Presidential campaign, March 2017

Whitewashing Marine Le Pen

Italy and Giorgia Meloni provide the model. David Broder asks what lies behind the ‘mainstreaming’ of the far right

Speaking to the radio station France Culture on December 4, businessman Alain Minc spelled out what Marine Le Pen, parliamentary leader of the far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally), needs to do to gain mainstream respectability. A former advisor to Nicolas Sarkozy, and often called a mentor to president Emmanuel Macron, Minc sought to cast Le Pen’s “moderation” as incomplete, by comparing her to the supposedly more honourable example set by her Italian counterpart, Giorgia Meloni.

While the Italian prime minister “comes from a fascist universe” - the post-war neo-fascist party, Movimento Sociale Italiano - he went on:

It’s fascinating what’s happened in Italy. Mrs Meloni has fallen in line. She does things on symbolic matters and moral questions that I don’t love. But otherwise she’s done nothing to shift Italy’s position. So the thing to ask Mrs Le Pen if she wants to reach power is: do you, like Mrs Meloni, agree to say that the Atlantic alliance is fundamental, the European project is fundamental, and budget policy must remain reasonable?

Minc is not a Le Pen ally - he has urged ‘moderates’ to forge an alliance against her, and warned that Macron is not doing enough to make sure that she does not succeed him at the next presidential elections in 2027. Yet, his remarks follow a familiar pattern of liberal and centre-right commentary on the far right - observable not only in France, but also in Italy and many other western countries. On the one hand, we have the call to stop the threat banging on our door: all others must rally against the demagogic, anti-democratic menace.

Such ‘anti-fascist’ appeals have often been used to guilt leftwing voters into supporting the likes of Macron - though Minc is among the many bourgeois pundits in France who today paints ‘far-left populism’ (in the form of Jean-Luc Mélenchon of France Insoumise) and Le Pen as equal dangers. But this apparent despair at the far right’s rise is also strongly qualified: Meloni has, he claimed, “entered the circle of reason”, and it seems Le Pen could do so too, should she meet the mentioned conditions.

In a recent review of European politicians and opinion leaders’ flattering of Meloni, Le Monde Diplomatique’s director, Benoît Bréville, defined “what it takes to earn the European badge of respectability”: “the recipient must adhere to the two cardinal values of austerity and Atlanticism”. Having done so, Meloni was thus free to

step up her xenophobic remarks, stigmatise LGBT people, stir up the ‘great replacement’ fantasy, restrict access to abortion, attempt to change the constitution in an authoritarian direction, rein in the media and shut down cultural institutions.

It would seem that a decade of think-pieces about the new political divide between ‘Europeanists’ and ‘populists’ were all so many wasted pixels. Whoever would have guessed? The disciplining of Muslims and immigrant labour, and damnation of the ‘cultural Marxists’ accused of letting them run riot, is compatible with a host of ‘normal’ rightwing policy positions - notably compliance with Euro-Atlantic foreign policy.1

Hillary Clinton

If Meloni is today embraced by Rishi Sunak, Ursula von der Leyen, European People’s Party chief Manfred Weber, etc. as a ‘woman we can do business with’, Le Pen has not yet achieved this standing. When Hillary Clinton commented, ahead of last year’s Italian election, that she did not know much about Meloni, but it would “always” be good to see a woman elected, it seemed unlikely this was just an unguarded slip. There was no chance that the former US secretary of state would have said this about Le Pen, known for her relations with Vladimir Putin and long record (up till 2017) of calling for ‘Frexit’. France is not Italy and has much more potential power to disrupt the Washington-Brussels alliance. Still, even leading figures in Rassemblement National - notably president Jordan Bardella - have pushed in the direction of greater foreign policy conformism, notably over Ukraine. Paying back a €6 million loan from a Russian bank in September - and making a big deal about it - RN seems to be shifting toward the warm embrace of the Atlanticist right.

One oft-reported aspect of this turn, painted in the redemptive tones of breaking with the past, is RN’s pro-Israel line. Some far-right militant groups retain a ‘neither-nor’ position or a pro-Palestinian stance coloured by claims of global Zionist conspiracy. Yet Le Pen’s party is an enthusiastic supporter of Israel’s war, with the campaign to wipe out ‘terrorists’ painted as a defence of civilisation from Islamist barbarism. This has encountered many gullible responses. A Guardian headline on November 6 proclaimed (before online uproar) “Marine Le Pen’s support of Israel seen as move away from party’s anti-Semitic past”; in the Financial Times, Leila Abboud noted that Le Pen’s argument that Israel “must be permitted to eradicate Hamas” marked a “striking change from the days when the party was run by her openly anti-Semitic father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was convicted for calling the holocaust gas chambers a ‘detail’ of history”. It would seem that support for Israel equalled repudiating anti-Semitism - although Le Pen père, for all his convictions, has often praised Israel as a plucky outpost of the west, and even boasted of his fight alongside it in the Suez War.

As the Guardian headline just mentioned suggests, what matters is what is ‘seen’ to have changed, and by whom: why a French far-right leader can be excused for “historic” errors, while in the name of fighting anti-Semitism Jewish pro-peace activists are no-platformed in Berlin and Vienna, and liberal outlets continue to smear Jeremy Corbyn as a modern-day Hitler.

It is clear that Marine Le Pen has already gone a long way to achieving establishment respectability. Telling was her attendance at the March against Anti-Semitism held in Paris on November 12 - an event organised at the instigation of parliamentary president Yaël Braun-Pivet. Many attendees, including Braun-Pivet (a member of Macron’s party) criticised Le Pen’s presence, with bodies like the CRIF (‘Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France’) declaring that they would not be marching “next to” her, but merely at the same rally. Yet this also marked a contrast with recent similar pageants of republican unity, where Le Pen was more effectively blocked from attending. Her appearance, like that of rival far-right leader Éric Zemmour, was widely taken for granted. The only force to boycott the march was France Insoumise, which variously called this a pro-war demo, or else rejected marching alongside what it heatedly called “Nazis”; the other leftish parties (Greens, socialists, communists) did turn out.

The media hubbub surrounding the November 12 march clearly demonstrated that the allegation of anti-Semitism is today much more widely and consistently levelled against the left than the far-right parties. Mélenchon’s party has in recent weeks refused to call Hamas a ‘terrorist organisation’ and various centrist and rightwing figures, including sitting ministers, today routinely demonise France Insoumise in the language of an ‘Islamo-leftist’ threat. As Le Pen’s RN seeks its own place in the republican, secular mainstream, it is evidently useful for it to wield the language of ‘reverse racism’, suggesting that anti-Semitism is a Muslim import to France. Interviewed ahead of the march, Bardella, who is head of the RN list for the European elections, insisted that Marine Le Pen had broken with her father precisely over the issue of anti-Semitism, and that many “French Jews today see the Rassemblement National as a shield against Islamist ideology”. Asked whether the party founder is indeed an anti-Semite, Bardella resiled: “I do not believe that Jean-Marie Le Pen was anti-Semitic”.

One could quibble over the verb tense (Le Pen père is still alive) or note that some minor RN figures like Mathilde Paris MP do “personally” call him anti-Semitic. In Marine Le Pen’s own 2017 memoir, she distances herself from her father’s provocative language about the Nazi gas chambers but added that despite a tendency to “relativise” things, he did “not mean to hurt anyone”. The PR aim is thus to reject the damning label of anti-Semitism, and pull off the bid for mainstream respectability - while also suggesting that there was never anything so inexcusable to begin with, and that it is moderate conservatives who are discovering the RN rather than the other way around.

Speaking the day after Bardella, Marion Maréchal (Marine Le Pen’s niece, and a leading candidate for Zemmour’s Reconquête outfit) argued that the question was wrongly posed, since the threat to French Jews was an imported problem: “If Jean-Marie Le Pen had been more listened to on immigration and Islamisation 40 years ago, there would certainly be less anti-Semitism today.”

Just in the past?

The so-called ‘new anti-Semitism’ thus turns out to be the only anti-Semitism: one promoted by Muslims and leftwingers and directed against Israel. What I have said thus far amounts to a critique of the low threshold that Le Pen has had to meet in achieving mainstream respectability - not least given that (judging by her own memoir) she faults her father more for jeopardising this PR campaign with provocative outbursts than for actually harbouring anti-Semitic views. But clearly, there is more to this problem than that. Is the RN indeed an anti-Semitic party, or has this in fact been cast aside by its preference for stigmatising Muslims? What necessary or important role does anti-Semitism have in far-right politics, and how far can such ideas actually be politically effective? Is this issue well presented as a “legacy” to get over, an artefact of a 20th-century far-right culture that jars with these post-cold war, post-9/11 times?

One useful reading of this question is provided by the Italian researcher, Valerio Renzi, who argues that there is today a distinction between two different figures of Jewishness, which play opposed roles in far-right discourse. On the one hand, there is the “cosmopolitan Jew”, much like the one that figured in older theories of ‘Judeo-Bolshevik threat’ - the anti-national outsider who promotes abstraction and ideological schemas in order to disrupt the rooted, natural, national community. On the other hand, there is the “sovereigntist Jew” - in essence the ethno-nationalist Israeli posited by Netanyahu-style propaganda: the militarised defender of civilisation against barbarism, a ‘western’ state in the Middle East, defender of a national community based on heredity. Insofar as far-right parties rooted in Nazism and fascism (Fratelli d’Italia, Vox, Rassemblement National, Alternative für Deutschland) can today pose as opponents of anti-Semitism, it is because they choose the “sovereigntist Jew” over the “cosmopolitan” one.

Some such far-right leaders have actively sought endorsement from Israeli political figures in order to excuse them of anti-Semitism. In 2003, Alleanza Nazionale leader Gianfranco Fini (who led this Italian party’s transition from open neo-fascism to its ‘national-conservative’ post-fascism) visited Jerusalem and declared the events leading to the holocaust as the “absolute evil”. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has excellent relations with Benjamin Netanyahu, even as his own government routinely demonises financier George Soros as the puppet-master of an elite plot to destroy western civilisation by importing Muslim and African immigrants. Yet also worth noting is that these far-right forces have organisational ties: in one famous article2 Hannes Grassegger shows the decisive role of PR men George Birnbaum and Arthur Finkelstein as advisors first for Netanyahu’s Likud party in the 1990s, then for Orbán’s Fidesz a decade later, building up Soros as a hate-figure for the Hungarian right before he was demonised as the sinister visage of the ‘great replacement’ internationally.

Marine Le Pen has in the past cited this theory, which speaks of an elite ‘replacist’ conspiracy to use (especially African and Muslim) immigrants to undermine the national community and create a reign of the atomised and indistinct. Meloni - today hailed in mainstream outlets as a defender of ‘Europeanism’ - has in the past gone further in this direction, citing the collaboration of the “usurer Soros” and the left in undermining the continent’s identity through non-European immigration.

Today, both women avoid using the phrase, ‘great replacement’, though in a book released this September Meloni revived the idea of the “manoeuvrers” who import non-European immigrants in order to dilute the continent’s culture. Yet Michel Eltchaninoff argues in his Inside the mind of Marine Le Pen that the French far-right leader routinely alludes to such conspiracist framings of elite capture - “unfree” politicians “waiting on the credit agencies’ words like the Messiah”, the “hyperclass” or, for that matter, references to Alain Soral’s idea of “the bank” lording it over society - to flatter anti-Semitic listeners, while dancing around explicit reference to Jewishness as such.

The ‘cosmopolitan’ trope is deep-rooted in what Elchaninoff calls the legacy of the “social anti-Semitism” of the 19th and 20th centuries. In essence, capitalism is assumed as a quasi-eternal economic order, yet its ill effects are damned on the “distortions” and “manipulations” by financiers and ideologues which harm the “national producers” - labour and capital alike. One need not go as far as anti-Deutsch style hysteria, in which all personifications of capitalism are deemed “structurally anti-Semitic” to see that the far-right treatment of Soros or the Rothschilds as avatars of “disloyal”, “globalist”, etc interests is a modern-day continuation of this anti-Semitic tradition, with due adaptations made for the need to reject the charge of racism. Also striking in this unradical critique of parts of capital is its continual recasting of the ‘normal’ national capitalism to which it seeks a return. We see this in the way in which the RN - a party created some five decades ago, in rebellion against the France bequeathed by Charles de Gaulle - today speaks of the period from 1945 to 1968 as if it was some sort of golden age of social harmony.

Indeed, the defence of what Renzi calls the “sovereigntist Jew”, the ally of the Christian west, over the “cosmopolitan” who threatens it, is not just a matter of solidarity with Israel: it also demands concessions from French Jews. In pledging its allegiance to state-secularism, known as laïcité, Le Pen’s party often speaks of a “Catholic country”, “secularized by the Enlightenment”. Removing the history of overweening church power throughout much of 19th-century France (notably its classrooms), and the intention of the 1905 laïcité law in undermining it, Le Pen paints recalcitrant Muslims as a threat to the social harmony achieved by a supposedly age-old Judeo-Christian civilisation.

But there is a catch: RN favours the banning from public space not only of “Islamist ideologies”, burqas, niqabs and veils and Muslim headscarves in general, but also the yarmulke or skullcap worn by Orthodox Jews. Le Pen has presented this in terms of a “sacrifice” Jews must make in the higher political cause of suppressing Islamic garments: as she commented in 2021,

I have asked the Jews to make this sacrifice because we have to do something about the headscarf; there are so many of them here now. And in France you can’t legislate against a particular religion. I know that what I’m asking for is a sacrifice for some Jews.3

Not enemies

The integration of Le Pen into the republican mainstream - with her 89-strong cohort of MPs in the national assembly no longer treated as pariahs by their centre-right colleagues - has not met with universal enthusiasm. The country’s closest thing to the Board of Deputies, the CRIF, is today headed by Yonathan Arfi, who accused Le Pen of “instrumentalising” the November 12 March Against anti-Semitism and insisted he had not agreed to her party’s presence.

Last April he called for a vote for Emmanuel Macron in the presidential election run-off, casting Le Pen as an “existential threat to Jews in France”. In this same address he compared her idea of making Jews into subjects “without the kippah and without Jewish schools” in the name of fighting Islamic anti-Semitism to a “marranisation” (here referring to the Iberian marranos of the 15th and 16th century - “crypto-Jews” forced to show allegiance to Catholic society, while practicing their faith in secret). Still, not all signs from CRIF figures have been negative: previous leader Roger Cukierman suggested in 2015 that Le Pen led a party including Vichyites and holocaust deniers, but could “not be faulted personally”.

This distinction between the ‘reforming’ leader and the deplorable far-right party’s tradition and activist base has become a common theme of the normalisation of former neo-fascist Meloni in the EU, and the same distinction appears to be taking place with regard to Marine Le Pen. In an interview last month for conservative daily Le Figaro, Nazi-hunter and historian Serge Klarsfeld spoke of her steps forward with respect to her party’s “DNA” - indeed, he “rejoiced” at seeing the far-right leader “abandon anti-Semitism and negationism and march toward republican values” by joining the November 12 demo.4

He has reportedly spoken of “dividing” the RN between good and bad - notably in a controversy last October where he accepted a medal from the RN mayor of Perpignan, Louis Aliot.5 While SOS Racisme (an anti-racist campaign historically close to the Socialist Party) damned Klarsfeld’s appearance alongside Aliot - mayor of the largest French city headed by RN - for “legitimising” the far-right party, Klarsfeld insisted that this was an “enemy of anti-Semitism”: a political “adversary, but not an enemy.”

It is quite obvious from recent election results that the idea of a ‘republican front’ against RN is all but over. While some sort of Macron-style candidate (former prime minister Édouard Philippe, interior minister Gérald Darmanin or education minister Gabriel Attal) may well try and build a centre/centre-right coalition in 2027, a host of studies show that voters for the bourgeois centre-right Republicans have become increasingly less troubled by Le Pen’s supposed economic radicalism - in particular given that Frexit is no longer on the agenda. Events like the November 12 march or recent demos by police unions show that France Insoumise, not the far right, is being pushed out of the hallowed republican mainstream.

The second round of the 2022 parliamentary elections (where RN won 89 of the 208 contests it qualified for), as well as recent polls, suggest that centre-right voters will abstain or directly vote RN in much greater numbers than they would back leftwingers. Several recent polls have Le Pen above 30% in the first round of the next presidential election (much higher than Macron achieved in either 2017 or 2022) and on course for victory in the run-off.

In a hypothetical second round between Le Pen and a candidate of the bourgeois centre or centre-right, the latter may well evoke her residual extremism or at least that of her party, in order to mobilise voters. The endless laundering of Islamophobic talking points by the current government; the intense use of state force to crush protestors, even by a so-called liberal president; and the use of Nato and EU loyalism to set the boundaries of legitimate politics - all serve to normalise and mainstream Le Pen and undermine the call to rally against the “barbarian at the gates”.

Her ‘mainstreaming’ is not so much a matter of her changing the bad ideas that militants have in their heads, but of the adaption to her by bourgeois political forces who want to ensure that RN rule is not a shock to French and European capital. The ‘social anti-Semitism’ of her economic discourse; militants’ or candidates’ use of conspiracy theories and connections with further-right subcultures; or indeed, leftwing attempts to reassert the anti-fascist unity of decades past - all represent increasingly less important obstacles to her rise.

This article is based on a talk given to the December 3 Online Communist Forum

  1. In ‘The future is Italy, and it’s bleak’ (New York Times July 22 2022), I noted how Meloni’s foreign policy conformism was used by conservatives to excuse her other ills, including her neo-fascist inspiration. That article is today widely cited as evidence of ‘alarmism’ at Meloni - an observation inevitably coupled with the conclusion that she has indeed pledged her loyalty to Nato and the EU, so cannot be so awful.↩︎

  2. ‘The unbelievable story of the plot against George Soros’, translated for Buzzfeed, January 20 2019.↩︎

  3. ‘The headscarf is a violation of public order’ Die Zeit May 6 2021.↩︎

  4. ‘Il faut se réjouir que le Rassemblement National participe à la marche contre l’antisémitisme’ Le Figaro November 9 2023.↩︎

  5. Cited in ‘Quand Serge Klarsfeld, à propos du RN Aliot, suscite incompréhension et tristesse dans la communauté juive et bien au-delà’ La Revue Civique October 21 2022.↩︎