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Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders.
Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders.

DOUG SAUNDERS

Marine Le Pen's National Front: Old brand, new spin Add to ...

It is a rarely mentioned but centrally important fact that the French Republic is, and has always been, one of Western Europe’s most multi-religious and multicultural countries. France’s citizens include half of Western Europe’s Jews and the continent’s largest population of Muslims. French politics, for more than a century, has essentially been a showdown between those who accept this fact and those who oppose or deny it.

Marine Le Pen falls squarely into this latter tradition. The French presidential candidate leads a party, the National Front, devoted almost singly to denying the citizenship and equality of religious and ethnic minorities. But she stands a strong chance of becoming one of the two winners of Sunday’s first-round French presidential election, and a distant but possible chance of winning the presidency in the May 7 second-round vote, by disguising this fact.

She has managed to persuade many French voters, and a surprising number of overseas figures, that she has put her party’s legacy of intolerance and discrimination behind her, disowned the anti-Jewish rage of her father, the party’s founder, and become something else – a woman of the working people, a media-friendly voice of popular rejection of mainstream politics.

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That illusion has fallen away in recent weeks, as Ms. Le Pen’s continuing links to her party’s fascist origins have become all too visible and the anti-Jewish views of her inner circle, and of Marine Le Pen herself, have come to light. But there is a good chance she has fooled enough French voters to win on Sunday.

The National Front is descended from a long line of extreme-right parties devoted to the illusion that France is a Christian, uni-ethnic country whose minorities are untrustworthy invaders. This view first dominated national elections in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the Dreyfus Affair turned the loyalty and citizenship of France’s sizable Jewish community into a national debate. Those views re-emerged in the 1930s in a new generation of far-right leaders, who came to dominate the wartime Vichy Regime, which rounded up Jews for deportation to death camps. In the 1960s, the remnants of those parties reconstituted themselves and added a new enemy, the French citizens of North African origin, who were denounced for their Jewish and Muslim beliefs.

In 1972 Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, consolidated a circle of these fascist, ethnic-nationalist and neo-Nazi parties into the National Front, and became infamous for his Holocaust-denying, immigrant-denouncing outbursts. His height of power came in 2002, when disarray on the French left led him to win the first-round presidential election, triggering a national crisis and a concerted multi-party effort to keep his party out of mainstream politics.

His daughter, now 48, took control of the party in 2011 and tried to attract a younger generation by campaigning on her image as a woman of the people and a hard-working mother rather than on harsh racial policies, and by playing down the Le Pen brand. She does not mention her surname in campaigns (her signs read “Marine President”), she made a formal show of expelling her father from the party in 2015, and she has purged a series of National Front officials for explicitly anti-Jewish statements – though an almost limitless supply of new anti-Semitic officials seemingly keeps appearing.

But reporters examining her party in recent months have found, as Emma-Kate Symons writes in Foreign Policy magazine, “an organization that, at its highest levels, is awash with Hitler admirers and Holocaust-denying far-right nationalists, including within Marine Le Pen’s inner circle.”

Recent accounts of the National Front’s inner circle say that Ms. Le Pen’s key advisors and top party officials include a trio of men who emerged from the anti-Israel far right of the 1990s and who have expressed open admiration for the Third Reich and the Vichy regime.

Her senior advisor Frédéric Chatillon, who is banned from politics after being charged with campaign-finance fraud, is reportedly constantly at Ms. Le Pen’s side and has brokered Ms. Le Pen’s relationships with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. He is, according to several recent books and investigative stories on the party, an outspoken Hitler enthusiast.

And Ms. Le Pen does not seem to have removed herself from her father or his views: he provided her presidential campaign with an $8-million loan and he appeared in court with her earlier this year to support her in a tax-court case involving their family fortune. Last week she argued that France was “not responsible” for the Vichy Regime’s deportation of tens of thousands of Jews to Auschwitz, and she has insisted that, if elected, French Jews will be forced to give up Israeli citizenship.

And even if Ms. Le Pen sends a softer message, many of the people she is attracting to the National Front appear attracted to the idea of a racially intolerant party.

A 2014 survey by the polling firm Ifop asked French voters if they agreed with anti-Semitic statements such as “The Jews have too much power in the media” or “The Jews are responsible for the current economic crisis.” It found that National Front supporters are twice as likely as the general population to endorse such views – and are often more likely than any other group, including Muslims and supporters of the communist Left Front. For example, the statement “Jews today use their status as victims of the Nazi Genocide for their own interest” was supported by 35 per cent of French people in general, 51 per cent of Left Front supporters, 56 per cent of Muslims and 62 per cent of Ms. Le Pen’s supporters.

The survey, researcher Gunther Jikeli concluded, “shows that [Marine] Le Pen’s electorate still adheres to anti-Semitic beliefs although she tries to distance herself from open anti-Semitic positions.”

That either means that Marie Le Pen’s old-school National Front voters don’t really believe his daughter is significantly different or – more likely – that she really isn’t, and that voters with intolerant views are receiving her not-very-secret message loud and clear. In order to win, she will need to persuade less intolerant voters that she is not really her father’s daughter. On Sunday, the world will see how well that message has been received, and how many voters are willing to join Ms. Le Pen’s very old political tradition.

Doug Saunders is The Globe and Mail’s international affairs columnist.

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