The surprise second-place finish of French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in Sunday’s presidential vote has at least one Israeli official calling on French Jews to make aliyah.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai spoke with French community leaders, his spokesman was quoted as saying, and "implored them to start packing their bags and come to Israel."
"Yishai voiced his concern and fear over Le Pen’s achievement and stressed that Jews in Europe, and in France in particular, cannot remain indifferent to the worrisome dimensions of anti-Semitism and increasing attacks on Jewish institutions."
Le Pen, 73, who once called the Nazi gas chambers "a detail in World War II history," won 17 percent of the vote, just behind President Jacques Chirac, 69, who received 19.8 percent of the vote in a field of 16 candidates.
Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who was expected to come in second, received 16.1 percent and immediately announced his retirement from politics effective May 5, the day Chirac and Le Pen face each other in a runoff.
"Nobody expected those results," said Emanuel Weintraub, a member of the executive of the CRIF, the central organization of French Jewry. "Everybody is in a state of shock: even Le Pen. But there is no catastrophe in the offing because in two week’s time Chirac will most probably be elected. Everyone is going to vote for him."
But David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said Chirac’s victory May 5 may not end the matter because the country goes back to the polls June 6 for parliamentary elections.
"If Le Pen’s strength is in any way translated into parliamentary gains, the story is not over," he said.
Harris said Le Pen’s surprising strength came from his campaign’s tough law-and-order, anti-immigrant message that came at a time of rising crime attributed to an increasing number of immigrants.
"There was a very telling incident last fall that shook many French citizens," Harris said. "A soccer match between France and Algeria was meant to be a symbol of reconciliation [between the two nations]. It was played in France and many French Algerian youth attended. The French were horrified to see that as the French national anthem was sung, these youths were openly booing and showing disrespect for the French flag, the flag of their adopted country. This raised questions for many French about nationality, identity, integration and assimilation."
Le Pen, said Harris, "speaks unambiguously about French pride and nationalism and a return to French glory. Those who were scared, unsettled or fed up [with conditions in the country] cast their vote for him as the protest candidate. … Chirac and Jospin were seen as part of the problem, not the solution."
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said the runoff election pits Jews between Chirac, "who was Johnny-come-lately with respect to concerns for the Jews," and Le Pen, "and we know where Le Pen stands regarding Jews."
"So if there is any group for which this [election] is bad news, it is the Jews," he said.
Rabbi Hier said French voters should insist that upon Chirac’s re-election he stop meddling in the Middle East and "put out the fires in his own house. … When hate and anti-Semitism were staring him in the eye, he ignored it and tried to soft peddle it."
France has an Arab Muslim population of about 5 million, compared to about 600,000 Jews.
Shimon Samuels, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Paris office, said French authorities are now acknowledging that there are about 12 anti-Semitic incidents a day (most said to be committed by Arabs) a figure he said is about half of the actual number.
"People are afraid to go to the police because the police, who can’t capture the perpetrators, abuse the victim and then don’t write it down as a hate crime but as vandalism," he said.
A month ago, Samuels said, a bullet fired through the windshield of a school bus carrying Jewish day-schoolers struck an 8-year-old girl in the shoulder. Police listed it as vandalism. And police also listed as vandalism the defacement of a rabbi’s car. On five occasions, "Death to the Jews" was written on the side of the car.
"No wonder the Socialists lost," Samuels said. "They are not providing security for everybody. The Jews are not the only scapegoats, but they expose for the rest of France the absence of any strategic plan to deal with the problem."
Although French authorities have attributed the attacks on Jews to immigrant Arabs upset over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Samuels insists that "an intifada is beginning in France regardless of what is happening in Israel." He noted that in the French city of Beziers four months ago, an Algerian youth shot the deputy mayor and three policemen while screaming "Allah is great."
"That had nothing to do with Jews or the Middle East," he stressed. "We know radical Islam is behind a lot of this; it isn’t hooliganism. … There are frustrated, marginalized North African Arabs who are being recruited by radical imams in prayer halls, in the suburbs and in jihadist fundamentalist schools."
He said these radicalized young Muslims are being trained and motivated to commit suicide bombings across Europe and that their targets will be Jewish schools and synagogues.
Samuels also expressed concern that Chirac will now begin to "use the language of some xenophobic groups to capture support from some of the extreme right, and that he might continue to use it even after the election. The Jews will find that very, very difficult. If that is not a wakeup call for Jewish-Muslim cooperation in France, then nothing is."
Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, said Sunday’s election returns are indicative of a growing trend in Europe to vote for right-wing extremists.
"We’ve seen it in Austria and some other countries, and now we are seeing someone who has made racial slurs against Jews running a close second to the president of France," Rosen said.
Far-right parties running on nationalist, law-and-order, anti-immigrant and sometimes anti-European Union platforms also have made gains in Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Switzerland, Italy and elsewhere. Conservative candidates are also making a strong push in upcoming elections in Germany and the Netherlands.
"What is interesting is that [far-right] leaders who rise to these heights always seem to use anti-Semitism as part of their political platform," said Rosen.
But Marie-France Stirbois, a member of Le Pen’s National Front party and its former representative in the French National Assembly, insisted Le Pen is not anti-Semitic.
"I’m fed up with hearing that we are Nazis," she told The Jewish Week by phone from Le Pen’s headquarters. "I couldn’t be with Mr. Le Pen if he was like that. Mr. Sharon in Israel is also presented as terrible man, but he is just defending his country against terrorism."
Asked about Le Pen’s comment that the gas chambers were just a "detail" of history, Stirbois said he was referring to the fact that they are presented in French history books in just four or five lines.
"We have a lot of Jewish people in our party," she said, adding that a man named Block has formed the Jewish Friends Circle for the National Front.
She attributed Le Pen’s voter strength to the fact that Chirac and Jospin weren’t "listening to the people anymore. We are having big problems with immigrants (especially Arab immigrants) and a lot of synagogues have been attacked and one was burned. People are fed up and that is why they did not vote on the left."
Although Le Pen and his supporters deny that he is anti-Semitic, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said flatly: "This guy is a racist, a Holocaust denier and an anti-Semite."
Asked about the fact that some Jews admitted voting for Le Pen, Foxman said they must have done so "to send a message to Chirac and Jospin, not to give him a victory."
Foxman said that Le Pen until recently had been written off the political landscape. His sudden re-emergence, said Foxman, "shows that the French are as racist and bigoted as everyone else."
"When it comes to Jews, they have learned little from the Shoah," Foxman said. "And Chirac and Jospin kept their eyes closed to anti-Semitism for political expediency."
The Union of Jewish Students of France has organized an anti-Le Pen rally in Paris Sunday. A similar demonstration has been called for by Americans for Israel’s Survival at noon Sunday outside the French government tourist office at 444 Madison Ave. in Manhattan. The group is also calling for a boycott of French products.