In this context, the immensely successful right-wing league the Croix-de-Feu penned a pamphlet in the mid-1930s that bears some striking similarities to Le Pen’s oft-quoted 2014 declaration to Jews. Here, by contrast, the Croix-de-Feu sought to appeal to Muslims by claiming that Jews, not Frenchmen, were their true enemies. Just as Le Pen has tried to insist that neither she nor her party are anti-Muslim, in other moments, the leader of the Croix-de-Feu, Colonel François de La Rocque, insisted before Jewish audiences that a wave of anti-Semitism would be disastrous for France. The simultaneous holding of these two positions was lampooned in a 1936 anti-racist cartoon that depicted La Rocque with a Janus face; the caricature could be easily refitted to mock Le Pen today.
In the era of World War II, with the rise to power of the Vichy regime under the dictatorship of Marshal Philippe Pétain, the far right briefly had the chance to impose its vision on the country. It was not only under Nazi pressure but substantially at Vichy’s own initiative that Jews now became France’s decisive “other”—a quarter of the community was eventually deported and murdered. The Germans and the Vichy government, meanwhile, were competing fiercely for hearts and minds in the French empire and saw Muslims as a potential wellspring of support. In this strategic context, Muslims enjoyed quasi-Aryan racial status. The occupiers, the new regime and a host of political formations on the far right sought to court Muslim support, in part through anti-Semitic propaganda, with limited success.Lest we think that the National Front has moved on from Jews to Muslims, Marine Le Pen keeps reminding us that the party always needs to keep both groups in the crosshairs.
In the years after World War II, the deck was reshuffled once again. Anti-Semitism as a political force was largely discredited, and colonial questions loomed ever larger: By the mid-1950s, France was engaged in a bitter, eight-year war over control of Algeria. This war, along with Israel’s simultaneous struggle against its Arab neighbors, made many on the far right feel a surprising sense of solidarity with the young Jewish state. The dynamic strengthened following Israel’s 1967 war. More than one million pied-noirs, or former French settlers of Algeria now living in France, still felt betrayed by President Charles de Gaulle’s decision to leave Algeria in 1962, and were animated by colonial nostalgia. They saw Israel as a model for successfully defending civilization from the hordes of Arab infidels seeking to invade it.
Jean-Marie Le Pen was himself a former partisan of French Algeria, and from the time he founded the National Front in 1972, the party preoccupied itself both with Jews of the recent past and Muslims of the present and future. Numerous former Vichy supporters were among the party’s devotees, and revisionist statements about the Holocaust appeared regularly. Most famously, in 1987, Le Pen declared that the Nazi gas chambers were but a “detail” of history. But Le Pen spoke more often of what he deemed the grave danger of immigration, referring to Arab or Muslim immigrants specifically and framing his anti-immigrant posture as a “defense of the West.” In the early-to-mid 1980s, it was this stance that netted the National Front a stunning string of double-digit vote percentages in local, national, and European elections. By the late 1980s, the party’s rhetoric on the issue had become so pervasive that the political mainstream in France had shifted to treating immigration—especially that of Arabs—as a major “problem” in need of fixing. In this context, Le Pen mentioned Jews less and less.
But lest we think that in 2017 the National Front has totally moved on from the “Jewish question” to the Muslim one, Le Pen’s daughter keeps reminding us that the party always needs to keep both groups in the crosshairs. Indeed, by repeatedly bringing up Jewish difference at the same time that she mentions Muslims, Le Pen advances three seemingly contradictory core objectives.
First, she offers reassurance to her traditional Catholic, conservative base, which is characterized by widespread anti-Semitism. (According to a 2014 survey, those who voted for Le Pen in 2012 were roughly twice as likely as other French people to believe that Jews have too much power in the economy, media, and politics, and that there is a Zionist world conspiracy.) Second, including Jews enables her to claim that the issue is not anti-Muslim racism but a broader principle such as public secularism or loyal citizenship, thus burnishing her credentials as a mainstream supporter of French democracy. Finally, she demands sacrifice from all to oppose the great peril whose imagined existence is her candidacy’s sine qua non: the invasion by Islamists of a Christian European France.
Do the increasingly transparent contradictions of Le Pen’s high-wire act mean that her overtures to Jewish and Muslim voters will fall on deaf ears? Hardly. Just as the 1930s saw the same far-right parties defend colonial racism, employ hundreds of Muslim shock troops for anti-Semitic attacks, and elicit the visible support of some Jews, today the National Front’s message resonates in pockets of both populations. Like a certain number of Jews, a slice of the Muslim electorateembraces Le Pen’s message that “the best proof that one is French is to vote for the National Front.”
These aren’t easy times for Jews or Muslims in France, and one can hardly fault those searching for identity and answers in unusual places. But one need not be an alarmist to see the period of the 1930s and 1940s—the last time the French far right had the opportunity to move from opposition to power, from dodgy rhetoric to concrete policies—as a cautionary tale. Whatever Le Pen’s revisionist musings now, we know that the results proved horrifying.
By ETHAN B. KATZ – The views expressed here are the author’s own.