Friday, 2 April 2010

French Jews 'unfazed' by National Front gains

The far-right National Front made a surprise comeback in the French regional elections on Sunday, but the Jewish community remains largely unperturbed.

The National Front gained its best result in years, getting an average of 17.8 per cent of the vote in 12 French regions. Eighty-two-year old party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen obtained the highest share of the vote, 22.8 per cent, in the southern region of Provence, Alpes, Cote d'Azure.

The party's success was unexpected as it has been losing ground for years, particularly since Nicolas Sarkozy ran for president in 2007. But voters are now turning back to the far right.

Still, the head of France's Jewish umbrella group CRIF said the party's results do not prove the French are increasingly antisemitic.

"I've always protested against Le Pen's controversial declarations, his insulting remarks on the Holocaust, and he hasn't gotten any wiser through the years, but this does not mean his voters share his views," said Dr Richard Prasquier. "They're just extremely frustrated with the economic crisis and their vote is a form of protest.

"However I do feel that the fact that they found no other way to express their dismay is a bad sign for our democracy."

Since Mr Sarkozy was elected president, the National Front has been beset by internal rivalries and financial woes. It spent millions on campaigning and even had to put its headquarters on auction to settle its debts, but no one would buy them due to the party's negative image. Meanwhile, the party has been struggling to find a successor to its aging founder and several leaders have left the movement

The debate over who would take over after Le Pen retires seems resolved now, in favour of Jean-Marie's daughter Marine, currently the party's vice president. The 42-year old has positioned herself as the probable successor and while several party officials have criticised a succession within the Le Pen family, her impressive 22 per cent share of the vote in the regional election in the north brings her new legitimacy.

Over the past decade, Marine Le Pen has tried to change the party's image, abandoning her father's controversial style and revisionist remarks about the Holocaust. She tried to join a parliamentary trip to Israel and to approach Jewish media. But observers say she is still advocating the same policies as her father.

"She may be more polite, but her programme remains unchanged: favouring people of French descent, getting people of foreign descent to leave the country," said political scientist and far-right expert Jean-Yves Camus.

When running for president, Mr Sarkozy vowed to strip the National Front of its voters with promises of greater security in France and limited immigration. But his policies appeared to have fallen short, and now Mr Le Pen's old voters are returning to their old party.

"This is an obvious defeat for Mr Sarkozy," said Jean-Marie Le Pen after the election.

And his daughter Marine said the party will now prepare for the presidential election due in two years.

"The National movement is now a major player," she said, "a major player in the next major national election - the presidential election."