PARIS (AP) — French far-right leader Marine Le Pen has set off a cacophony of criticism over her plans to attend a weekend march to protest rising antisemitism in France, with critics saying that her once-pariah party has failed to shake off its antisemitic heritage despite growing political legitimacy.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, numerous political parties and citizens are to attend the Sunday march. Le Pen has said that she and her National Rally party also will be there, in what some see as an attempt to leverage the Israel-Hamas war to make herself more palatable to mainstream voters.
Party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, her father, was convicted repeatedly of antisemitic hate speech and played down the scope of the Holocaust. Daughter Marine — runner-up in the last two presidential elections and likely a top contender in 2027 — has worked to scrub the party’s image, kicking her father out and changing its name from National Front to National Rally.
But the party’s current president, Jordan Bardella, said in an interview on BFM TV this week that he doesn’t think Jean-Marie Le Pen is antisemitic, a remark that revived the link between past and present.
Government spokesman Olivier Veran said Wednesday that Marine Le Pen’s party “does not have a place” at what is dubbed as a “grand civic march.” However, he noted that the march is public and that “everyone is free, in his conscience, to participate or not.”
The march was called by the leaders of the Senate and parliament’s lower house, the National Assembly, amid an alarming increase in anti-Jewish acts in France since the start of Israel’s war against Hamas after its Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel.
As of Wednesday, officials counted 1,159 antisemitic acts since Oct. 7, nearly three times more than all acts against French Jews in 2022, according to the Interior Ministry. France has the largest Jewish population in Europe, but given its own World War II collaboration with the Nazis, antisemitic acts today open old scars.
“Of course I will participate. (Party president) Bardella will be there. All of our elected officials will be there, and I call on all our members, all our voters to come,” Le Pen said on RTL radio.
The Jewish umbrella group known as CRIF is among those who say Le Pen is not welcome. House Speaker Yael Braun-Pivet, who called for the march with the Senate leader, said on TF1 television Wednesday night that no political parties had been invited but that she won’t march “next to” Le Pen.
There has been less noise around the announced presence at the march of even harder-right politician Eric Zemmour, whose small Reconquest party drained some leading figures from the National Rally, including Le Pen’s niece Marion Marechal, who is also to demonstrate.
Both Zemmour’s party and Le Pen’s take aim at what the far right calls a migrant “submersion,” mainly Muslims, and voice fears that the French way of life is being upended.
With 88 National Rally lawmakers in the lower house, Le Pen, now a lawmaker herself, has become a political force to be reckoned with, unlike Zemmour.
Yet distrust clings to Le Pen’s party.
“I don’t believe at all in the normalization of the National Rally,” Borne said in May on Radio J, the Jewish community radio station, saying she considers it has a “dangerous ideology.”
“Changing a name does not change the roots,” she said, adding when asked, “yes, also an inheritor of Petain,” referring to Marshall Philippe Petain, who headed the collaborationist Vichy government in WWII.
In what may be a surprise to Le Pen’s critics, famed Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld said in an interview published Thursday in the daily Le Figaro that the presence Sunday of Le Pen and her party is for him “completely positive.”
He noted that legal action by his association, the Sons and Daughters of Deported Jews of France, had resulted in convictions of Jean-Marie Le Pen.
“For me, the DNA of the far right is antisemitism. So when I see a big party that grew from the far right abandon antisemitism, negationism and march toward republican values, I rejoice,” Klarsfeld was quoted as saying.
French President Emmanuel Macron, addressing the far right without naming anyone, said in a speech Wednesday before the nation’s Freemasons that “some pretend to support our Jewish compatriots by confusing the rejection of Muslims and the support of Jews.”
This is not the first time the political class has kept Le Pen at arms length during marches. She was effectively shunned from a “unity march” in 2015 that drew world leaders after three terror attacks. Le Pen retreated to a party fiefdom in southern France, Beaucaire, and held a small march there. More recently, in 2019, she joined a huge protest against the government’s pension reform — but had to be smuggled out because of protests against her.