April 18, 2002
From the balcony of his home in the prestigious suburb of Saint Cloud, Jean-Marie Le Pen has a sweeping view of Paris, that takes in the Eiffel Tower, Montparnasse, and the white Sacre Coeur church in Montmarte, at the northern edge of the city. The big three-story house is surrounded by a green metal fence. Nothing about it would arouse any curiosity; there is no guard posted at the entrance, and if there are any security cameras, they are very well hidden. The only obvious nod to security is a standard intercom at the gate.
A young man in a dark suit opens the front gate. We walk along the edge of an expansive green lawn. Two statues of black butlers dressed in bright green and holding lanterns flank the front door. Between them are two very large straw baskets, of the kind used for pets. Their unusual size piques my interest. "Oh that," the young man says. "Those are for Monsieur Le Pen's two Dobermans. They're out in the yard now."
Statues of Joan of Arc fill the house; they can be found in every corner - some on horseback, others in gold, silver and in marble. In the first-floor room that serves as Le Pen's study, an oil painting in a polished wood frame draws a visitor's attention. The portrait shows a smiling Le Pen (several decades younger) against a black background. He is wearing a black patch over his left eye.
"It was about 40 years ago, during an election campaign," he explains. "Political rivals attacked me. I was savagely beaten. I was kicked in the face and I lost my eye as a result."
His opponents might see the story of the patch as epitomizing his life. They say he is a racist provocateur, someone who loves a fight, who stirs up strife and contention; a despised and dangerous man who went looking for a violent dust-up and lost his eye as a consequence. His contrasting version of events fits in well with his regular complaints of being politically slandered, of the deep-rooted misunderstandings and about systematic abuse from the establishment.
Even the more jocular aspect that he seeks to ascribe to the whole episode perfectly suits his personality: "On one occasion, a female political rival claimed that I was looking at her with a `hard stare.' I replied: `But of course, madam. You are looking at my glass eye,'" he says with a boisterous laugh.
An encounter with Le Pen can be a bit of a culture shock. The man is blessed with a rare, intoxicating charisma. Not for nothing did one Jewish political activist in Paris tell me that, if it weren't for the anti-Semitic overtones, he might well have been persuaded by Le Pen and ended up casting his vote for the man. He looks different from up close. His features are softer. His eyes (including the artificial one) are bright. He is wearing a black suit and a blue and gray striped tie, with a matching handkerchief in his jacket pocket. He continuously breaks into raucous laughter that all the other people in the room find infectious.
Le Pen has good reason to smile. In 1998, his National Front experienced a major crisis. His second-in-command, Bruno Megret, stepped down and founded a competing party. In France, talk of a collapse of the extreme right was rife. The media abandoned Le Pen. He was practically forgotten. Yet, in recent weeks, he has gained surprising momentum. His support in the polls stands at 13 percent. He has passed the Trotskyite Arlette Laguiller and the nationalist-leftist Jean-Pierre Chevenement and established himself as "the third man": the person whose statements and voters could determine the identity of the next president of France in the upcoming presidential elections, the first round of which will be held just two days from now, on April 21.
Anti-Semitism in France? There's no such thing
These days, Le Pen is trying to portray himself as more moderate in an effort to distance himself from the scandals of the past. He is still an avowed opponent of immigration. He still holds extreme nationalist, Euro-phobic and anti-American views, but he is careful to avoid saying anything that could get him pinned once again with the anti-Semitic label and tie him to the current wave of attacks in France. He watches the anti-Semitic events from afar and agrees with the consensus that says they are an import of the conflict in the Middle East.
"There has definitely been a rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic acts in the past year and a half," he says. "Curses and graffiti have given way to attacks and incitement. It's all an outgrowth of what's happening in the Middle East now. The height of the flames depends on how the conflict develops, on the parties' readiness to reach a compromise."
It is very comfortable for Le Pen to observe all the anti-Semitic incidents from the sidelines, explains Jean Daniel, editor of the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. He no longer needs to sully himself. The "Arabs" are doing the job for him, say other analysts. They are "the real anti-Semites" and, at the same time, they are earning the public's hatred. Moreover, says the analysts, Le Pen is killing two birds with one stone: He believes the Muslim immigrants are "a grave phenomenon," perhaps the biggest problem facing France at the start of the 21st century. "There is a general problem of gangs that live in the suburbs of the big cities. They are using the events [in the Middle East] as ideological cover for their actions," he says.
"There is an Islamic population in France, most of which comes from the North African countries. Though some may have French citizenship, they don't have the French cultural background or sociological structure. They operate according to a different logic than most of the population here. Their values are different from those of the Judeo-Christian world. Not long ago, they spat at the president of the republic. They booed when the national anthem was played at a soccer game [in Paris, between the national teams of France and Algeria]. These elements have a negative effect on all of public security. They are strengthened demographically both by natural reproduction and by immigration, which reinforces their stubborn ethnic segregation, their domineering nature. This is the world of Islam in all its aberrations."
Could "classic" anti-Semitism join with the "new" anti-Semitism in France?
"I have no idea what `classic anti-Semitism' is. I'm not familiar with this term. I don't know where it comes from and what connection it has to France and what is occurring here. There wasn't anti-Semitism in France. An isolated incident can always happen. When two drivers curse each other on the road, and one of them happens to be a Jew, you can't define that as anti-Semitism. In recent years - before the intifada - there were three or four incidents of anti-Semitism a year, and that's out of 18 million crimes and violations of the law."
There has never been anti-Semitism in France? Aren't you forgetting some things? What about the Dreyfus Affair?
"The Dreyfus Affair is an exceptional case. It's true that here and there you can find some dregs of anti-Semitism, but the situation is the same in every country. After all, you're not exactly a nation like all the other nations. You are unique, if only because you are such an ancient people, and because of the way you are spread all over the world and your obvious success in many fields. But, in all honesty, anti-Semitism in France has always remained on a minimal level, at the verbal level only. It never went as far as pogroms."
And in the Vichy period?
"Vichy is a case unto itself. The Vichy government was under occupation and carried out the orders of the German occupier. In French politics, there isn't a single anti-Semitic party, from the political-ideological standpoint."
Do you agree with Jacques Chirac's 1995 statement about France's responsibility for the crimes of the Vichy government?
"No. France was not responsible for this criminal policy. France was an occupied country, a country that surrendered and was left without the right to choose. Therefore, to be fair, you cannot say that it was a willing partner in this policy. On this I agree with De Gaulle [who viewed France as a `resistance country' - A.P.], and with practically all the French leaders aside from Jacques Chirac. I am sure that he made this statement for electoral reasons. It was a showy move designed to win sympathy in certain circles."
"In this case, Jewish circles. In a successful book that was published recently ["L'homme qui ne s'aimait pas" - "The Man Who Didn't Love Himself"], Eric Zemmour, a journalist from Le Figaro, quotes President Chirac as saying after his declaration of French responsibility for Vichy crimes: `I hope the Jews will stop pestering me from now on.'"
Do you consider Chirac's declaration a historic mistake?
"Yes. You cannot speak on behalf of a nation when you have no mandate to do so. You also cannot speak on a nation's behalf about things that happened in the past. He can express his personal opinion, but not in the name of France. It's no coincidence that not one of Chirac's predecessors, including De Gaulle - the great fighter against Vichy - did not make such a statement. I'm always suspicious of people who repent of other people's sins."
In the past, there were Nazi collaborators in your party. Has there been a deliberate change in the party, or have those people simply died out?
"I don't think it is accurate to say that the movement was founded or run by Nazi collaborators. First of all, my influence in the party has always been decisive and I have never compromised on these things. In the movement itself, there was no mention of fascism or national-socialism. In my speeches, I always condemned communism, national-socialism and fascism. Incidentally, I define all of them as leftist movements that were spawned by the French Revolution. The only reason that our movement was pegged with the extremist label is because of our loyalty to the principle of `French Algeria' and our opposition to the policy of separation from Algeria, which De Gaulle instituted.
"There was no reason to label us as anti-Semitic. No reason at all. I do not know one person in the National Front who committed even the most minor hostile act against a Jewish person or Jewish property. As for me, even though I have been accused of anti-Semitism countless times, no one has ever heard me make anti-Semitic statements or engage in anti-Semitic behavior. There just are people, organizations, that need an adversary and they want the public to believe that this adversary is dangerous."
Xenophobe or anti-Semite?
Is Le Pen anti-Semitic? Surprisingly, observers do not have an unequivocal reply to this question. For Jean Daniel, he is "a nationalist who hates foreigners, but is not necessarily anti-Semitic." Theo Klein, a former leader of the Jewish community in France, tends to concur: "Le Pen is a xenophobe first and foremost. His attitude toward Jews is a product of his theory that only someone who was born in France, and has no other affiliation, is French." Noted commentator Dominique Moisi says that any change in Le Pen is solely tactical. "Since crime is the main issue in the elections, and since this is `his' issue, he can portray himself as the expert and fully exploit the `I told you so' tactic by calling on the public to vote for the `original' and not for poor imitations. He no longer needs to make anti-Semitic statements, but fundamentally, he is still an anti-Semite."
Pierre-Andre Taguieff, who has closely studied the National Front and published a number of books about the party and about racism in France, says the picture is somewhat complex: "Le Pen's electorate is definitely the most anti-Jewish. According to polls published at the beginning of April, about 52 percent of his supporters are wary of Jews. Le Pen has to take note of this statistic. He also certainly identifies with the conspiracy view held by 34 percent of the French, who feel that the Jews have too much power, that they control politics and manipulate it to suit their purposes."
Yet Taguieff, who recently published a best-seller about the "new anti-Semitism" in France, is not quick to call Le Pen an anti-Semite: "It's very hard to say. I'm convinced that his ideal is a France without Jews and North Africans. But no one has ever been able to identify him unequivocally as an anti-Semite. The anti-racist and anti-fascist circles in France tend to exaggerate their legal victories against him and to forget those in which he emerged triumphant. Overall, you could say it is a draw."
His wealth of past statements do not leave much room for doubt. The biggest scandal arose in wake of a 1987 interview in which he was asked about the Nazi gas chambers: "I'm not saying that the gas chambers didn't exist. I couldn't see them myself. I haven't devoted any special study to the subject, but I believe it is just a detail in the history of World War II." When asked to elaborate about this "detail" in 1997, Le Pen explained: "If you take a thousand-page book about World War II, the concentration camps would take up two pages and the gas chambers would take up 10 to 15 lines. That's what I call a detail."
He referred to the former socialist minister Michel Durafour as "Durafour Crematoire," and described Jewish television star Anne Sinclair as "a juicy kosher butcher." When asked directly by journalists whether he was an anti-Semite, he responded: "I don't like Chagall and my favorite composer is Wagner. Does that make me anti-Jewish?"
To return to the question of the so-called "new anti-Semitism." Some say that the French government is closing its eyes to the problem for electoral reasons. How big a part does the Arab vote play in these elections?
"I don't think there is such a thing as the `Arab vote' in France. The residents of the suburbs who are responsible for the violent incidents don't take part in the elections at all. The French government is simply fleeing from responsibility. It is declining to grapple with the violent activity. It fears that tackling it would heighten the violent atmosphere and so it is preventing the security forces from intervening. This is a very risky approach because you cannot retreat indefinitely: In the end, it won't be possible to put off a response, and by then it will have to be at a much higher level of violence than if it were done today."
Do you agree with claims that Israeli accusations of French anti-Semitism were meant to encourage French Jews to move to Israel and perhaps to also keep France from playing a role in the Middle East?
"I think that it is the Americans, more than Israel, who wish to keep France from playing a role in the Middle East. In my judgement, there is a basic popular sympathy for Israel in France, but the demonstrative sympathy tends to go to the other side. In the current conflict, the French media is pro-Arab for two reasons: The large Arab and Islamic presence in France combined with the weight of the billion Muslims in the world, and the fact that Sharon is a rightist. The hostility would be less if a leftist prime minister was pursuing exactly the same policy."
Are you talking about just the media?
"I'm talking about the government and the French intelligentsia, too. The government would have preferred not to take a stand, but the constant presence of the Israeli-Arab conflict on our television screens made it an issue that could no longer be avoided. The result is that you are now experiencing what we experienced in the war in Algeria: The Israeli government says that it is a victim of terrorist activity, but this activity is less visible than the military strikes. I belonged to the 10th paratroop division that was ordered to destroy the terror in Algiers. This was after a series of terror attacks against civilians in public centers. The division did wipe out terror, and it didn't do this by being gentle with the terrorists. A war on terror is a brutal thing."
Does it include torture?
Le Pen's strong, deep voice fills the room; he is almost shouting, and frequently waves his hands. Every now and then he grimaces, and it seems as though he has forgotten he is giving an interview in the privacy of his own home. At these moments, which are relatively rare, the Le Pen we know from his public speeches comes to the surface - this is the Le Pen who ignites the masses. At this point, he loses his calm demeanor. It's clear that the subject of torture is a sensitive one.
"Torture, torture - What is torture? You have to define for me what torture is."
What is your definition of torture?
"I don't know. I would define it as `a series of violent acts that cause physical injury to individuals, actions that destroy the personality and leave traces.' Police and military interrogations do not fit this definition of torture. What's surprising is that the people who fought against torture here are the communists. And the communists are the ones who used to practice systematic mass torture in their own countries. The suffering caused by the terrorists is the real torture. The struggle against terrorists sometimes requires secrecy and it has its own rules. The enemy must not be allowed the advantage that permits him to plant bombs when and where he wants. In this struggle, everyone must carry his own burden."