink of the tacky diodes reading “Marine, présidente” pinned to their lapels. They were far from the television cameras, but present nonetheless: the unchanged voter base of the National Front.
I sat at the back (no label pin). In sharp contrast to on the made-for-TV optics, many of those around me were the same voter base as they have always been, under Le Pen father and daughter. They lurked in the shadows, hidden from the cameras, but they were present nonetheless. The same identitarian tattoos still visible on the same shaved heads, the same conspiratorial mutters about Schrödinger’s immigrant, the once-satirical figure who comes to your country to lounge around not working while simultaneously steals your job, floating down the corridors. Many had been in the party for decades, their activism far preceding Le Pen’s detoxification efforts, which had visibly failed (or were not intended) to repel them.
At the entrance to the rally, an FN-supporting newspaper was handed out free, its inside pages questioning the “official version” of 9/11, an effort to bolster the anti-Americanism which lies at the heart of the party’s foreign policy program (one of Le Pen's former top lieutenants is on record as suggesting a devious American-Israeli conspiracy to bring down the Twin Towers). Its front page included interviews with top FN figures, including Le Pen’s campaign director, demonstrating that, far from being a marginal presence, this newspaper was accepted by what passes for the FN mainstream.
The couple from Haute-Loire I sat next to were pleasant and courteous, but it wasn’t difficult to detect neo-Nazi echoes in the conspiracy theories they shared about their candidate being the only one capable of taking on the “dark financial elites” who really control the world.
Ungar may consider that it is unfair to tar the party’s leadership with the unsavoriness of a section of its membership; that is his prerogative. But recent allegations of anti-Semitism and the persistence of Third Reich nostalgia on the part of two members of Le Pen’s inner circle, Frédéric Chatillon and Axel Loustau, point to the limits of this strategy. Chatillon and Loustau are alleged to be unreformed Nazis, who organised “striped-pyjama parties” (an unconcealed 'satirical' wink at concentration camp uniforms) and kissed portraits of the Führer. A party leadership does not exist in a sanitized vacuum, distinct from its membership.
Indeed, just as the membership remains much the same, so too does the party’s policy platform. Read over the National Front's manifesto from 2002, the election in which Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the world by edging into the second round, and just the same phrases jump out as today. Preferential treatment for French nationals in jobs and housing; make acquiring citizenship harder; secure France’s borders.
The focus then, as now, was on immigration from North Africa; but Jews would do well to remember that what starts with the easily demonized Muslims rarely ends with them, as the Holocaust revisionist and dual loyalty diatribes voiced by both Le Pens make clear.
Ungar states that the litmus test for whether to engage with a post-fascist party is a rigorous analysis of whether the party has truly shed its past sympathies. Well, when I asked the couple next to me, hardcore frontistes since the 1980s, if the party had changed under Marine, they immediately and unequivocally replied that it had not. Ungar would do well to listen to those in the know.
Ido Vock is a writer and student. Follow him on Twitter: @idvck