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Why Jews, Muslims and the young vote Le Pen

Last Sunday was said to be a political shock for France. Well, it shouldn’t be.

Since February 2015, the Front National never fared below 29%, which suggests that in fact the attacks in Paris had very little to do with the electoral result. If anything, the peak of Front National was in March 2015, when Odoxa gave FN 33%.

The regional elections on Sunday, December 5th, in France verified what the polls had been saying for quite some time. The anti-immigration and anti-European Front National party has secured 30,6% of the vote, coming first, convincingly ahead of  Les Républicains (27%) and the ruling Socialist Party (22,7%).

FN comes first in six out of 13 regions, suggests France 2. But, the triumph for the Le Pen family was in Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie and Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur where Marine Le Pen and her 25-year old niece Marion Maréchal Le Pen were running. In both regions, FN tops 40%. Calais has been in the spotlight with the emergence of immigrant shanty towns, set ablaze the same evening Paris was attacked in the form of retaliation.

Last Monday’s Le Figaro bore the title “shock.” The idea might be shocking, but not the fact. We knew what was coming for quite some time.

Jeane Marine Le Pen got a resounding 11% in 1984. That was an Algerian war veteran, accused of using torture in the 1950s as a lieutenant. The second generation took over in 2011 and had since made a difference. Marine Le Pen, did not ruin the family business by imitating her father. Last Sunday, she managed to attract 6 million votes. She took the party from a traditionally vitriolic attack on Islam and Arabs to the defence of laicite, that is, secularism.

Marine Le Pen is not like her father. Anti-immigration rhetoric has been the trade in stock of FN for decades. It often still is. Le Pen’s punch line for these regional elections was “there is a link between massive immigration, failure to integrate, and radical Islamism.” But, her appeal is not merely among white, Catholic, French-French. To assume that it would not only be wrong, it would also mean failing to understand what happened in France, and in Europe.

Young people in France are often angry. France is in more ways than we care to admit a typical country of the European South, save a public debt out of control.  Unemployment is now over 10% and over 24% among those aged 18-24. The young vote Le Pen.

Some of the young are also Muslim, especially the law-abiding and second generation with migrant background ilk that does not share the coincidence of identity-neighbourhood-age sense of marginalisation. As pointed out by the Spectator, on Sunday evening Le Pen called upon the “French of all origins” to vote for FN in the second round. She is gradually attracting a following of French Muslims, who see in voting FN the equivalent of a declaration of loyalty to the Republic, a condemnation of terrorism and expression of disgust against Salafism, or to symbolise their true acculturation to France, closing the door behind. Some share the same morals as Mrs Le Pen, being aggravated by same-sex marriage in 2013. In sum, Muslims are a sophisticated group, as complex as the voters of Le Pen as a whole.

Some of the voters of Le Pen are also Jewish. Cited by the Times of Israel, the president of Paris’s Black Jewish community, Guershon Nduwa, suggests that many Jewish Le Pen voters are first generation Sephardic Jews from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, who meet in France, experienced oppression in their country of origin, and have a tendency to be xenophobic and natural National Front voters. Others are just poor Jews living in bad Paris quarters, next to Muslim youth, suffering anti-Semitic abuse.  Of course, the Chief Rabbi of France has been vocal against FN. But, the far right from Geert Wielders to Orban will often use the need to “protect Europe’s Jews” as a legitimating argument for blanket anti-Muslim rhetoric. In sum, the Jews are a complex group, as complex as the voters of Le Pen.

On Wednesday, December 9th, the polls started again, speculating on how FN will do in the next round. It is now believed that Marine Le Pen would get 47% and her conservative adversary, Xavier Bertrand, 53% of the votes. Her niece Maréchal-Le Pen would take 46%, against her traditional rival, Christian Estrosi, leading with 54%. FN could end up losing all six regions it came first in the first round. Should that make us feel better?

No, our feelings and thought should become more complicated to address a complicated phenomenon. The question is not why Muslims or Jews vote FN; it is why the French vote FN. France is not about to turn into a fascist state. But, the rhetoric of FN has become a lot more mainstream in Europe and France than we would care to admit. Perhaps the prize for the least cliché reaction to FN this week goes to Renzi, the Italian Prime Minister.

Europe must change to hold back the appeal of right-wing anti-immigrant sentiment, posted the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, on his Facebook account Monday: “If it {EU} doesn’t change course, European institutions risk becoming the best allies of Marine Le Pen and those who would imitate her.”

He called for a strategic encounter with the far right: “I believe time has come for European institutions to look at the tough reality: mere tactics kill. Without a strategic plan, especially about economic growth, populism will sooner or later win also the national elections,” he said. According to some analysts, these national elections have already been won, elsewhere.

So, let us not be shocked. That is too simplistic. Fear nourishes those who appear ready to protect us. That is the essence of the far-right’s appeal it seems, and that is a very complicated discussion.