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April 24, 2017 6:18 pm

French Jews Nervous About Le Pen, as Far-Right Presidential Candidate Steps Down as National Front Leader to Boost Second Round Chances

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Far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Photo: Emmanuel d’Aubignosc via Wikimedia Commons.

With the first round of France’s presidential election over, Jewish voters are now nervously looking ahead to the final round two weeks from now that will pit independent centrist Emmanuel Macron against far-right stalwart Marine Le Pen.

A leading French Jewish political analyst told The Algemeiner on Monday that the strong showing on Sunday of Jean-Luc Melenchon, the far-left candidate who came in fourth at 19.6 percent, demonstrates that Le Pen could yet pick up valuable support from voters disillusioned with mainstream centrist parties in the May 7 head-to-head showdown with Macron.

Michel Gurfinkiel stressed that while Le Pen and Melenchon are on opposite sides of the immigration debate, both politicians share the same “authoritarian, populist, statist, anti-American and anti-globalist” principles.

“Le Pen and Melenchon represent more than 40 percent of the vote in France,” Gurfinkiel said.

On Monday, in a move aimed at broadening her voter base, Le Pen announced she was stepping down as leader of the National Front party.

“This evening I decided to take my leave of the presidency of the National Front,” Le Pen told TV channel France 2. “I will be above partisan considerations.”

She  did not make clear whether her decision was a permanent one.

Le Pen has invested much energy in pulling the National Front away from its historic fascist and antisemitic image, going so far as to expel her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in August 2015 from the party he co-founded in 1972.

On Sunday, Macron won a slender victory with 24.01 percent of the first round vote. Le Pen came in second at 21.30 percent and Francois Fillon — of the center-right Republican party — finished third at 20.01 percent.

French Jews who gathered in a Paris bar to watch the first round results told Buzzfeed they were disappointed by what they saw as widespread public indifference to the rise of extremism in France. “Fifteen years ago, we were in the streets, marching. Today…we do not do anything anymore and that makes me angry,” said Dan Lutasso, a consultant. Another patron, Rabbi Moshe Lewin, warned, “In the next two weeks, everything could change. Who knows who the Melenchon and Fillon supporters are going to vote for…They could vote for Le Pen.”

Speaking to the Hebrew news site nrg, Rabbi Moshe Sabag of the Great Synagogue in Paris sounded more optimistic. “We are not really under pressure from Le Pen because it is likely that Macron will win the second round,” he said. Sabag added that there was general relief among French Jews that Melenchon, a vocal critic of Israel, did not make it to the second round.

Meyer Habib, a Jewish parliamentarian from the center-right UDI party, used the occasion of Yom HaShoah on Monday to urge a strong turnout against Le Pen. “Today I say unequivocally not to vote for Le Pen, even though she is less extreme than her father,” Habib declared.

Gurfinkiel added that another key vote takes place in June, when French voters will elect the 577-seat National Assembly. That contest will determine whether Macron, should he win the second round on May 7, can form a working majority in the French parliament. If he fails to do so, Gurfinkiel said, he may have to form a government that depends on the support of French conservatives.

Another alternative for Macron, in Gurfinkiel’s view, would be to hold a new snap presidential election in which the main issue would be whether to replace France’s first-past-the-post electoral system with one based upon proportional representation. “In that case, the National Front and the far-left would become full-size players,” Gurfinkiel said.

Gurfinkiel observed that a Le Pen victory next month might in fact compel Jews to remain in France, rather than emigrate en masse, as some have suggested. He cited Le Pen’s opposition to dual nationality — some 200,000 French Jews live in Israel — and her support of strict monetary controls for those leaving France as key elements of the dilemma the community would face in the event of a Le Pen presidency.

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