French Jewish dilemma : will it be kosher to vote Marine Le Pen ?

“WE’RE NOT safe here any longer,” says a Jewish woman quoted in “L’an prochain à Jérusalem?” (Next year in Jerusalem?), a newly published book about French Jews confronted with contemporary anti- Semitism.

The unnamed woman adds, “What France needs is Marine Le Pen. But if she is elected, I’m leaving the country.”

The comment typifies the ambivalence felt by many French Jews about the leader of Le Front National (The National Front) ‒ the party that emerged from nationwide regional elections in December as France’s single most powerful political force.

French Jewry’s official bodies reject any contact with Le Pen and the Front National (FN), but some rank-and-file Jews, feeling increasingly vulnerable to Muslim anti- Semitism, see FN as the only force with a clear program that can protect them.

Admired as a Joan of Arc-like figure by some, reviled as a right-wing extremist by others, Le Pen, 47, plans to run for the presidency of France in May 2017.

Today, she seems almost certain to be one of the two candidates who will make it to the second and final round, fueled in large part by her campaign against immigration, Muslim fundamentalism and street delinquency, which the French public overwhelmingly attributes to youths of Muslim-Arab origin.

Statistics presented to the French National Assembly show that around 70 percent of the country’s prison inmates are young Muslims.

Roger Cukierman, the respected president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF), the umbrella body for French Jewry, tells The Jerusalem Report he doesn’t believe FN has changed, and did not want his organization to give the party a “seal of respectability” that could help it win the election.

But there are dissenters, such as lawyer and political commentator Gilles-William Goldnadel, a prominent critic of Cukierman’s approach, who says FN deserves a second chance. “I believe that since Marine Le Pen succeeded her father, it is wrong to consider the National Front as an anti-Semitic party. And it is even more wrong to single out FN as the main foe when real criminal anti-Semitism comes from the Islamists and the ultra-left who back them,” he asserts to The Report.

Opinions also seesaw among many ordinary French Jews who still resent that their families had to flee Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia when they became independent from France in 1956-1962. These Sephardi Jews make up 70 percent of France’s estimated half-million strong Jewish community, Europe’s biggest and the third largest in the world after Israel and the US. French Jews are outnumbered, however, more than 10-1 by the country’s six million Muslims with whom relations are often tense.

“Because of her father [FN founder and past party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen], it’s taboo among French Jews to say you’re going to vote for her,” says Maurice B., leader of a suburban Paris Jewish community that is almost entirely of North African descent.

“But I hear a lot of people in my synagogue say that Marine Le Pen is the only French politician who would know how to put the Arabs back in their place if she came to power,” he tells the Report. “They say they won’t vote for her but, in the secrecy of the voting booth, I’m certain that a good number of Jews will cast their ballots in her favor.”

FRENCH JEWS are exasperated by hundreds of anti-Semitic incidents a year, the overwhelming majority of which are attributed by the victims to French-born youths of Muslim-Arab origin. Le Pen has boasted in interviews that she would be the “best shield for the Jews” if she came to power.

The book “L’an prochain à Jérusalem?”, by respected sociologists and demographers Jérôme Fourquet and Sylvain Manternach, delved further into Le Pen and the Jewish vote.

Fourquet, Manternach and their team carried out a survey over several months among 45,250 French adults of all backgrounds, finding that 1.6 percent had one or two Jewish parents. Clearly adopting the stance that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” some 13.5 percent of the latter group said they had already voted for Le Pen in the 2012 presidential race won by current center-left president François Hollande.

FN has gone from success to success at the ballot box since Le Pen succeeded her father as party head in 2011. She received 17.9 percent of the 2012 vote when she stood for the presidency. Her party got 27.8 percent of votes nationwide in the first round of last December’s regional elections, and she personally received 40 percent in her constituency.

FN topped the polls in six of metropolitan France’s 12 administrative regions in the first round. But in an unprecedented move, the ruling center-left coalition then withdrew its candidates in several tightly contested areas ahead of the run-off round and called on its sympathizers to vote for the mainstream center-right to block FN. The maneuver succeeded, and FN failed to win any regions, although it had nearly seven million votes in the final round.

Opinion polls conducted in January showed the only candidate who would outpoll Le Pen in the first round of a presidential election was Alain Juppe, the center-right former prime minister. Le Pen would beat both outgoing President Hollande and ex-president Nicholas Sarkozy, but there are possibly another dozen contenders, and rightists and leftists could ally themselves against her as they did in December.

However, continuing high unemployment or new Islamist terrorist attacks like those that killed 130 people in Paris on November 13 would play in her favor.

There is no doubt that a major cause of FN’s fast-growing appeal is the removal from the scene of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who created the party in 1974 and became notorious for comments such as belittling Hitler’s concentration camps as “a detail in the history of World War II.” Now 87, he paved the way for his daughter to succeed him when he stepped down in 2011 and became the party’s honorary president.

But, moving leftward on several major issues, she soon clashed with some of FN’s most conservative elements, alienating Roman Catholic fundamentalists with her discreet but clear backing for abortion and gay rights. Her relations with her father nose-dived when he, ever hungry for the limelight, again began spouting statements defending WWII collaborationist leader Philippe Pétain and minimizing the effects of the Nazi occupation.

Marine had his weekly lecture scrapped from the FN internal television channel, and she finally had him expelled from the party altogether last August amid scenes reminiscent of an ancient Greek tragedy. Father and daughter no longer speak to one another.

Some of the father’s staunchest supporters then left the party and now snipe at her from the extreme right.

After Marine went out of her way to oust a number of avowed anti-Semites and other extremists from the party, Goldnadel, a leading French-Jewish figure, said organized French Jewry should review its ban on any contacts with her so as not to “insult the future” and find itself in an awkward position if she won next year’s election.

In an attempt to clarify her agenda toward Jews, The Report asked for an interview with Marine Le Pen knowing, however, that she has shunned the media since December.

FN spokesman Alain Vizier said Le Pen was busy preparing for the next presidential elections scheduled to take place in a year’s time and would not meet the press for several more months. Vizier, however, readily agreed to a request for an interview with Louis Aliot, one of the National Front’s vice presidents, who happens to be Le Pen’s domestic partner.

Aliot has been a key figure in weeding extremists from FN ranks; ultra-rightists call him “a Zionist agent,” especially since his maternal grandfather was Jewish.

The Report also interviewed CRIF head Cukierman and Goldnadel, who is president of the France-Israel Alliance. Goldnadel is also a member of CRIF’s steering committee but now boycotts it in protest at Cukierman’s stance, which he says ostracizes FN, but not the Communist Party or the ultra-leftist Greens.

ALIOT SPEAKS to the Report at FN headquarters in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, which, ironically, has a large population of Algerian-Muslim origin. At least half the women on the bus through Nanterre wore Muslim headscarves.

A lawyer by training, Aliot, 46, is a professor of constitutional law. He is an extremely affable man who talks with the characteristic sing-song accent of southwest France. He looks less like a bookish university professor than the rugby player (he’s 1.85 meters, over six feet, tall and weighs 85 kilos) he was for many years in amateur leagues in his home region where his father and paternal grandfather were plasterers.

The newsmagazine Paris Match describes him as the “soothing and reassuring presence” in Le Pen’s life, which he has shared since 2009. Both are divorced, she twice and he once. Both have children from prior marriages, a 17-year-old girl and twins, a boy and a girl, 16, for her, and a 16-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy for him. The latter two live with their mother.

Coincidentally or not, halfway through the interview, someone knocks at the door and in walks Marine Le Pen. One may think what one may about her politics, but at 1.74 meters (5’8″) tall, and with a dazzling smile and blonde hair, she’s a very striking woman ‒ especially since she appears to have taken advantage of her time away from the public eye to embark on what seems to be a very successful diet.

“Monsieur is from The Jerusalem Report news magazine,” Aliot informs her with a wide gesture of his arm. The dazzling smile flashes on again and she says, “Ahhh, très bien!” She shakes hands with the visitor, arranges a lunch date with Aliot and leaves.

Aliot briefly visited Israel in 2011 and met sympathizers who are Franco-Israeli dual nationals. But Israeli authorities gave him the cold shoulder, which still rankles.

“It was very interesting, but I won’t go back if I’m going to be treated like a brigand again,” he says. His stay was marked by government moves to prevent him from meeting anyone of influence.

Aliot’s main message is to say that, under Marine Le Pen, FN will not tolerate any anti- Semitism. “Marine has always been clear about anti-Semitism. She clearly said the Shoah was the worst of all barbarity, and that her father’s ‘detail’ comments about concentration camps were bullshit. Aside from the sorrow it caused people who suffered from the Shoah, it also affected French people who had no direct connection to it… It was indefensible and hurt everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike,” he says.

Aliot recalls that he was personally heavily involved in ridding FN of what he described as “anti-Semitic morons.”

“That someone doesn’t like someone else because of their ethnic or religious origin is delirium. I found this out at my own expense,” he says of his own Jewish family connection.

Aliot successfully sued Alain Soral, “guru” of the convicted anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, for libel when Soral’s website described Aliot as “a cretin who sucks off the Zionists.”

Aliot says Jewish membership in FN is growing. He gives no numbers, but says the party will almost certainly create an informal organization ahead of the presidential election specifically aimed at Jewish voters.

He says the group will probably be headed by Michel Thooris, a French-Jewish police inspector currently on leave from government service because he serves as a municipal councilor elected on a FN list in southern France.

Aliot says Thooris, who accompanied him to Israel in 2011, “is very Zionist and favors the annexation of the West Bank, which he calls Judea and Samaria. But that is not FN policy.” He says the party favors a two-state solution with full peace and mutual recognition between Israel and a future Palestine, based on a return to pre- 1967 borders with possible mutually agreed upon modifications.

On Aliot’s recommendation, The Report spoke to Thooris, who Aliot said “was close” to right-wing Israeli politician Avigdor Liberman. Speaking later to The Report by telephone, Thooris said he wanted to liaise with Aliot to coordinate their views before granting an interview. Whether or not they were able to see eye-to-eye about Judea and Samaria and the Palestinian territories, Thooris since ceased replying to The Report’s requests for a meeting.

The Report did, however, speak to Michel Ciardi, 72, a retired French-Jewish psychotherapist, also recommended by Aliot, who, during the 2012 presidential election, headed the now dormant Union of French Jews, a small group linked to FN.

Ciardi says he had backed FN because “one of the ways to fight anti-Semitism is to show that French Jews are patriots who defend the French people. The Jews here are probably more patriotic than the French Socialists.” But Ciardi adds that he had left the Front because of pressure from family and friends. He also disagrees with its economic policy, which is one of the party’s main electoral draws, but also one of its biggest handicaps.

FN is the single most powerful vote-getter among French blue-collar workers because it says it can solve unemployment (now at over 10 percent) by pulling France out of the euro currency zone. But many older voters, who would otherwise vote for the party, are mostly opposed to leaving the euro zone because many economists warn it would devalue their savings.

ON THE Middle East, Ciardi believes that Israel should annex the Palestinian territories, adding, “Marine Le Pen doesn’t understand anything about the Middle East. But Aliot is different. Thooris told me he saw Aliot with tears in his eyes when he was met and was embraced by Jews originally from Algeria at [the West Bank settlements] Shilo and Eli.”

Aliot’s maternal grandfather, André Salomon Sultan, was a member of the large Jewish community of then-French Algeria who were among one million France nationals to flee that territory for France in the blood-soaked final months leading to independence in July 1962.

Sultan, the owner of a clothing store in Algiers, was married to a Catholic woman of Spanish origin, and they arrived in metropolitan France with their children, including Aliot’s mother, in 1962. Like many French, Aliot is a non-practicing Catholic.

He grew up in southwest France while his grandfather lived in Nice on the Riviera where a large Jewish community of former residents of North Africa regrouped and still lives today.

“At Pesach,” says Aliot using the Hebrew word for Passover, “my grandfather would send us orange-flavored unleavened bread [matza]. But I only really understood he was Jewish when he died. I was 11 or so and went to the mortuary to see his body with my great aunt, my grandfather’s sister.

There was a small statuette of Christ on a table, clearly part of the furniture. My aunt angrily turned it to the wall. I was given the Star of David my grandfather wore around his neck and I still have it,” Aliot says.

Aliot says with a laugh that he knows that, due to his Jewish grandfather, and although he is not Jewish, he is eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return and receive immediate citizenship.

He is surprised to learn from The Report (informed the previous day by the Jewish Agency in response to a question) that Marine Le Pen would also be entitled to immigrate to Israel – receiving Israeli citizenship if she was married to Aliot beforehand, but as a permanent resident if she arrived with him still unmarried.

Aliot recalls that Le Pen met last summer with members of the European Jewish Parliament and its president, Ukrainian-born oligarch Vadim Rabinovich, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg where she condemned anti-Israel boycotts. Other Jewish groups criticized the meeting.

CRIF President Cukierman is unimpressed by Le Pen and the purported changes in FN.

“Everything in her past leads me to believe that she is the true heir to her father, and that one should not trust her. Her party does not share the moral values of Jews and of all democrats. I reject the National Front.

Period!” he tells The Report.

Cukierman came under strong criticism from France’s left-leaning press and some top political figures last year when he said Marine Le Pen was “personally irreproachable” on the issue of anti- Semitism. He explains, now, that she was “intelligent enough or has the right intuition not to make anti-Semitic statements.”

“I believe that were CRIF to make a gesture toward FN giving it a seal of respectability, that would also give FN the few percentage points in public opinion that could eventually allow it to become a government- level party. I don’t want to be the one to give them such a monumental gift. If I did so, it would be a knife in the back of all the democratic parties of the moderate left and right who have backed us and defended the Jews,” he says. “I am grateful to the French Republic for defending Jews in our schools and synagogues,” he says of the thousands of French troops who daily protect hundreds of Jewish institutions.

What if she is elected next year? “That is a hypothesis I don’t even want to think about. It would be an enormous shock for the Jewish community that I think would lead to a real acceleration of the departure of Jews from France,” says Cukierman.

Goldnadel disagrees nearly entirely with the CRIF president who, at 79, will step down in May after three terms in office.

They agree on only one point ‒ that Le Pen has some advisers who are not “good for the Jews.”

Goldnadel, who as a lawyer represents FN vice president, Florian Philippot, in a libel suit brought against him by the Gulf state of Qatar, says that one of Le Pen’s advisers is Frédéric Chatillon, once head of the extreme-rightist strong-arm student groups, who has championed Syrian President Bashar Assad in France.

Aliot tells the Report that Chatillon is a friend of Le Pen from their student days and has a commercial arrangement with FN as owner of a printing house. “I don’t even think he is a member of FN, and he certainly does not advise her on anything. If he did, she certainly would not have said in the summer of 2014 that Israel was justified in defending itself when attacked from Gaza, a statement that attracted criticism from both ultra-right and ultra-left.”

Goldnadel points out that “I don’t vote for the National Front, but I would not consider that I would be in danger as a Jew in France if Marine Le Pen was elected.” Goldnadel holds dual French and Israeli citizenship, and both his children live in Israel, where his son trained and worked as a lawyer before becoming an officer in the Israel Police. His daughter teaches Pilates in Tel Aviv, and his mother recently moved to Jerusalem.

Goldnadel, 62, has handled high-profile cases against anti-Semites like Dieudonné and represented the family of Lee Zeitouni, a young Israeli woman who was run over and killed in Tel Aviv in 2011 by two French Jewish tourists who fled the country.

“They’re both in prison here right now,” Goldnadel proudly says.

He is also a noted commentator for Le Figaro daily newspaper, Valeurs Actuelles news magazine, Radio Monte Carlo and the I-télé all-news television channel. Aside from the France-Israel Alliance, a nondenominational pro-Israel advocacy group, he also heads “Lawyers without Borders,” an international pro-justice body.

Goldnadel says that for understandable historical reasons, CRIF was long wary of the French extreme right, “but have to wake up to the fact that it is not the extreme right that is spilling Jewish blood in France today.”

He is critical of CRIF for its dialogue with some left-wing groups who engage in pro-Palestinian activities. “It is a mistake to wage war only against Marine Le Pen when it is the other extreme that is far more dangerous [for the Jews],” he claims.

Contrary to Cukierman who believes only a small number of Jews vote for Le Pen, Goldnadel says, “From the moment that Marine Le Pen broke with her father on anti- Semitism and that French Jews recognized the dangers of excessive immigration from Arab states, it is obvious that the Jewish vote for her should increase.”