The French Far Right's Unlikely Quest for Jewish Voters

Why Marine Le Pen's ethnic nationalist party won't win the Jewish vote, no matter how much support they promise Israel.

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French far right leader Marine Le Pen delivers a speech at a political rally in Strasbourg / Reuters

On January 27, premiers, community leaders, and survivors gathered across Europe to mark Holocaust Memorial Day and the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. That same evening, the continent's far-right leaders gathered in Vienna for an unrelated gala dinner and dance. Among them was Marine Le Pen of France's Front National, the country's prominent and often controversial nationalist party. Accused of having "danced on the graves of Auschwitz", her appearance was incongruous to the new image she is offering France's Jewish voters, having previously called the Holocaust the "epitome of human barbarism."

Much has been made of the dauphine's attempts to reform the party she inherited, moving it away from Jean-Marie and his legacy of Holocaust minimisation, with the apparent hope even of winning over a few Jewish voters. She is attempting to appeal to two of the French Jewish community's principal concerns -- insecurity and Israel -- by speaking of the need for Islam to become compatible with French secular principles, and adopting a pro-Israeli posture, arguing her party has "always been Zionistic and always defended Israel's right to exist."

Her overtures to the Jewish community are part of a wider effort, aimed at building upon the 10% of the vote her father attracted in 2007 by and making the party more broadly attractive. With the European economy struggling, President Nicolas Sarkozy is the least popular right-wing incumbent in the history of the Republic. There is a sense then, in the party at least, of opportunity -- that Le Pen could propel herself into the second round by picking up enough disgruntled swing voters.

In reality, Le Pen will likely struggle to elicit any actual Jewish support for her party. Jewish leaders at a recent dinner for the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, a prominent group in the country, made clear that a vote for Le Pen would be unacceptable. The organization's president, Richard Prasquier, told a reporter, "We won't vote for the Front National.".

Little in the recent polling data suggests that Le Pen has been able to expand her support beyond the mainly white, working class core that voted for her father in great numbers in 2002, when Jean-Marie capitalised on a fracturing of the left-wing vote to make into a run-off against President Jacques Chirac. The latest polls also show that her support has levelled off at around 15 percent, but that might not translate into 15 percent of the vote come April. In 2007, Jean-Marie's support in the polls trailed off in the final days of campaigning from similar levels.

The typical Front National voter -- motivated by the themes of immigration, security, and secularism, according to polls -- is far more likely to be male and age 18 to 49. They are often members of the working-class or are agricultural labourers -- FN strongholds tend to be located in smaller cities or less-urban areas. Economic disenfranchisement is key: FN voters are less educated and earn less or are self-employed.

Ethnic anxieties have made the party especially popular in the far south of France, where demographics have been radically altered in the last two generations: first by the return of the pieds-noirs, French citizens who were Algeria's colonisers; and then by the colonised themselves, from the Maghreb and to a lesser extent from French West Africa.

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Liam Hoare, a freelance writer specializing in foreign affairs, has written for The Forward and The Jewish Chronicle.

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