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March 23, 2014 12:05 pm

As France Goes to Polls, Jewish Leader Says Anti-Semitism Linking Extreme Left and Right (INTERVIEW)

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Marine Le Pen. Photo: wiki commons.

As France heads to the polls on Sunday in the first elections since socialist President Francois Hollande came to office in 2012, a young Jewish leader expressed concern over the growing climate of intolerance in the country and a trend that sees the political far left connect with the extreme right over a common hatred of Jews.

Sunday’s municipal elections are the first of two rounds that will see some 36,000 new mayors elected in both tiny hamlets and major cities such as Paris, Lyon and Marseille. The far-right National Front party of Marine Le Pen is expected to make a strong showing. She believes her party could claim the mayorship of 10 to 15 mid-sized towns, AFP reported. A still troubled economic environment blamed mostly on the sitting government, and weak leadership in the opposition right wing party once headed by former president Sarkozy, may also bode well for Le Pen.

In an interview with The Algemeiner, Yonathan Arfi, vice president of Jewish umbrella group CRIF (Conseil Représentatif des Institutions juives de France), said “the National Front is categorized clearly as an extreme right party, but in the last few years it has been able to attract voters who previously used to vote for the extreme left.”

“What is very worrying for us is when anti-Semitism makes the link between extreme left and extreme right,” he said, referring to a major Paris rally earlier this year where marchers chanted “Jew, France is not for you.” At the demonstration “there were people from the extreme right mainly but some people of the extreme left as well,” Arfi said.

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One French figure who has bridged the gap between the political right and left over a common intolerance for Jews is controversial comedian Dieudonné. He has grabbed headlines of late for his inverse Nazi salute the quenelle, used by sports stars Nicolas Anelka and Tony Parker, and other prominent figures.

“The organizations around Dieudonné are between extreme left and extreme right,” Arfi said. “Dieudonné is personally very close to the Le Pen family. (Family patriarch) Jean-Marie Le Pen attended family events of Dieudonné, they were quite close over the last years because they share anti-Semitism and anti-system (sentiments).”

In Sunday’s polls, however, Dieudonné is unlikely to be able to deliver for the nationalists.

“The thing is that many supporters of Dieudonné are of foreign descent, these people will not vote for (the) National Front, he will not be able to help them so much,” Arfi said.

The foreigners he refers to France’s growing and restless Arab and Muslim populations mostly vote for left wing parties as opposed to nationalists, Arfi said.

Although the elections themselves may point in a troubling direction for French Jews, the young Jewish leader is more concerned about how they will impact the general climate in the country. He said, “It is symbolical, and symbols in politics are very important.”

“The most important issue right now is to test the level of support for the extreme right, the National Front.”

A later election for the European Parliament, to be held in June, may be even more instructive, he said. “The biggest test will be the European elections due to the fact it is nationwide and is more representative.”

Sunday’s elections won’t provide a complete picture, according to Arfi, as Le Pen’s party doesn’t have candidates in many of the smaller cities. Additionally, many of the elections will be contested over local issues and will have little bearing on the more general political environment.

For June’s elections polls are now showing the National Front with some 18-24 percent of the vote.

“For sure they will have more seats then they have (now) … The only question now is if the National Front will have the most seats (among the) other parties in France,” he said. “If the National Front is the first party of France it will symbolize that France rejects tolerance.”

Although France has some of the toughest anti-racism laws in the world, and Arfi expressed faith in the French system of government and rule of law, he painted a bleak picture for French Jewry should the nationalists post strong gains in the upcoming elections, particularly those  in Europe.

“It will symbolize a kind of society that is not tolerant towards foreigners, Jews and all minorities,” he said. “It will also have an impact on the way people feel free to behave in a racist way or an anti-Semitic way. If the National Front becomes the first French party in Europe, people will feel authorized to be more racist and anti-Semitic.” It will also “strengthen the level of anti-Semitism in public opinion,” he said.

Anti-Semitic attacks in France are reported with some regularity. On Saturday, a Jewish teacher from Paris was brutally assaulted by Arabic speaking thugs. According to a report by the Drancy-based Bureau for National Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism, a watchdog group known as BNVCA, the victim’s nose was broken and disfigured, and a swastika was drawn on his chest. Earlier this month Israel’s Ma’ariv reported that a young Jewish woman was assaulted at a laundromat in a suburb of Lyon by a mother and daughter of Arab descent who shouted, “Dirty Jew, go home to your country, Israel.”

Last week, the second anniversary of the infamous Toulouse attack on a French Jewish school was marked. Four people, including three children, were murdered in the Islamist attack.

“It can be actions, but most of the things we see in France are not anti-Semitic actions, they are anti-Semitic words,” Arfi said. “What is most important for us to feel at home in France is the level of expression of anti-Semitic remarks, for example in public schools.”

Arfi said that while France’s Jewish community is not worried about Sunday’s elections, they are watching closely for signs of trouble.

“We are vigilant,” he said. “We (will) check the level of support and in June people will be more worried if the National Front scores above 20 percent. It will be a symbolic threshold; it will be a success for the National Front.”

“The Jewish community has always clearly expressed that they insist people do not vote for the National Front. For the last 40 years it has been the position of the world Jewish community and it will continue, of course, this year,” Arfi concluded.

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