A day ahead of the second round of the French Presidential election, polls show far-right populist Marine Le Pen winning nearly 40% of the vote against centrist Emmanuel Macron’s 60%, with an unusually high proportion of voters abstaining. The close race testifies to the success of the rebranding effort by Le Pen’s Front National: in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen faced center-right incumbent Jacques Chirac, the FN was routed 80% to 20% in the second round. Sunday’s election will mark the culmination of Marine Le Pen’s transformation of the marginal, anti-Semitic party that her father founded into a mainstream party advocating national security and sovereignty. Thinking sociologically, the remarkable surge of Le Pen provides a troubling example of pitting one marginalized group against another—a tactic that enables society’s dominant group to consolidate power.
Since 2011, when she took over the party’s presidency, the younger Le Pen has distanced herself from her father’s shadow. Her strategy, termed dédiabolisation (“undemonization”), culminated in Jean-Marie Le Pen’s 2015 expulsion from the party he’d founded. Unlike her predecessor, Marine Le Pen personally has never been accused of anti-Semitism by the press; the President of the CRIF, the federation of French Jewish organizations, called her “irreproachable”. Under her leadership, two senior FN officials have visited Israel. On Sunday, the FN leader observed France’s Memorial Day for Victims of Deportation by laying a wreath at a monument in Marseille.
French Jews have become central to the FN’s platform in a new way: the rise of the Muslim Other has enabled the FN to claim that Muslims are to blame for the surge in violent anti-Semitism in France. By extension, the FN claims that the party acts in the interest of French Jews by excluding Muslims. Polls indicate that Jewish support for the FN has risen substantially in recent years, with 13.5% of Jewish voters supporting Marine Le Pen in the 2012 elections (compared to the national average of 18%).
The FN’s hallmark anti-Semitism has been supplanted by a more socially palatable anti-Muslim platform, which condemns Muslims as the perpetrators of anti-Semitic violence and claims that the FN alone is willing to defend Jews from Muslims. While anti-Semitism was a barrier to the FN’s mainstream appeal, Islamophobia is a boon: polls show that distrust of Muslims and—even more revealingly—the perception that Muslims cannot integrate into French society is widespread.
Yet these changes to the FN’s platform, and its overtures to Jewish voters, mask the fact that the othering of Jews and Muslims has been interconnected for centuries. Each group has been conflated, in turn, into a monolithic national Other, incapable of assimilation into the French nation. The two longstanding Others have also been constructed in opposition to one another in order to advance the interests of the state. Jews and Muslims have been alternately pitted against one another and conflated in debates over the nation’s boundaries. One particularly salient issue is the visibility of religion in the public sphere. A 2004 law banning the hijab in state schools gained credibility by also banning yarmulkes, thus enabling its supporters to claim that it did not target Muslims. And while the 2011 niqab ban targets Muslims alone, Marine Le Pen’s proposed expansion of this law would ban all overt religious symbols—including the hijab and the yarmulke—from public spaces. Thus, laïcité, a principle that increasingly serves to define the parameters of Frenchness, is used to justify forms of exclusion that disproportionately target religious minorities.
The ease with which the FN has replaced anti-Semitism with Islamophobia reveals the degree to which the two are interconnected. It should also serve as a warning that the former lurks just beneath the surface. On April 9th, Marine Le Pen claimed that France could not be held responsible for the deportation of French Jews during World War II because the legitimate French government was in exile at the time. On April 28th, the party’s deputy chair, Jean-François Jalkh, resigned after it emerged that he had questioned the existence of Nazi gas chambers. Islamophobia may have replaced anti-Semitism as the FN’s most public platform. But a pungent combination of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have placed the FN within striking distance of the Presidency.