PARIS — For years, France’s far-right National Front was synonymous with anti-Semitism. Its founder, Jean Marie Le Pen, was notorious for anti-Semitic outbursts — including a comment that the Holocaust was just a detail of history.
But since Mr. Le Pen’s daughter Marine took over the party’s leadership in 2011, the National Front has attempted a remarkable about-face: Today, the party positions itself as a champion of French Jews.
Although Ms. Le Pen, one of the front-runners in the coming presidential election, still alludes to anti-Semitic stereotypes on the campaign trail, she now promises that her party will be the protector of French Jews.
It is a surprising twist that has resonated with some French Jews who feel abandoned by what they see as the government’s tepid response to the anti-Semitic violence that has plagued the country for years.
But experts say the National Front’s shift may be intended more as a message to non-Jewish voters looking for moral cover in supporting a party that vilifies their primary sources of fear and anger: Muslims and immigrants.
The National Front has long been widely viewed in France as toxic, but by declaring itself a shield for French Jews, it may have found an effective way to allow many voters to justify breaking a taboo. That reflects a concept known as “moral license.” Framing the party as a champion of one minority enables voters to justify supporting its agenda in suppressing another.
The result is not a more racially tolerant National Front, but rather a party that has found nearly unprecedented success in persuading mainstream voters — many of whom may be quietly sympathetic to its anti-immigrant agenda — to embrace far-right ideas once considered off-limits.
“They are instrumentalizing us,” said Jonathan Arfi, vice president of the Council of Jewish Institutions in France, which goes by the French acronym CRIF. “We are a small minority,” he said, “but we have an important symbolic role to play.”
Becoming a ‘Normal’ Party
Mr. Arfi can point to the precise month when the new age of anti-Semitism began in France: September 2000, the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising. That brought about attacks on Jews in France, particularly those who lived in poorer neighborhoods on the outskirts of large cities — areas that had gradually become dominated by Muslim immigrants from North Africa and their families. Since then, anti-Semitic violence has remained high.
But the French government and civil society were slow to respond to the attacks, Jewish leaders felt. For many years, Mr. Arfi said, politicians were in denial about the attacks, preferring to see them as an “imported conflict” rather than as resurgent French anti-Semitism, although he was careful to note that the response had improved in recent years.
“It was uncomfortable for them to see that in France, the country of human rights, you had anti-Semitism coming up again,” said Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s advocacy in Europe.
That the attacks came from immigrant and Islamist communities, Ms. Rodan-Benzaquen said, deepened that discomfort: “It requires admitting that a population that suffers racism also harbors it.”
The situation created an opportunity for the National Front. The anti-Semitic attacks tracked with its narrative about the dangers of Muslim immigration: Mainstream parties had allowed the Islamist threat to grow by refusing to admit it was happening, and only the National Front could undertake the harsh measures needed to solve the problem.
It was also a way for the National Front to delegitimize charges of racism against Muslims, Mr. Arfi said. “They are trying to say ‘these people are committing anti-Semitic attacks, so they cannot be victims of anything.’ ”
Reading ‘Between the Lines’
In 2014, Ms. Le Pen summarized her message to France’s Jews in an interview with the French magazine Valeurs Actuelles. Her party, she argued, “is without a doubt the best shield to protect you against the one true enemy, Islamic fundamentalism.”
In early 2016, the party began to publicize the support it had received from a new group, the Union of French Jewish Patriots. It is not legally affiliated with the National Front, but was founded by Michel Thooris, a National Front city councilor in Carros and a member of the party’s central committee.
Mr. Thooris said that he had made his peace with the National Front’s legacy of anti-Semitism. “There are anti-Semitic personalities in the party,” he said, “but it happens in every political party.”
He had decided to support the party, Mr. Thooris said, because he believed it would offer protection from anti-Semitic violence. “It’s the only political party that actually offers to fight against insecurity, the rise of radical Islamism,” he said.
Still, no mainstream Jewish organization in France has endorsed the National Front, whose support among Jewish voters remains relatively low. But the group’s message may be about more than recruiting Jewish voters.
By saying they will protect the Jews against anti-Semitism, people understand that they mean they will be tough with the Muslims,” Mr. Arfi said. “Everything is between the lines.”
This message enabled Ms. Le Pen to retain the loyalty of the party’s base, which remains drawn to anti-Semitism, said Cécile Alduy, a Stanford University professor who studies the discourse of the French far right and has written a book about Ms. Le Pen’s speeches and language.
When Ms. Le Pen attacks “international finance” or “globalized money,” she is referring to common tropes of anti-Semitism, Ms. Alduy said. “She doesn’t need to say anything against the Jewish community,” she said. “Her rhetoric still nourishes and revitalizes these stereotypes.”
“It’s the best of both worlds in a way for the National Front,” Ms. Alduy said. “They don’t have to play dirty because their audience understands them between the lines.”
A ‘Moral License’
A more important reason for the National Front’s new stance on Jews may be its desire to attract mainstream voters who would otherwise consider it taboo to support the party.
To understand how this works, experts say, it helps to think about an unexpected analogue: the way people behave when they are trying to lose weight.
People on diets will say things like “Well, I was good yesterday, so I can cheat a little bit today,” said Daniel A. Effron, a professor at London Business School who studies the psychology of moral behavior.
Social psychologists call that a licensing strategy, meaning that once people convince themselves they are “good,” they can bend the rules in the future without losing that virtuous status.
It turns out that people employ the same kind of licensing strategy in political décisions.
In 2008, Mr. Effron, with his colleagues Jessica S. Cameron and Benoit Monin, recruited subjects who had voted for Barack Obama and asked them to consider a hypothetical: Imagine, they said, that you are a small-town police chief who needs to hire a new officer for a department plagued by racial tensions. Should you hire the white candidate or the black one?
There was a twist. Half of the participants were first asked whom they supported in the presidential election, effectively getting a reminder — and an opportunity to tell the research team — that they had voted for Mr. Obama over Senator John McCain.
People in that group were more likely to say that the police chief should hire the white officer than people who hadn’t been reminded of their electoral choice.
Remembering a vote for a black presidential candidate was the racial equivalent of a dieter remembering a day of salads. It made people feel as if they had “nonprejudiced credentials,” Mr. Effron said, and could therefore indulge their unspoken desire to privilege the hypothetical white candidate.
Ms. Le Pen’s emphasis on defending Jews — while retaining the party’s core message of fear and anger — may have given potential supporters the same kind of “nonprejudiced credentials” that voting for Mr. Obama gave Mr. Effron’s study subjects.
This may have helped to overcome one of the European far right’s greatest problems: not that its message is unappealing — evidence suggests anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant attitudes are quite prevalent — but that voters feel uncomfortable openly embracing that message.
By recasting the National Front as a vote in defense of Jews rather than a vote to suppress Muslim immigrants, Ms. Le Pen is giving mainstream voters a way to embrace racial supremacist politics without feeling racist.
In order to convince the general public that times have changed and that the National Front is no longer taboo, Ms. Rodan-Benzaquen joked that the party needs “the kosher stamp.”
In the last few years, the party has won more support than nearly any other far-right movement in Western Europe. Ms. Le Pen is tied for first in the presidential election polls, though she is projected to lose in a second-round runoff. And she is coming off remarkable success in the 2015 regional elections, in which National Front candidates won nearly a third of the votes nationwide.
Nicolas Bay, the party’s general secretary, was up front about why he visited Israel last January. One goal of the trip, he said, was to “erase every ambiguity about the accusations of anti-Semitism against our party” by emphasizing its “special attentions for Jewish people.”
I asked Mr. Thooris, the National Front central committee member who founded the Union of French Jewish Patriots, about the moral license theory.
Did he think that the party’s moral credentialing on Jewish matters — including the public support of groups like his — had helped dispel the broader public taboo against voting for the National Front?
“Yes,” he replied. “It is undeniable.”
Follow Amanda Taub on Twitter @amandataub.
Pamela Rougerie contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on April 6, 2017, on Page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: France’s Far Right, Once Known for Anti-Semitism, Courts Jews.