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France: Far-right Le Pen to join march against antisemitism

Andreas Noll
November 11, 2023

Marine Le Pen and her far-right RN party say they will attend Sunday's march against antisemitism in the French capital. But other parties say they refuse to march alongside a party founded by antisemites.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen has tried to change the image of her far-right partyImage: Christophe ARCHAMBAULT/AFP

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally (RN) party in France, formerly known as the Front National, told French radio station RTL on Wednesday morning that she would "of course" participate in Sunday's demonstration against antisemitism in Paris. On X, formerly Twitter, she wrote: "Our compatriots of the Jewish faith have long been confronted with an ideology that I have always fought: Islamist ideology." She said that she would be there, alongside RN party president Jordan Bardella and other elected officials of the party.

However, President of the French National Assembly Yaël Braun-Pivet, who along with the president of the French Senate called for the march — and whose Jewish grandparents settled in France after fleeing Germany and Poland — said Wednesday on France's TF1 television that no political parties had been invited to participate and that she would not march "next to" Le Pen.

France's RN and its history of antisemitism

Those opposed to marching alongside the RN at a demonstration against antisemitism have reminded those who might have forgotten about how the party was founded. In 1973, Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine's father, who fought in the Algerian War, founded the party with former paratroopers, supporters of the Vichy regime, antisemites and also members of the violent far-right student organization Groupe Union Defense (GUD).

On several occasions, Jean-Marie Le Pen was fined after referring to the Holocaust and the German gas chambers as a "detail" of history. Government spokesman Olivier Veran told French radio station Europe1 that the "French justice system" had "convicted Jean-Marie Le Pen for antisemitism" and for this reason, the RN did not have "a place" at the demonstration.

Fighting antisemitism and Islamophobia in France

RN has a clear pro-Israel stance

In recent weeks, Marine Le Pen has left the public in no doubt as to whose side she is on in the current conflict in the Middle East. She has described Hamas' terrorist attack on Israel on October 7 as a "pogrom" and has backed the Israeli government's goal of destroying Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist organization by numerous countries.

The party's pro-Israel stance is not new. After Marine Le Pen replaced her father as the leader of the Front National in 2011, she expelled known antisemites from the party, and even Jean-Marie himself eventually. Her strategy of "de-demonization" was intended to make the party, which she renamed in 2018, more palatable to broad sections of the electorate and the strategy has apparently worked, since Le Pen has been able to increase her share of the vote in presidential elections. According to the latest polls, she would win the first round of the presidential elections by over 30% if they were to be held today.

Not everybody buys into the party's change of image. "For me, Le Pen's participation in this demonstration is strategically motivated," said Valerie Dubslaff from the University of Rennes. "I don't believe that the party has fundamentally changed. The proximity to Israel and the fight of antisemitism are serving to show a clear message: 'Our main enemy remains Islam.'"

Indeed, there have been conflicting statements made by RN representatives. Bardella recently refused to describe Jean-Marie Le Pen as an antisemite but was then apparently forced to correct himself after pressure from Marine Le Pen herself.

Front National founder Jean-Marie Le Pen
Front National founder Jean-Marie Le Pen was fined for antisemitism on several occasionsImage: Arnaud Journois/Le Parisien/picture alliance

Support from Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld 

Le Pen's change of course is also having an impact on France's Jewish citizenry. Now, after decades of hostility between the Jewish community and the far right, there has been a shift. Last year, Louis Aliot, the RN mayor of Perpignan, was the first far-right politician to appear on Radio J, a Jewish community radio station in Paris. A few days earlier, he had presented the 88-year-old Jewish activist and Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld with a medal from the city.

Many failed to understand at the time why Klarsfeld accepted the medal. 

The founder and president of the Sons and Daughters of the Jewish Deportees of France has said that he supports Le Pen's participation in the upcoming demonstration against antisemitism. "For me, the DNA of the extreme right, is antisemitism," he told the French daily newspaper Liberation. "So, when I see a big party that emerged from the extreme right is abandoning antisemitism, negationism, and marching towards republican values, I rejoice."

Is Le Pen instrumentalizing the march?

The Council of French Jewish Institutions (Crif) has also adjusted its stance. When Marine Le Pen appeared at a march to commemorate the antisemitic murder of Mireille Knoll in 2018, she was booed. There was no such outrage when RN politicians appeared at a recent Crif-organized demonstration in support of Israel.

Demonstrators at a march calling for Hamas to free Israeli hostages
The Crif organized an October 9 march calling for Hamas to free Israeli hostagesImage: Jeremy Paoloni/abaca/picture alliance

However, the Crif has said the RN will not be welcome at Sunday's march. Its president, Yonathan Arfi, has accused the far-right party of attempting "to instrumentalize the march in an indecent way" and said that the Crif objected to marching alongside "people who are heirs to a party founded by former collaborators."

France's Socialist, Communist and Green parties have said that they want to establish a republican "cordon sanitaire" at the demonstration and not allow the RN to pass it. Meanwhile, the left-wing France Unbowed (LFI) is refusing to take part in the demonstration altogether. "The friends of the unconditional support for the massacre have their rendezvous," wrote LFI leader Jean-Luc Melenchon on X, referring to Israel's war against Hamas. He has yet to clearly condemn Hamas' attack on October 7.

Limits of 'firewall' against far fight

For Jacob Ross, a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations who is focused on Franco-German ties, the current debate shows the limits of the so-called "firewall" against the far right in France. He said the number of RN mayors in France indicates that the idea has already been shelved at the municipal level and that it could soon be scrapped at the national level, too.

Ross said recent studies show that voters were getting tired of the "republican bloc," as the alliance of parties against the RN is known. Moreover, he said the RN was garnering more support from the conservative LR party at the parliamentary level. And lastly, he said, French voters simply don't want to be told who they can or cannot vote for anymore.

This article was originally published in German.

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