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.

Here, Le Pen has been able to exploit fears of rising crime and of socio-cultural change pertaining to Islam. It was in Lyon, after all, that she made her now-infamous remark that Islamic prayer in the street is akin to the Nazi occupation, since both were an "occupation of territory." Even if concerns in the Jewish community regarding security can be linked to the rise of Islam, such xenophobic language is unlikely to attract Jewish voters, reminiscent as it is of the tone used when they were the targets of similar attacks.

The Front National's other relative stronghold is in the northeast. While the rest of the country saw quality of life soar during les Trente Glorieuses -- the boom years following the Second World War -- these areas suffered tremendously as jobs in heavy industry were lost to Eastern Europe and the Pacific Rim. Ardennes, for example, now ranks 84 out of 96 administrative départements for average household income, and 92 for standard of living. It is not clear if Le Pen's appeal to disaffected and sometimes resentful voters here will carry over to French Jews, the majority of whom live in still-affluent Paris.

Disaffected members of the white working-class in communities like Ardennes or Abbeville, which the Times recently profiled as a new base of FN popularity, are drawn towards Le Pen's economic-nationalist message, one which is anti-globalisation, anti-European, and anti-capitalist. She argues that the state should "spearhead the rearmament" of the French economy.

Le Pen's hermitic, almost nostalgic economic agenda bleeds rather naturally into the party's ethnic message: France's downward slide can be linked, they still argue, both to the loosening of state controls over the economy, and to the increased immigration that has come with decolonisation. By extension, if France is to reconstruct its economy with the state at the tip of the spear, then it ought to be for the benefit of those who built the nation in the first place, the "true French," une France pour les français de souche. In other words, a France for those ethnic and religious roots are decidedly white and Catholic.

Finding Jewish support for the Front National would not be as simple, then, as dropping the anti-Semitic rhetoric of Jean-Marie Le Pen or easing the party's strident stance on immigration. Anti-Semitism isn't just a bullet point on the far-right political platform, it is an inevitable and inseparable result of the core ideology. Making Islam the common enemy, or discovering a newfound appreciation for Israel will not conceal this. In the end, the Front National's economic and social agenda remains deeply antithetical to Jewish voters, a community that has also been (mostly infamously during l'affaire Dreyfus) the target of attacks from individuals and political organisations who believe that Frenchness is defined by one's blood and roots, as opposed to one's values.