A veteran French immigrant to Israel was asked this week for her reaction to the victory of hardliner Marine Le Pen’s National Front party in Sunday’s first round of regional elections.

Nonplussed, she said that while no one she knows would go on record about voting for Le Pen, there are many French Jews who did. And, pointing to the years of low-flame persecution her family and friends have experienced in Paris suburbs, she asked, “Can you blame them?”

The confluence of a decade of attacks on Jews in France, November’s multi-pronged terrorism, and rampant unemployment, has created a growing swath of unexpected but receptive voters for Le Pen’s “France for the French” party — the Jews.

Even after National Front received some six million votes in Sunday’s first round of regional elections, it is still unknown whether its win is just a perfect political storm or heralds a different era of French democracy. But it is clear that France awoke on December 7 to the dawn of a tri-partisan reality.

And today, although it’s still generally seen as taboo in the greater Jewish community, a growing Jewish minority — alongside France’s disaffected, unemployed and terror-ridden population — is voting for the party founded in 1984 by Jean-Marie Le Pen, a Holocaust denier convicted of racism and incitement on some six separate occasions.

Ahead of the December 13 second round of elections, Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration National Front party seems poised to gain control of as many as six of the country’s 13 newly divided mainland regions, according to The Guardian. On Sunday it garnered an astonishing 28 percent or so of the national vote — some 17 percentage points above 2010’s regional elections — and this week’s preliminary win comes after 2014’s European Parliament vote, which saw the party take a majority 21%, and the smaller 2015 departmental elections where it won 22%.

Increasingly, some Jews — after years of being on the frontlines of France’s war on terror — are voting for the party that is seen to be toughest on security. For them, after 10 years of living in big city suburbs facing anti-Semitic insults and even physical attacks from their largely Muslim immigrant neighbors, one could say the party’s strong xenophobic stance has a certain je ne sais quoi.

And so amid cries of despair from the majority of French Jewry (including its chief rabbi this week), some members of the Jewish community are quietly marching with the general French population and showing their support for National Front at the polls.

A Jewish call for action

The political landscape is already feeling the aftershocks from Sunday’s first round as the unpopular Leftist Socialists — led by Manuel Valls, who has called National Front “anti-Semitic and racist” — are dropping out of at least two regional races to increase the chances of the Nicolas Sarkozy-led right-wing Republicans.

Sacha Reingewirtz, president of the French Jewish Student Union (courtesy)

Sacha Reingewirtz, president of the French Jewish Student Union (courtesy)

That, according to the president of the Union of French Jewish Students, Sacha Reingewirtz, is the responsible reaction.

Between strategy meetings and urgent phone calls on Monday, Reingewirtz scoffed at the possibility of a decisive National Front win next week.

“National Front won’t take half of the regions; it may not even take one,” Reingewirtz told The Times of Israel.

The 29-year-old’s union is leading a counter-intelligence campaign in which the student activists are teaming up with human rights nonprofits to amplify their message that a rise in the National Front will lead to “civil chaos and unrest,” will “liberate racist speech,” and will create new isolationist laws.

The UEJF students aim to persuade voters that while Marine Le Pen has repudiated her father Jean-Marie Le Pen and barred him from the party, “National Front has very deep racist origins.” And those who were recently elected to city councils in the 2015 departmental elections are following that path, Reingewirtz said.

Guershon Nduwa (Black Jewish Federation of France)

Guershon Nduwa (Black Jewish Federation of France)

The union has formed watchdog groups in each of the cities that saw a rise in National Front politicians in the past few elections. The results are grim, he said.

“Even if it is trying to pose today as another party, it hasn’t changed,” said Reingewirtz. He said that if National Front were to wield more significant political power, “of course it will be a massive danger to the Jewish people in France.”

“The Jews will leave France if National Front gains power,” Reingewirtz warned.

As for why some Jews are supporting the party, he said that for many French Jews who were expelled from Arab Lands in Africa (some 70% of the community is of Sephardic origins), their traumatic experiences, as well as their being increasingly targeted by terrorism, are influencing their vote.

The president of Paris’s Black Jewish community, Guershon Nduwa, agreed in conversation with The Times of Israel on Monday. “They know each other [from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco], and the situation was not good for them there.” Now, with the two communities meeting again in France, many of these Jews have a tendency to be xenophobic, and natural National Front voters, said Nduwa.

‘Judaism tells us to remember we were strangers in a foreign land. That is the opposite of the National Front’

This is not the Jewish way, said Reingewirtz.

“I regret it deeply because I think the National Front is very much opposed to Jewish values in many respects. Judaism tells us to remember we were strangers in a foreign land. That is the opposite of the National Front,” said Reingewirtz.

Following Sunday’s interim results and poor voter turnout (approximately 50%), French Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia called on his flock to vote next Sunday, presumably to prevent a National Front win.

“To vote is a civic right as well as a civic duty. Therefore, I call for a greater mobilization for the second-round vote on December 13, in order to sustain democracy, choose vivre-ensemble and ensure national cohesion, especially in these troubled times that the Nation is currently experiencing,” said Korsia in a statement.

Chief Rabbi of France Haim Korsia, speaking with French media. (screen capture: YouTube)

Chief Rabbi of France Haim Korsia, speaking with French media. (screen capture: YouTube)

“We must defend our values and totally reject those who rise against each other, who campaign for isolation and exclusion, because History has always taught us that hatred and rejection, wherever it comes from, will one day makes us victims,” Korsia said. “As we are celebrating Hanukkah – the festival of lights — I wish the lights we light each night this week could drive obscurantism away.”

The Jewish vote(s)

France’s Jews represent less than 1% of the French electorate. Approximately half a million strong, there is no unified “Jewish vote.” However, according to a long-term study by French pollster IFOP of Jewish voting patterns, since the mid-1990s there has been a gradual move to the political right.

From the start of the Second Intifada, that rightward turn became more pronounced, and by the 2007 presidential election, almost half of French Jews voted for Nicholas Sarkozy, which was 14.5% above the national average. During the same 2007 elections, only 4% voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen, which was 6% below the national average.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (photo credit: Michel Euler/AP)

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy (photo credit: Michel Euler/AP)

In the close 2012 presidential elections, 45% of French Jews voted for quarter-Jewish Sarkozy (18% above national average) and 22.5% for today’s president, Francois Hollande, who won with a national average of 28%. Marine Le Pen, running as head of the National Front party for the first time, garnered 13.5% of the Jewish vote (4.5% below national average).

In conversation with The Times of Israel on Monday, French senior PR and political consultant David Khalfa said he expects Marine Le Pen will get marginal, but increasing numbers of Jewish voters in the upcoming 2017 presidential elections.

Based on the trend indicated by the IFOP figures, Khalfa said it sounds logical that the French Jewish community’s voters for Marine Le Pen in the presidential elections will be closer to the national average (17.9%) — “probably between 13-18%.”

Parisian political consultant David Khalfa (courtesy)

Parisian political consultant David Khalfa (courtesy)

He emphasized that there is no monolithic “Jewish vote”; rather, in France one could speak about the Jewish votes, in which in recent elections one quarter voted for the left and a majority for a center-right government. But since 2000 and the beginning of the Second Intifada, a growing wave of anti-Semitism has struck French Jews and their feeling that the Left under Lionel Jospin did not grasp with this sad reality lead them to increasingly vote for the right with a marginal minority voting for the far-right. Lately, he said, this minority has became less marginal as the vote for the far-right significantly increased from 4% in 2002 to 13.5% in 2012.

Khalfa explained that with Marine Le Pen’s change in the strategy of the party to stress its importance as a “protector against radical Islam” and her public break with her father on the issue of the Holocaust denial, she has changed the perception of National Front on a national level, which has promoted its normalization.

Indeed, in February 2015, Roger Cukierman, the head of the French Jewish umbrella organization CRIF, said Marine Le Pen is an “irreproachable personality” and said National Front is not a party of violence anymore. (In a statement on Tuesday, however, the CRIF urged Jews to vote to block National Front, which it called a “populist and xenophobic party,” according to The Local.)

Today, aligning oneself with Marine Le Pen is not necessarily a dissent for French voters, “but also vote in favor of her ideas. This is a major change. For 30 years it was mainly a protest vote against the current system,” said Khalfa. Now it is just another option.

But for the French Jews, he added, it is not just another option and voting for Marine Le Pen is still a taboo that has not been broken. French Jews, some of whom live in areas in which they feel threatened on a daily basis, are tempted to vote for Le Pen because she is perceived as being tougher on security, radical Islam and the prevention of terror attacks, he said.

At the same time, some Jews, he said, who may agree in principle with Le Pen’s tough stance on these issues, openly wonder about her economic policy and her political entourage, saying although she has repudiated her father, after 30 years of “negationism and racism,” could the party really be purged of anti-Semitism?

Marine Le Pen, a ‘friend’ of Israel?

In fashion-forward France, political anti-Semitism is now passe, according to contemporary European historian Dr. Diana Pinto.

In a telephone conversation from her Paris home the morning after the first round results, Pinto rejected the notion that Jews would be in more danger under the National Front. In the revamped party, “there has been no anti-Semitic thrust, not even coded. The Jews are not part of the story… The anti-Semitic thing is passe as a political tool.”

Dr. Diana Pinto sits in a lounge in Jerusalem's Yehuda Hotel following her keynote speech on Building Community Resilience in Times of Political and Social Unrest -- the European Perspective,' on November 5, 2015. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

Dr. Diana Pinto sits in a lounge in Jerusalem’s Yehuda Hotel following her keynote speech on Building Community Resilience in Times of Political and Social Unrest — the European Perspective,’ on November 5, 2015. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

Already, in the south of France where a number of Jews immigrated following their expulsion from French Africa, “Jews have been voting for Le Pen for ages,” she said.

She hypothesized French Jews in Israel are also voting for National Front by absentee ballot. She suggested that were Le Pen to take a true political foothold in national politics, a Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu-led Israel would hold a more “cherished” position in France, with mutual understandings on how to deal with the existential threat of Islamist terrorism.

For Netanyahu, said Pinto, the rise of National Front may be “a good thing. Whether for Israel it’s a good thing, I don’t know,” she said, calling the National Front politicians “law and order guys who appreciate Israel as a strong ally in killing as many Arabs as possible, and standing strong against terrorism.”

‘Israel is considered to be a great model for the right wing in that it is tough, and there is a clear understanding of who the enemy is, and a clear understanding of who is in charge’

Further, just as Israel is the state of the Jews, Le Pen would have France be the state of the French, said Pinto. France’s overarching problem is not the current refugee crisis but rather what to do with the native-born immigrants who haven’t integrated, a small minority of whom become terrorists, she said.

“Israel is considered to be a great model for the right wing in that it is tough, and there is a clear understanding of who the enemy is, and a clear understanding of who is in charge,” said Pinto.

Alongside its admiration of Israel’s tough stance on terror, France’s National Front has expressed interest in protecting “its” Jews. In this, said Pinto, other European far-right parties are following suit.

She talked about witnessing a recent far-right anti-Islamic Pegida demonstration in Berlin that began in front of the historical Rykestrasse synagogue, which survived Kristallnacht. She said the Israeli flag was waved by marchers “as a crusading flag against refugees.”

In an op-ed for a European Jewish media outlet, Pinto wrote that “Europe’s extreme right wing parties have eschewed anti-Semitism for Islamophobia and now use, even in Orban’s Hungary or Kacisnki’s Poland, the need to protect Europe’s Jews as the best argument against the bringing in of refugees from the Middle East.

‘Jews of all stripes are finding welcoming arms in the most unlikely political families’

“At the same time, at least in France, a not insignificant minority of Jews is attracted by Marine Le Pen’s National Front precisely because of its anti-Muslim (now turned into anti-Islamic terrorists) stance…. So Jews of all stripes are finding welcoming arms in the most unlikely political families,” she wrote.

Le Pen’s rise, said Pinto, has implications for the entire French society, of which Jews are a part.

“What is clear is that with the stronger National Front, [Prime Minister Viktor] Orban in Hungary, and the rest of Eastern Europe sharing certain purportedly Christian values with Russia, Europe has entered a new phase of counter-enlightenment,” she said.