Meet The French Minorities Voting Le Pen

A small but growing number of French Muslims and Jews see no contradiction in supporting the far-right, anti-immigrant leader

A billboard of National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen — REUTERS
Apr 21, 2017 at 2:27 AM ET

Marine Le Pen, the populist French presidential candidate and vocal supporter of Donald Trump, has built her career demonizing France’s religious minorities. She’s compared Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi “occupation” and accused Muslim and Jewish students requesting non-pork lunches of attempting to disrupt public order.

But after years of being perceived as too extreme, Le Pen’s National Front party may finally clinch a victory in the April 23 elections — helped by none other than Muslim and Jewish French voters.

Yasmine Benzelmat, a 35-year-old National Front politician of Moroccan descent, says that children of immigrants like herself have been on the front lines of the battle to make France French again.

“Our party prefers French people with foreign origins who are fighting for France over those who have French ancestors and are spitting at the country all day long,” says Benzelmat, at a posh cafe before heading off to a counter-terrorism lecture hosted by Le Pen, from where she will live-tweet photos of herself and other star-struck colleagues.

Like Le Pen, Benzelmat is an avid user of social media, where she mocks what she calls the “far right” and the “far left,” and posts tons of jubilant photos featuring her fellow campaigners canvassing in Paris’ immigrant-majority banlieues, or suburbs surrounding the city center. Le Pen rarely makes appearances in those impoverished neighborhoods (her car was even once pelted with stones in Yvelines, west of Paris), but they may be the key to her performance next week.

The banlieues are immigrant-heavy neighborhoods that are ridden with crime and drugs, drab concrete high rises mark a stark difference from the charming boulevards of Paris. There, unemployment runs around 20 percent, about double the national average, and reaches up to 40 percent among young people. Several French surveys have shown that young people applying to jobs are often rejected for an interview if they indicate a banlieue suburb on their application.

There, discrimination “is challenging the French model of integration and the Republic’s promises of equality,” demographics researcher Patrick Simon said in a 2012 paper. “Beyond the loss of opportunities in the labor market and social life, experiences of discrimination are associated with a higher feeling of rejection from Frenchness and a sense of isolation.”

“But taking the plunge and voting for Le Pen remains extremely complicated” for many Muslims, Jerome Fourquet, the director of the public polling organization IFOP, told BFM TV, explaining that it is uncertain how the “burgeoning temptation,” among Muslims to vote for Le Pen will actually play out at the ballots. “There are those who say that they personally wouldn’t vote for Le Pen, but they understand why their relatives or friends did; they see in particular neighborhoods with security issues, not all of Le Pen’s ideas are bad.”

Translation: This morning the # activists mobilized in #Versailles and # for  #OnBehalfOfThePeople

Many experts say Le Pen’s promises to accelerate an already aggressive policy toward Muslim-majority communities would only exacerbate their marginalization. But Benzelmat asserts that gradually more second- and third-generation French citizens —those who have lost faith in all previous government attempts to ameliorate the situation — are dismissing such mainstream discourse for the National Front gospel. The party has included many Muslim and Arab politicians in its ranks, a fact, she notes, that’s often missing in the “mainstream media” depiction of the party.

“But nonetheless, the taboo has fallen away from the National Front, so more and more young people have been drawn to our message, which is clear: all French people have the same rights as well as the same obligation, but they do not have the right to discrimination positive [affirmative action],” she says. “We do not focus on countries of origin, but on nationality.”

She adds that many fellow Le Pen voters aspire to reach the level of patriotism like that seen in “the United States, where you are proud to be American, to hoist the U.S. flag.”

The French election will be the second in three pivotal European elections, following the Netherlands and preceding Germany, all of which have seen far-right ultra-nationalist parties rise to an unprecedented level of prominence. It will play out in two rounds, the first on April 23 and the second on May 7. Le Pen is polling neck-and-neck against center-independent candidate Emannuel Macron, and also faces stiff competition from the center-right candidate Francois Fillon, who is currently embroiled in a corruption scandal — as well as Jean-Luc Melanchon, a 65-year-old Communist-backed firebrand who has recently seen a surge in the polls.

At the heart of Le Pen’s platform is the French economy, which has been stagnating in recent years, even as the rest of the euro zone has recovered. Unemployment stands at 10 percent, double that of Germany or Britain.

But she also wants to deport all undocumented immigrants, “Frexit” the European Union, re-prioritize native-born French citizens in housing and welfare benefits, and revive French Catholic values in the face of an increasingly globalized world.

Benzelmat says that there is a hierarchy within immigrants. Older groups believing they have paid their dues to attain “Frenchness,” which they are eager to defend. Le Pen, she contends, will protect those older immigrants against newer waves of Muslims newcomers, who are “content to stay at home and not work, only talk about how French colonization destroyed their countries of origin,” she says, adding that she blames young Muslims for getting caught in the web of radical Islamic movements, and, in doing so, increasing Islamophobia across the board.

But France’s decades-long history with its Muslim minority is more complex. With nearly five million Muslims, France hosts the largest Muslim minority in Europe. By 1968, more than 470,000 guest factory laborers arrived from Algeria alone, in order to help rebuild France after World War II. They were housed in the public housing projects that would later became the infamous banlieues. But they were also leaving behind homelands that were former French colonies where they were classified as subjects rather than citizens. The bloody French colonial retreat and ensuing battles for independence in Algeria and other North African countries embedded deep scars of hatred.

The largest influx of North Africans occurred the 1960s and the 1970s, but the deindustrialization and the global recession have made those same groups vulnerable to poverty and, simultaneously, to being blamed for the country’s multiple socioeconomic woes.

The state has struggled to integrate Muslim immigrants, but has also consistently refused to collect census data based on religious affiliation, asserting that all groups are equal in the eyes of the Republic. Egalité remains the official motto, but many immigrants said they were being treated as second class citizens. In 2005, protests erupted in and around the banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois after two teenagers of African descent were accidentally electrocuted to death while hiding from the police in a power station. Minorities demanded an end to police brutality and a wave of activism spurred many to register to vote. More than ten years later, many residents say that institutional prejudice and broken promises by the political elite have continued to keep poor immigrant groups languishing in the margins. In February, the banlieues erupted once again after a policeman allegedly raped a 22-year-old resident using a baton.

Relations have been especially fraught since 2015, when French and Belgian citizens who claimed allegiance with ISIS carried out a coordinated string of attacks in cafes, clubs and a soccer stadium in and around Paris. Just two days after two gunmen massacred journalists at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, a Frenchman claiming allegiance to the ISIS took hostages and killed four people at a kosher market on the outskirts of Paris.

Religious and racial tensions continue to flare two years later, pushing another small but growing electorate into the Le Pen fold: French Jews. They have for years been subject to rising anti-Semitism, mostly from their Muslim counterparts, and are increasingly saying that a Le Pen-style crack down on radical Muslims is their last hope for remaining in the country, says Gilles William Goldnadel, a lawyer and commentator.

“Since the end of World War II, not a drop of Jewish blood that has been shed is from white anti-Semitism. All the catastrophes facing French Jews today happened because of the French connection with the Arab world,” says Goldnadel. “This was something that was controversial when I said it thirty years ago, but today everyone understands the dangers.”

Among the worst attacks on France’s Jews were the attack on a kosher grocery in Paris in 2015, a robbery-rape in the Paris suburb of Creteil in 2014, and the shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012. Along with fatal attacks, verbal and physical assaults have also been spiking. In 2015, the Jewish Community Security Service reported that French Jews, who make up less than one percent of France’s total population, were targeted in nearly 50 percent of the country’s overall number of hate crimes. After an ISIS supporter stabbed a Jewish teacher with a machete last year in Marseille, a leader from the community caused controversy when he asked Jews in the country to stop wearing yarmulkes, “until better days.”

But the Jewish vote for the National Front did not happen on its own. Rather, it was massaged into reality by Le Pen’s campaign of dédiabolisation, “de-demonization,” to scrub the party’s image clean from the party’s founder, Marine’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen, a notorious homophobe and anti-Semite. Marine has even eliminated her father’s last name from her campaign slogan, which reads, “Marine Presidente.”

Since taking over the party in 2011, she’s told France’s Jews that the party has turned a new page on anti-Semitism. She instead stokes anxieties of homegrown, “lone wolf” Islamic terrorism, and reminds the constituency that she and them share a common enemy: Muslims.  Only her party is capable of shielding the community from ongoing violence, she says.

“I was always very clear on this subject. Everyone knows I had a split with my father over this; even though it hurt me greatly, because it is my father,” Le Pen told the Israeli ultra-conservative newspaper Makor Rishon last week. ”Lots of French Jews are voting for us, because they know very well that not only am I not anti-Semitic, but I’m the most reliable weapon to defend them.”

In parallel, Le Pen has been conducting outreach to conservative Muslims turned off by the socialist government’s legalization of same-sex marriage and other liberal policies. And for both minority groups, the strategy seems to be working.

In 2015, Le Pen won none of France’s 13 regions in local elections, but tripled her votes when compared to 2010, reaching around 30 percent of the total vote. Le Point magazine found that some four percent of Muslim voters opted for Le Pen in the first round of the 2012 elections. A 2014 poll suggested that up to 13.5 percent of Jewish French voters voted Le Pen, up from virtually zero support under Jean-Marie Le Pen. Those numbers are expected to rise in this year’s election.

All that as Le Pen continues to sporadically break with her own narrative of political correctness. In a radio interview earlier this month she said that France was not responsible for the 1942 roundup of Jews to Nazi concentration camps, reviving old memories of her father’s tradition of Holocaust denialism.

“If there’s anyone responsible, it’s those who were in power at that time, it’s not France,” she said. “France has been mistreated for years. Our children have been taught that they had every reason to criticize it, to see only its darkest aspects. I want them to be proud to be French again.”

Jewish groups swiftly condemned Le Pen for her Holocaust revisionism, and European Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said in a TV interview that “Marine Le Pen has reminded us that this is a party of the extreme right, it is an anti-Semitic, racist party.”

A new spate of pre-election investigative reporting has also sought to prove that the “new” National Front is more about style than substance, emphasizing that the highest echelons of the organization are today manned by Hitler enthusiasts and Holocaust deniers. Among them is Frederic Chatillon — a Hitler admirer and old friend of Le Pen’s from her Sorbonne law school days — who was banned per judicial order from having commercial ties with the National Front. Nonetheless, Le Pen employed him as a salaried “project manager” in her presidential campaign. Chatillon has reportedly celebrated Hitler’s birthday, organized costume parties in which guests came dressed as Jewish inmates of Nazi concentration camps, and has maintained business ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Within the campaign inner circle, Chatillon serves as a Steve Bannon-style ideological confidante, according to a March report in Le Canard Enchaine newspaper.

“The French should know… that if they vote for Marine Le Pen that she is not free” and her closest aides embrace a “visceral anti-Semitism,” Aymeric Chaupradein, a former senior advisor to Le Pen, told investigative journalists Marine Turchi and Mathias Destal in their recently released book, Marine Knows Everything.

Michel Thooris, a 36-year-old Paris-born Jewish police officer and supporter of Le Pen, said that the most recent controversy around the party’s anti-Semitic foundations was “an artificial piece of polemics orchestrated by the media.” He says that Le Pen is ultimately neither pro- or anti-Jews, or any other minority, but pro-laïcité, France’s hardline policy of secularism.

“It is precisely laïcité that allows us to be French Jews because the strict separation of church and state guarantees equality between the different religions and state,” says Thooris, who heads the Association for Patriots of Jewish Faith, a group of French Jewish supporters of the National Front.

He says that many of his group’s 900 followers recognize the racist and anti-Semitic elements of Le Pen’s party, but still believe that she is “capable of protecting French Jews, who are the targets of Islamist terrorists.”

Many of Le Pen’s supporters are fervently ideological, but their motivations reflect the vast divisions even within the country’s minorities. Perhaps one of the only common denominators is the disillusion with the French political establishment, which Ahmed Moualek says may cause a silent majority to put Le Pen in the Elysee Palace.

Moualek, a blogger and conspiracy theorist of Algerian descent, has broadcast hundreds of Youtube videos featuring rambling, truther-style diatribes ranging on subjects from the “U.S-Zionist conspiracy” to the “mediocrity of modern Islam.” He says that many of his online fans in the Bobigny banlieue crave something else — even a candidate who he admits is a racist xenophobe.

“I will vote Le Pen in order to punish all the other politicians,” says Moualek.” She is no more racist than all the others; in many ways, they’re worse.”

He adds: “France deserves Le Pen.”