Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National claims to be a “shield for Jews,” even though the party promotes antisemitic theories. Dividing Jews into “good” Israeli nationalists and “bad” cosmopolitans produces a modern revival of an old antisemitism.

French far-right party Rassemblement National parliamentary group president Marine Le Pen listens during a session on the situation in the Middle East at the French National Assembly in Paris on October 23, 2023. (Bertrand Guay / AFP via Getty Images)

“For many French citizens of Jewish faith, our party is a shield against Islamist ideology.” If we believe Rassemblement National (RN) president Jordan Bardella, speaking shortly after the October 7 attacks, his party has turned from an enemy of France’s Jews, to an ally. Its claimed stance against antisemitism today takes the form of “unconditionally” supporting Israel’s war on Hamas — and condemning the Left’s failure to do the same. Interviewed on Sunday, Bardella insisted that the “antisemitism” label doesn’t fit — noting that perennial candidate Marine Le Pen distanced herself from her father Jean-Marie over this exact issue. Pushed to comment on the party’s historic founder, Bardella replied that he “does not believe Jean-Marie Le Pen was antisemitic.”

The verb tense was odd: convicted Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen is still alive. But in working to “mainstream” its brand, the RN must retouch its own past. In her 2017 memoir, Marine Le Pen insists her father did “not mean to hurt anyone” when he dismissed the gas chambers as a “detail of history”; twenty-eight-year-old Bardella deflects this controversy by saying he is “too young” to have witnessed it. But not only the RN is shifting the goalposts. Take Marion Maréchal. On Tuesday she insisted that if her grandfather Jean-Marie Le Pen “was more listened to on immigration and Islamization forty years ago, there would certainly be less antisemitism today.”

Maréchal, a leader of Éric Zemmour’s Reconquête party, is heading a rival campaign to Bardella’s RN list for June’s European elections. But both make a similar claim about where antisemitism comes from: the Left, especially Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise, has cozied up to Islamists in the interests of winning the “Muslim vote,” while those who defend national identity and support Benjamin Netanyahu are the real friends of Jews. This Sunday, both far-right parties will join a march against antisemitism in Paris; France Insoumise will be absent, insisting that it refuses to march alongside “Nazis” or even that the march is a “rendez-vous for friends of unconditional support for the [Israeli] massacre” in Gaza.

The far-right presence at the demonstration — called in response to a series of antisemitic incidents over the last month, including a stabbing in Lyon — has caused difficulties for its organizers, including allies of the president. Emmanuel Macron has warned against “confusing the rejection of Muslims with support for Jews.” Comparable rallies in the past, for instance a 2018 march after the murder of Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll, saw Marine Le Pen either shouted down, or prevented from attending outright. This time, her presence is not really in question, and Reconquête’s attendance even less so. Center-left leaders propose a “republican cordon” by which they will be visibly separated (Socialist leader Olivier Faure initially called on “all political forces” to join the march, but later clarified that he did not mean to include Le Pen’s party).

Faure’s criticisms of the RN’s opportunism emphasized that the party is seeking to “distance itself from its past and part of its own elected officials” — or in fact “has not broken with its past.” He also notes the “imposture” of weaponizing antisemitism fears to demonize Muslims. Unlike France Insoumise, however, the other left-wing parties have decided it important to attend the rally rather than risk a “republican front” forming without them. As in the comments cited above, the far right is obviously seeking such a delimitation of the political space, presenting antisemitism as an ill imported by immigrants, at odds with French national(ist) history.

But the focus on the RN’s origins is only part of the question. First, because this framing offers it too easy an “out” by proclaiming that it has moved on from a dubious but distant past. It will surely have been delighted to see Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld tell conservative journalist Eugénie Bastié that he welcomed the RN’s decision to join the march as a sign of its “progress toward republican values.” But there is also a more basic problem: the fallacy of imagining that the long history of European antisemitism is today superseded by Islamic antisemitism. Or, indeed, imagining that Islamophobia and antisemitism are clearly separable and even opposed phenomena.

Jews, Right and Wrong

In this sense, drawing on Italian researcher Valerio Renzi, we can see a basic distinction in much far-right discourse between two opposed avatars of Jewishness. On the one hand is what Renzi calls the “sovereigntist Jew,” in effect an ethnonationalist vision of Israel as an outpost of Western resistance to Islamic and Islamist barbarism. On the other is the “cosmopolitan Jew,” posed in terms of rootlessness, disloyalty, and preference for abstract, “ideological” schemes over the realities of nation and identity. This allows the far right to “Netanyahu-wash” its antisemitism, while also reformulating classic warnings of the “Judeo-Bolshevik” threat in modernized language.

The two visions are articulated through versions of Renaud Camus’s “Great Replacement Theory,” coined in 2010. This alleges a plot, orchestrated by inscrutable “globalist interests,” or named Jewish individuals like financier George Soros, in concert with “cultural Marxist” ideologues, to replace rooted (European, Christian, etc.) families with atomized and rootless immigrants. Zemmour, leader of the Reconquête party and ardent opponent of “Islamization,” openly adopts the theory. While Le Pen has done the same in the past, since 2014 the RN leadership has generally avoided the phrase “Great Replacement.” It instead alleges, for instance that “big financial circles use immigration to depress wages” and damns Soros or “pseudo-NGOs” financed by him as organizers of mass migration.

If Le Pen insists that this is a “pragmatic” rather than “conspiratorial” reading, it draws on a classically antisemitic vision in which the “national” producers (French workers, French industrialists) fall victim to deracinated speculators. It expresses a “social antisemitism,” in which social conflicts are expressed through ethnonationalist avatars. Yet, as Michel Eltchaninoff argues in his Inside the Mind of Marine Le Pen, it is common of her rhetoric that she both claims a disinterest in “theories,” alienating for most voters, and simultaneously alludes to their talking points. References to divisive issues (of the type “women in veils demand separate opening hours at swimming pools”) create a clear image in the listener’s mind — Muslims rule the roost — without quite saying the words.

As Eltchaninoff shows, this also applies to the use of antisemitic ideas of nineteenth-century vintage, scattered throughout RN propaganda and Le Pen’s books. Hence the reformulation of old antisemitic tropes in ideas such as the “hyperclass” seeking a “new man, severed from his roots, nomadic, dispensable, a slave to the order of the market” in a “virtualized” world; liberal reference to such names as the Rothschilds; or, echoing far-right ideologue Alain Soral, the idea of “the Bank” and what Le Pen calls the “unfree” politicians who have “submitted themselves” to it, “waiting on the credit agencies’ words as if waiting for the word of the Messiah.” As Eltchaninoff concludes, if the antisemitic intent is not explicit, the antisemitic listener “will find what they need to feed their obsession”.

Allies

This approach echoes many far-right forces abroad who similarly evade charges of antisemitism. Bardella’s pleas that he is “too young” to be drawn on the past, or the RN’s relations with Netanyahu’s Likud party, closely resemble the example of Italy’s Giorgia Meloni. Having long promoted Great Replacement Theory, Meloni today claims that reference to an orchestrated “ethnic substitution” has no “racial” connotation, though in a book published this September she accuses “maneuverer” Soros of driving African migration for the sake of diluting European identity. This has done nothing to stop Meloni “mainstreaming” her party in international conservative ranks, through a studied conformism to Euro-Atlanticist foreign policy.

At this May’s NatCon meetup in London, Viktor Orbán’s supporters distributed books that drew similar dividing lines in order to dispute claims of Hungarian government antisemitism. Apart from comments on the safety of Jews on the streets of Budapest, the narrative and interviews therein specifically deal with the question of Soros — routinely a target of propaganda by the ruling party, which accuses him of orchestrating mass immigration. We are told variously that (i) Soros’s Jewishness is inauthentic or (ii) he is criticized not as a Jew, but regardless of his Jewishness, and (iii) in any case, Orbán is strongly pro-Israel.

Today, RN leaders like Bardella accuse the European Union of failing to stand sufficiently with Israel — even expressing his hope to visit the country. This stance is not universal on the far right: indeed groupuscules of the likes of Action Française and Groupe Union Défense (GUD) have criticized the RN for “towing Tel Aviv’s line.” A series of recent affairs have highlighted the personal and financial connections between the RN and GUD — as well as the ragbag of militant extraparliamentary groups today under the Reconquête umbrella. The existence of such formations, often directly drawing on the imagery and heroes of World War II–era French fascism, hardly confirms the idea that antisemitism is an Islamic import.

Ahead of Sunday’s demonstration, we can nonetheless see a creeping normalization of the Rassemblement National, akin to that achieved by Meloni’s party in Italy. In this, its shaking off the antisemitic label really matters. Media in the Anglophone world such as the Spectator now routinely promote it and laud its detoxification. Even an article in the liberal Guardian, on a similar topic to this present piece, did little to prod the RN’s contemporary antisemitism, beyond the embarrassments of its “jack-booted” origins: it initially ran under the title “Marine Le Pen’s Support of Israel Seen as Move Away from Party’s Antisemitic Past,” before a later edit.

One can, of course, “see” this as a move away from antisemitism. But if we understand the place of social antisemitism in today’s far right, or the role of conspiracy-theorist ideas of the destruction of national identity, then Le Pen’s support for Netanyahu is hardly the only thing worth noticing.

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