(March 29, 2017 / JNS) By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
There was an illuminating report from Paris in The Wall Street Journal this week that related how Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, has been consulting a group of French bankers and captains of industry in a bid to continue the mainstreaming of her party as the country’s presidential election approaches.
Named “Les Horaces,” in honor of imperial Rome’s most illustrious and politically astute poet, this collection of dignitaries is preparing Le Pen, who represents what has up until now been a perennial party of opposition, for the challenges of government. If Le Pen’s first task was to shake off the legacy of her father Jean-Marie—the spiteful, bigoted anti-Semite who founded the party—her second will be learning how to competently run France’s intensely complex state institutions and bureaucracies.
While Le Pen can point to President Donald Trump’s victory as an example of how polling predictions can fall spectacularly flat, she might also want to study his first two months in office, during which the White House has failed to manage both the legislative agenda and the president’s media image. It’s distinctly possible the same fate could befall her, in the event that she wins the electoral contest April 23.
Depending on where you sit, a Le Pen victory would signal either the demise of fascism or its rebirth. The former view is held by National Front activists and their global echo chamber, who insist that Le Pen’s expulsion of her father from the very party he created—a move requiring courage and wiliness worthy of a Shakespeare plot—signals an irrevocable break with its Nazi-stained past.
From this perspective, Le Pen is not so much Marshal Petain, the collaborationist leader of German-occupied France, as she is Charles de Gaulle, the resistance leader who shaped post-war France and regarded international institutions like NATO with Gallic sniffiness. Le Pen’s Gaullist French nationalism resembles that, so her advocates say, of Trump in America—forthrightly opposed to immigration, contemptuous of multiculturalism, warning constantly of the dangers of Islamic radicalism, and aggressively seeking national control of trade and fiscal policy. What this means first of all is the potential collapse of the European Union, should France abandon the euro single currency and then follow the U.K.’s example by leaving the EU itself.
That fuels the opposite idea: that a Le Pen victory would mean the triumph of fascism at the polls in Europe for the first time since the end of World War II. For all of its glaring imperfections, the EU has been the embodiment of the post-war pledge that never again would Europe collapse into war and genocide. The manner of achieving this goal was the EU, with its open borders and its control of trade.
Without the EU, the theory goes, Europe risks again becoming a system of competing nation-states. Add to that government-sanctioned racist rhetoric and discriminatory policy, and all of a sudden, the 1930s don’t look so distant.
To my mind, neither of these viewpoints captures the profound challenge that a Le Pen victory would represent. Even if fascism were to return to 21st-century Europe, it would look very different to its 20th-century incarnation—and were Le Pen intent on setting up a totalitarian state with racial laws against Jews, Muslims and other minorities, and an ever-present secret police, she would find the task much harder than did Hitler from the ashes of the Weimar Republic.
And yet, those who believe that Le Pen is a French version of Trump would do well to reconsider. Whereas in Trump’s case, much of the election campaign involved discussing whether he even had any deeply held beliefs, Le Pen comes from a recognizable and established tradition—post-fascism, if we are to call it that, still comes from fascism after all.
There’s another crucial difference. Trump has been unfairly portrayed as an anti-Semite with little evidence to show for the claim; one reason for that is simply that America, unlike France, has no established anti-Semitic tradition. Sure, we’ve had to deal with Father Coughlin, David Duke and Pat Buchanan, but there is no history here of anti-Semitic legislation and neither of the two main parties has ever incorporated anti-Semitic ideology into its program.
In France, anti-Semitism has been, and is, far more serious. As in Germany, French intellectuals in the 19th and 20th centuries played a pivotal role in developing anti-Semitism as a modern ideology distinct from its Christian forebear, proudly organizing themselves into political parties with names like the “League of Anti-Semites.” The Dreyfus trial, perhaps the key episode in the evolution of anti-Semitism as a genocidal ideology, took place in France and defined an entire generation. Today, France is rife with anti-Semitic assaults, abuse and terror attacks, much of it emanating from the same Muslim migrant communities targeted by Le Pen—and the source, therefore, of the notion that she, unlike her father, will be “good for the Jews.”
It would, however, be foolish to reach that conclusion. If the last two decades have taught us anything, it’s that you don’t need anti-Semitic laws or policies, nor anti-Semitic government ministers, to have a major problem with anti-Semitism. The hostility to Jews that envelops large sections of the Muslim community, the far left and the nostalgists of the right will not disappear just because Le Pen becomes president—indeed, the phenomenon could get worse.
If Le Pen follows through on her campaign rhetoric by denying French Jews the right to hold dual Israeli citizenship, France’s perennial “Jewish question” will likely find itself in the national spotlight once more, echoing past smears about “dual loyalty” as well aspresent ones about the irritating “communalism”—a phrase from the pen of leading French journalist Christophe Barbier—displayed by French Jews during the rowdy anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist demonstrations that accompanied the Gaza war in 2014.
That is why I say, to those in America convinced that Le Pen will be a faithful partner in the anti-globalist crusade, be careful what you wish for.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.