Opinion

Le Pen Is Right About Muslims, Wrong About Jews

Marine Le Pen's instinct is right: fighting an Islamic takeover requires France to shed its guilt and shame over its past. But her desire for a foolish 'consistency' means Vichy and Jewish identity are also included

French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen reacts on stage during a campaign meeting in Paris, France, April 17, 2017.
ALAIN JOCARD/AFP

Marine Le Pen, the Front National candidate, has been under fire recently for shedding responsibility for Vichy France's roundup of the Jews and their deportation to the death camps. A few years back I wrote in defense of a policy of engaging the European parties of the right, including the post-fascist ones, arguing that these parties should be judged on the basis of what they are now, and not what they once were. In the same way that the left believes that the Palestinians can moderate, and that parties that once praised Stalin could evolve into legitimate democratic parties, the same courtesy could be extended to the European right. 

This policy, of course, had to be accompanied by a healthy skepticism to ensure that Jews or Israel were not being cynically exploited to launder residual fascist tendencies. The test would be empirical, and certain parties could be given a clean bill of health, while others would still be regarded as anathema. 

On a historical level, Le Pen – like Charles De Gaulle and Francois Mitterand – was wrong in saying that France did not bear responsibility for the crime of the deportation of the Jews. But I do not believe that her statement should be read as an anti-Semitic reflex still dominant in the Front National, nor simply as a reassertion of the old official narrative – that Vichy represented an aberrant pays légal that was essentially rejected by the French pays réel. 

Le Pen’s outburst was not even an attempt to capitalize on her rival Emanuel Macron's mea culpa about the French role in Algeria. Nor does it really matter that a French President acknowledges his country's responsibility for the Holocaust. Europe has made an art form of distinguishing between responsibility for dead Jews and responsibility for live ones and their sovereign State of Israel.  

Jacques Chirac deserves credit for being the first French president to puncture the myth of Vichy being an aberration of history, when at the time of the deportation of Jews it enjoyed overwhelming popular support. The same Chirac, however, helped forge France's special relationship with Saddam Hussein at a time that the Iraqi dictator called for Israel's fiery destruction. 

What prompted Le Pen to issue the statement was her essentially correct instinct that a successful fight-back against an Islamic takeover of France required France to shed a sense of guilt and shame. As Andrew Michta has recently written in the American Interest the narratives fostered in academia and the media equating the West's colonialist past to original sin have sapped Western self-confidence. This all-pervading sense of guilt (according to Michta) has been appeased by the embrace of multiculturalism, whereby immigrants were no longer expected to embrace the values of the host country and Islamophobia was viewed as a greater problem than the establishment of no-go zones ruled by sharia law. Another tactic in seeking absolution, which Michta does not mention, is to transfer the guilt to others, for example the United States or Israel.

Le Pen's problem is that even if she considers that the threat emanates from Muslims, she must display a foolish consistency by roping in the Jews as well. If wearing the hijab or the niqab is to be banned from the public square then the kippah also has to go. Le Pen has publicly asked the Jews to make that "small sacrifice".

By the same logic, if France is to shed its guilt over its fraught relationship with Muslims in North Africa, it must also shed its guilt about Vichy. This is the same politically correct logic that will subject a 70-year-old nun to the same rigorous airport scrutiny as a young Muslim recently returned from the Turkish-Syrian border. 

This clumsy attempt at evenhandedness has also been manifested by two of Le Pen's major opponents – Emmanuel Macron and Francois Fillon. Fillon tied himself in knots in a television interview where he warned that Muslim fundamentalists were taking the Muslim community hostage and "It is necessary to fight this fundamentalism just as one foughtthe Jews' desire to live in a community that did not respect all the rules of the French Republic." Fillon retreated under the withering response from the Jewish community which asked him to specify to which what historical episode he was referring.

Macron, who will probably get most of the Jewish vote, and was himself targeted with anti-Semitic slurs due to the years he worked in the Rothschild bank, also fell into this pattern. He decried the fact that an increasing number of pupils are studying in religious schools that inculcate hatred for the republic, be they Muslim schools where studies are essentially in Arabic "or elsewhere where they teach the Torah more than the basic skills." As measured by success in matriculation exams, Jewish schools that study Torah surpass the national average by a healthy percentage – but facts cannot get in the way of evenhandedness. The fourth major contender, far leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, is exempted from this list because he believes that the Muslims are sweetness and light and the Jewish umbrella organization CRIF is "acrimonious".

On the eve of the presidential elections French Jews are in a hard place. If Muslim empowerment is not checked they are lost; if France decides to push back and preserve its identity, France's Jews may have a problem preserving theirs.

Amiel Ungar is a political scientist.