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.
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.