PARIS (EJP)---Ahead of Sunday’s second round of local elections, the umbrella group of Jewish organizations in France, CRIF, has urged French voters "not to vote for candidates of the extreme-right National Front or for the extreme left."
The call came as the National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, whose popularity is steadily growing, set the stage for big political gains in the first round last Sunday. Half of France’s 2,023 cantons – the country’s smallest territorial units – were up for grabs, and the anti-immigration party won a place in the second round in 394 cantons, or a fifth of all contested councils. The party garnered 14.7% of the total, as voters delivered a blow to President Nicolas Sarkozy's right UMP party, which got 16.3%.
While calling in a statement to do their civic duty by voting, in the second round this Sunday, CRIF called on French voters not to tender their votes to the extreme.
"On behalf of the defense of Republican values, " the CRIF calls to "refuse to give votes to candidates of the National Front who want to implement a far-right and xenophobic program, the Jewish group said in a statement.
"It is also clear that CRIF also calls not to vote for candidates from the extreme left known for their anti-Zionist position, " it added.
Ten years after her father Jean-Marie Le Pen rattled French politics and society by taking second place in the country's presidential elections, 42-year-old Front National leader Marine Le Pen is taking up the challenge again ahead of next year's presidential election.
To fashion a credible candidacy, she is trying to shake off her extreme-right party's nationalistic, xenophobic heritage and instead wooing working- and middle-class voters disappointed with the economic record of President Sarkozy.
She might persuade some of them, analysts say.
"We have nothing of the extreme right, nothing," Marine Le Pen said in an interview.. "We are in favor of democracy, of party politics. We support the rule of law. Our adversaries stamp us as extremists to try and discredit us."
According to analysts, much of Le Pen's chance in the 2012 presidential race depends on who will be the Socialist candidate.
A poll released by consultancy Ipsos this weeks shows that Marine Le Pen would beat Sarkozy in the first round of the presidential vote if Dominique Strauss-Kahn, currently head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington confirms that is a candidate. According to the poll, Le Pen would garner 19% of votes against 18% for Sarkozy in the first round, while Mr. Strauss-Kahn would take 33% of the vote. But it is not clear however that Strauss-Kahn, who is Jewish, is willing to leave his Washington office to be a candidate.
But Marine Le Pen’s party has been associated for year’s with her father’s anti-immigrant and xenophobic policies. The party’s 82 year-old founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has shocked France's political establishment for years. In 2005, he was convicted for incitement to racial hatred and anti-Semitism for calling Nazi death camps a "detail of Second World War history."
In the 2002 presidential election, Le Pen's extreme stance appealed to voters unsettled by what they saw as rising insecurity in France, particularly in the suburbs of big cities. In the first round, he beat Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin, though the FN leader lost in the second round to center-right candidate Jacques Chirac after Socialist and leftist parties called on the voters to reject the extreme-right.
Today, Marine Le Pen, who took over the party leadership in January, is trying to give a new image of her party although she remains faithful to her father’s anti-immigrant and anti-European ideas. Earlier this year, she tapped into a wave of anti-Islamic sentiment and she compared Muslims praying in the public streets outside crowded mosques to the Nazi-era occupation.
But in the same time she is trying to become acceptable to the French mainstream and has wooed the Jewish community. Her father, a Holocaust denier, has been condemned for historical revisionism.
She distanced herself from her father’s revisionist statements. In an interview with French weekly magazine Le Point she declared that the Holocaust was the "epitome of barbarism.". "I just want to say to our Jewish compatriots they have nothing to fear, we are absolutely not anti-Semitic", she said. But still, the National Front has many anti-Semites among its members and adherents.
Earlier this month, after Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz interviewed Marine Le Pen, a Paris Jewish radio station, Radio J, broke a taboo by inviting her to a weekly political talkshow. But her appearance was cancelled two days before the event due to pressure from the Jewish community where the invitation was badly received.
Richard Prasquier, the President of CRIF, called the invitation “irresponsible”.
"She is more dangerous than her father," he said, stressing that her main strategy, contrary to her father who was constantly seeking provocation, is to gain mainstream respectability and recognition.
"I regret that Jews give her a respectability certificate," he said after he learned about the Jewish radio invitation.
CRIF and Licra, the International League against Racism and Anti-semitism, warned that Le Pen's discourse was "a threat to Jews and Muslims" and the extreme-right was scapegoating Muslims in the same way Jews were targeted during the anti-Semitism of France in the 1930s.
Around 600,000 Jews live in France.
But the rise of populist extreme-right parties is also happening in other European countries, like in Holland, Austria and Denmark. It has one dominant driving force: opposition to immigrants, mainly Muslims.