The far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party is seeking the presidency of the National Assembly's working group on anti-Semitism.
RN Member of Parliament Sébastien Chenu is vice-president of the Assembly and oversees the operation of the working groups. Having taken soundings from all parties the MP – who did not respond to Mediapart's request for a comment – put forward proposals for the group presidencies to the Assembly's office on Wednesday November 9th. Among these is a request from the RN to take over the chair of the group on anti-Semitism.
These proposals still have to be approved by the Assembly's office, which will make its decision on December 7th. “I would point out that no list, no composition, no appointment has been established before the Assembly office makes its decision,” the National Assembly's president Yaël Braun-Pivet was at pains to note in a Tweet.
Yet the very fact that Rassemblement National is seeking to head such a group has already provoked a strong reaction from anti-Semitic groups and representative bodies from France's Jewish community.
“It would be an absurdity and unacceptable gaslighting,” the president of the Jewish representative council CRIF Yonathan Arfi said on Twitter. He called on MPs to “do all they can to stop this possibility, which would strip this working group of any legitimacy and dishonour all those who participate in it”.
“We refuse to work with them and reject anti-Semitism being used in this way to de-demonise the far-right,” said the Jewish students union in France. “It's like a bad joke!” said Ariel Goldmann, president of the Jewish organisation the Fonds Social Juif Unifié (FSJU) and the Fondation du Judaïsme Français, saying that he, too, would refuse to cooperate with the group under the RN's presidency. Meanwhile the anti-racism league, the Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et l’Antisémitisme (LICRA), attackedwhat it called a “sham” and an “aberration” and said it was an “unthinkable option that must be fought strongly”.
“Today was the appeal hearing for Jean-Marie Le Pen [editor's note, co-founder of the RN's forerunner the Front National or FN] over having used the word 'batch' [editor's note, which has evocations of the holocaust against the Jewish people] in relation to [Jewish singer] Patrick Bruel. These comments were published on the FN's site, of which Marine Le Pen was already president at the time,” noted the president of the anti-racist group SOS Racisme, Dominique Sopo, who went on to ask Yaël Braun Pivet: “Do you think that the FN/RN can preside over a working group on anti-Semitism?”
On the Left some MPs were also quick to express their opposition to such a move.
Le groupe d'études "Antisémitisme" présidé par l’extrême-droite ?— Boris VALLAUD (@BorisVallaud) November 9, 2022
Les @socialistesAN s'y opposent fermement et demandent aux autres groupes républicains à l'Assemblée nationale de faire de même.
Tweets from Socialist Party MP Boris Vallaud and green MP Sandrine Rousseau described the idea that the RN could take charge of a working group on anti-Semitism as “inconceivable” and “impossible”.
Le #RN qui a les groupes d'études Antisémitisme et SIDA.— Sandrine Rousseau (@sandrousseau) November 9, 2022
Un parti fondé par des SS et dont un des dirigeants historique parlait de mettre les "sidaïques" dans des "sanatoriums".
C'est impossible !
Indeed, the history of the Front National – which took on its current name Rassemblement National in 2018 – is punctuated by anti-Semitism.
The party was set up in 1972 by former wartime collaborators close to notorious French collaborators Marcel Déat and Jacques Doriot, ex-members of the Waffen SS and 1960s neo-fascists. The founding statutes of the Front National were filed jointly by Jean-Marie Le Pen and Pierre Bousquet, a former Waffen SS officer.
Over the years Le Pen, who was president of the movement until 2011 and honorary president until 2018, stepped up his anti-Semitic declarations and his defence of France's wartime Vichy regime which collaborated with the Nazis.
On October 20th 1985, during his movement's traditional Bleu-Blanc-Rouge (BBR) or Blue-White-Red celebrations at Le Bourget in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris, he mockingly dedicated the acclaim of his supporters to “Jean-François Kahn, Jean Daniel, Ivan Levaï and Elkabbach, to all the liars in this country's press”. This reference to four Jewish journalists led to him being convicted, with the judges ruling his remarks to be “insidious anti-Semitism”.
The FN founder was even more explicit on a later occasion. On September 13th 1987 he stated on RTL radio that the gas chambers were a “detail” in the history of World War II. These comments caused a storm of protest and marked a turning point for his party, which had at the time been experiencing an electoral breakthrough.
Jean-Marie Le Pen went on to repeat this expression on many occasions. During a press conference organised in Bavaria with former Waffen SS member Franz Schönhuber in December 1997, Le Pen said: “In a book of a thousand pages on World War II, the concentration camps occupy two pages and the gas chambers ten to fifteen lines, that's called a detail.” But he also used the expression more recently, in 2008, during an interview with the regional magazine Bretons, at the European Parliament in 2009 and again in 2015 during an interview with the BFMTV news channel. In 2018, after a lengthy appeal process, his conviction for “denying crimes against humanity” was upheld.
In September 1988, during a speech to activists during a party conference at Cap d'Agde in the south of France, Jean-Marie Le Pen sparked a new row when he dubbed government minister Michel Durafour “Mr Durafour-Crematorium “ - 'four' is the French word for 'oven' (see videohere).
When questioned in 2005 by the pro-Vichy and anti-Semitic weekly magazine Rivarol about the “commemorations for the end of World War II” , the FN president said that “in France, at least, German occupation was not particularly inhumane, even if there were some blunders, which are inevitable in a country of 550,000 square kilometres”. During the same interview he described the Gestapo – which was deemed a criminal organisation at the Nuremberg Trials - as a police force protecting the public.
During a 'logbook' video broadcast on the FN website in June 2014, he suggested he would “make a batch next time” - a clear reference to the Jewish Holocaust – of anti-FN artists, including the Jewish singer Patrick Bruel.
A few months later Le Pen told BFMTV that “of course” what the Vichy regime did was “excusable”. He said: “As far as I'm concerned, I believe that Vichy did what it could to try to defend the French people against a horrible calamity that had just occurred, and for which in any case those responsible were the people who had ruled the country before the defeat.”
Then in April 2015, in a long interview with Rivarol, Jean-Marie Le Pen stated that he had “never considered Marshal [Philippe] Pétain [editor's note, the head of Vichy France] to be a traitor” and that “we were very severe with him after the Liberation”. He also said that he had never considered “those who continued to hold regard for Marshal Pétain as bad French people or people to be avoided”. They had a “place in the Front National”, he insisted.
Over the years other party members or those close to the FN have also displayed their obsession with the history of World War II, the Jewish genocide and the Vichy regime.
In 1998 the weekly FN publication National-Hebdo published an article by one of the most prominent French Holocaust deniers, Robert Faurisson. The magazine's editor, Martin Peltier, who was an FN candidate in the Lot-et-Garonne département or county in south-west France in legislative elections in 1993, had himself been convicted in 1996 for “denying a crime against humanity”. In an issue in June 1998, as reported in Le Monde at the time, Peltier had also wondered if “friendship with the SS” was “possible”. Peltier was of the view that the Waffen SS were “elite troops particularly seeped in a core of ideological patriotism” who had simply “sometimes” committed “blunders”.
Six years later, in 2004, the former number two at the Front National, Bruno Gollnisch – who was present at the RN's recent conference on November 5th – stated at a press conference at Lyon in eastern France that he “did not question the deportations” nor the “millions of deaths” in Nazi camps. But he said that a “debate has to take place …. as to the manner in which people died”. He was then excluded for five years from Lyon-III university where he was a professor of law.
In 2017 it was the turn of Jean-François Jalkh, a senior party figure who had been lined up to take over temporarily as head of the FN during the presidential elections that year, to get caught up in his past denier comments. Back in 2000, during an interview with a university lecturer, the Member of the European Parliament had questioned whether Zyklon B gas had been used in the Nazi extermination camps – an interview he claimed he could not recall. Nine years earlier he had attended a commemoration to mark the 40th anniversary of Marshal Pétain's death.
At each passing election the French media have dug out anti-Semitic or racist comments made by party candidates. In a lengthy investigation in 2017, for example, the news site Buzzfeed highlighted declarations by several Front National candidates.
More recently, several of the party's candidateswere excluded from the 2021 regional elections over anti-Semitic comments. One of them, who was in a winnable position on the RN's list of candidates in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of south-east France, had been posting anti-Semitic and conspiracy theory messages for months. Rassemblement National only suspended the candidate after an article by Mediapart. And during the June 2022 legislative election campaign the website HuffPost revealed that a RN candidate in the Ain département had published racist, anti-Semitic and conspiracy theory material.
On each occasion Rassemblement National strongly condemned any anti-Semitism which it insisted had “no place in its ranks”. It is true that great majority of the most radical anti-Semites were removed in the 2000s and now operate in small peripheral groups, such as d’Yvan Benedetti and Alexandre Gabriac. But a heralded big clear-out of such radical elements proved impossible.
Keen to gain power and to see through her strategy of 'de-demonising' the movement, Marine Le Pen personally distanced herself from her father's declarations on several occasions. “I don't share my father's vision of World War II, I have a different vision of events,” Marine Le Pen said in 2009 when she was vice-president of the FN. In 2015, after her father defended Marshal Pétain, she expelled him from the party.
However, at the same time Marine Le Pen maintained in her inner circle two old friends from university days who have regularly faced claims of anti-Semitism. These are Frédéric Chatillon and Axel Loustau, former radical activists in the extreme-right Groupe Union Défense (GUD), who went on to wield control of her party's financial apparatus. The former was a key service provider for party campaigns for nearly a decade; the latter was treasurer of her micro-party Jeanne until January 2022 and was in charge of the financial aspects of her 2017 presidential campaign.
Chatillon and Loustau have told Mediapart in the past that they completely deny these accusations of anti-Semitism, but information has accumulated over the years (read Mediapart's investigations here, here, here and here) and they have never disavowed their youthful commitment to the GUD and the encounters they had with people there at the time. These included a meeting in the early 1990s with the former Belgian Waffen-SS member Léon Degrelle, who regarded Hitler as “the greatest man of our century”.
Nor have the two men ever hidden their links with the anti-Semites Alain Soral, an essayist and ideologue, and comedian and political activist Dieudonné. Chatillon and Loustau have also been accused of taking part in gatherings tinged with Nazi folklore, and of making a number of veiled references along these lines on Facebook – something they both, again, dispute.
Alain Soral and Dieudonné have themselves both kept close links with the Front National and its leaders. Soral officially joined the party in 2007 – he was a special advisor to Jean-Marie Le Pen and a member of the FN's central committee – before leaving in 2009 after a disagreement with Marine Le Pen.
Before joining Dieudonné's “anti-Zionist” list of election candidates in 2009, Soral was seen leafletting for the future FN president Marine Le Pen at Hénin-Beaumont in the north of France during the 2008 municipal elections, accompanied by a team from his association Égalité et Réconciliation (see video below).
He could also be seen singing with Marine Le Pen at a Bleu-Blanc-Rouge party gathering in November 2006 (see video below).
Dieudonné, meanwhile, was invited to a Bleu-Blanc-Rouge party gathering in 2006 and visited Jean-Marie Le Pen's home at Montretout in the western suburbs of Paris several times; Jean-Marie Le Pen is also godfather to Dieudonné's daughter.
The request by Rassemblement National to take control of this working group on anti-Semitism is yet one more step in its strategy of normalisation. Senior figures within the party have said for several years that anti-Semitism is the final “barrier” to be removed. In 2014 Louis Aliot, a vice-president of the party and now mayor of the city of Perpignan, told the historian Valérie Igounet: “The de-demonising only relates to anti-Semitism. When handing out leaflets in the street, the only glass ceiling that I saw was not immigration or Islam ... it was anti-Semitism which stopped people voting for us. Just that. As soon as you get rid of this ideological barrier, you free up the rest.”
In a symbolic culmination of this strategy, on October 13th this year Aliot awarded his city's civic honours to Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, who have devoted their life to hunting down Nazis and fighting against anti-Semitism.
However, Marine Le Pen has never formally distanced herself from her party's history. When she became its president in 2011 – it was still the FN at the time – she explained that she was taking on “the Front National's entire legacy”.
While in her speech at the party's recent conference on November 5th she congratulated herself on having modernised a party which “obviously had some faults”, Marine Le Pen also paid tribute to her father. “On January 16th 2011 I took over the presidency of our movement with a great deal of reverence for the task that had been accomplished … I picked up the torch with humility in the face of the heroism of four decades of epic battles … I took it on with respect, aware of the sacrifice in terms of life, of comfort, of the unfair accusations that had been suffered by those that had paved the way, with Jean-Marie Le Pen at the fore,” she declared to applause in the hall.
- The original French version of this article can be found here.
English version by Michael Streeter