How Marine Le Pen Relies on Dividing French Jews and Muslims

The presidential hopeful's National Front party has been using this strategy for decades.

Marine Le Pen, National Front party leader and candidate for France's 2017 presidential election, attends a political rally in Chateauroux, France, March 11, 2017.
Marine Le Pen, National Front party leader and candidate for France's 2017 presidential election, attends a political rally in Chateauroux, France, March 11, 2017.  (Christian Hartmann / Reuters)

Marine Le Pen, the National Front party leader who is among the frontrunners in France’s upcoming presidential elections, made waves this month with her insistence that France was not responsible for the infamous “Vel d’Hiv” roundup of July 1942, in which French police chose to arrest more than 13,000 Jews and deport them to Auschwitz. Many were stunned by the comment. It not only contradicted decades of official presidential statements and consensus among historians, but also seemed to clash with Le Pen’s recent effort to court Jewish voters.

In fact, however, the only surprise here was that Jews were mentioned alone, rather than being paired with Muslims. For all Le Pen’s efforts to rebrand her party, she has reminded voters throughout this campaign season that the French far right remains wedded to a politics that has a special place for Jews and Muslims—as closely aligned racial “others.” Le Pen, like so many before her, regularly treats the two faith groups as sources of danger residing at the edges of the French nation, while also seeking to pit the one against the other.

Since becoming party head in 2011, Le Pen has gone to great lengths to give a facelift to the National Front, seeking to free it from the shadow of her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the party and led it for 40 years. She has undertaken a delicate balancing act: to position the party, long associated with fascist tendencies, as within the mainstream of French republican and democratic values, while also maintaining the National Front’s longstanding far-right constituency.

Integral to the first effort has been Le Pen’s insistence that she wholeheartedly embraces France’s Jews and rejects anti-Semitism. In June 2014, she even declared in an interview, “I do not stop repeating it to French Jews. … Not only is the National Front not your enemy, but it is without a doubt the best shield to protect you. It stands at your side for the defense of our freedoms of thought and of religion against the only real enemy, Islamist fundamentalism.”

But cosmetics can only get you so far. When Le Pen proposed banning “ostentatious religious signs” in October 2016 and again in February 2017, she did so not only for the Muslim hijab, but also the Jewish kippah. When asked about the kippah directly, Le Pen expressed confidence that many French Jews would be ready to make this “small sacrifice” for the greater good—that is, the defeat of Islamism.

More recently, Le Pen proposed that all dual French citizens of non-European countries would be required to forfeit either their French or non-French citizenship. This measure undoubtedly targets France’s large population of Muslims, many of whom hold citizenship both in France and in a North African country. Yet when interviewers raised explicitly the issue of Israel, Le Pen affirmed that Israel is not a European country and that she would therefore bar anyone from maintaining Israeli and French citizenship simultaneously. Once more, targeting Muslims went hand-in-hand with targeting Jews, reflecting the two groups’ intertwined fates in France, and offering a nod to the fear among Le Pen’s supporters that Jews always threaten to become a fifth column.

A glance back at history reinforces the impression that Le Pen’s new look is in fact not very new at all. As I detail in my book The Burdens of Brotherhood, since at least the 1930s, the extreme right in France has repeatedly invoked Muslims and Jews in the same breath, at once highlighting both groups as different from the rest of the population and seeking to rally them against one another. In the far right’s vision of a mythical France with Gallic ancestry and shared Catholic culture (if not faith), Jews and Muslims inherently hold a tenuous place at best. Yet strategic considerations have often made it necessary or useful to mobilize one group against the other.

In the mid-1930s, amidst economic, political, and cultural crises, the strand of racial anti-Semitism in France that had first emerged in the late 19th century returned with a vengeance. Muslims, meanwhile, mostly as impoverished natives and colonial migrants of Algeria (the crown jewel of the French empire), now occupied their own special place as strangers and dangers to the nation. Furthermore, far-right leaders remained influenced by the idea, popular among European racial thinkers for decades, that Muslims and Jews had a racial kinship as fellow “Semites.”

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.

But lest we think that in 2017 the National Front has totally moved on from the “Jewish question” to the Muslim one, Le Pen’s daughter keeps reminding us that the party always needs to keep both groups in the crosshairs. Indeed, by repeatedly bringing up Jewish difference at the same time that she mentions Muslims, Le Pen advances three seemingly contradictory core objectives.

First, she offers reassurance to her traditional Catholic, conservative base, which is characterized by widespread anti-Semitism. (According to a 2014 survey, those who voted for Le Pen in 2012 were roughly twice as likely as other French people to believe that Jews have too much power in the economy, media, and politics, and that there is a Zionist world conspiracy.) Second, including Jews enables her to claim that the issue is not anti-Muslim racism but a broader principle such as public secularism or loyal citizenship, thus burnishing her credentials as a mainstream supporter of French democracy. Finally, she demands sacrifice from all to oppose the great peril whose imagined existence is her candidacy’s sine qua non: the invasion by Islamists of a Christian European France.

Do the increasingly transparent contradictions of Le Pen’s high-wire act mean that her overtures to Jewish and Muslim voters will fall on deaf ears? Hardly. Just as the 1930s saw the same far-right parties defend colonial racism, employ hundreds of Muslim shock troops for anti-Semitic attacks, and elicit the visible support of some Jews, today the National Front’s message resonates in pockets of both populations. Like a certain number of Jews, a slice of the Muslim electorate embraces Le Pen’s message that “the best proof that one is French is to vote for the National Front.”

These aren’t easy times for Jews or Muslims in France, and one can hardly fault those searching for identity and answers in unusual places. But one need not be an alarmist to see the period of the 1930s and 1940s—the last time the French far right had the opportunity to move from opposition to power, from dodgy rhetoric to concrete policies—as a cautionary tale. Whatever Le Pen’s revisionist musings now, we know that the results proved horrifying.