In the midst of the French presidential campaign, an anti-Semitic tweet from the conservative party seemed to be an isolated incident – but a closer look reveals something deeper about the direction the French right has been taking
François Fillon, the conservative candidate in the French presidential election (Les Républicains or LR) did not need another scandal to disrupt his campaign.
Yet on March 10, a tweet from LR’s official account depicted one of his rivals, centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, in what can only be described as a revival of 1930s anti-Semitic propaganda.
Hooked nose, banker’s shiny top hat, red sickle conveniently used to cut a thick cigar – the cartoon included all of the ingredients of the stereotypical portrayal of Jews in the French public sphere.
Mr Macron is not Jewish – but having worked as a Rothschild investment banker entitles him to similarly gracious treatment from those who have little time for subtle distinctions.
After the uproar which ensued, Mr Fillon called the cartoon “unacceptable” and had the tweet withdrawn. “I understand the emotion it has caused, as it evoked drawings from a dark period of our history and conveyed an ideology against which I have always fought”, he tweeted. The modern French conservatives seemed to be back: forceful in their denunciation of anti-Semitism and quick to punish those flirting with the far-right.
Yet this episode comes at a critical juncture for the French right and begs the question of whether anything deeper should be read into it.
Mr Fillon’s campaign recently took a radical turn. Embroiled in a series of financial scandals involving his wife and children, he has had to fire up his political base to comfort his legitimacy as the conservatives’ flag bearer.
The success of Mr Fillon’s massive rally held at the Trocadéro (Paris) on March 5, which salvaged his campaign when many close associates had distanced themselves from him, was largely due to the support of traditionalist Catholic movements who opposed President François Hollande’s law allowing gay marriage.
Mr Fillon portrayed his campaign as being under the assault of left-wing judges and deplored a “political assassination” against his candidacy.
This was Right Wing Populism 101: get yourself in trouble, blame the liberal media (for their “biased” coverage) and the leftist judges (for their “unfair” ruling), and come out with an inflamed speech presenting yourself as the “anti-establishment” candidate speaking in the name of “the people”.
In saving his candidacy, Mr Fillon simultaneously unleashed his party’s worst instincts.
His populist rhetoric has energised (if not legitimized) the extremist fringe of LR, clearing the way for untoward incidents such as the Macron cartoon.
Moreover, since the end of the Second World War, French conservatives have never been closer to an alliance with the far-right, which has supposedly been “de-demonized” (dédiabolisé) by Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) – another reason why the timing of LR’s tweet is ominous.
LR leaders are currently split between moderates who believe that Mr Fillon is no longer worthy of their support (due to his judicial turmoil), and a loyalist hard-right wing whose political strategy is to mimic the FN’s stances on immigration and Islam.
If Emmanuel Macron is elected president on May 7, LR is likely to split between the moderates willing to support Mr Macron’s reformist agenda and those adamant to consolidate the party’s populist wing and take an obstructionist approach vis-à-vis the new government.
The latter group would then find itself on a slippery slope towards an alliance with the FN.
Such an alliance would be dangerous, for the conservatives and the French political landscape generally. Despite the FN’s facelift (Marine Le Pen, a twice-divorced chain smoker and mother of three children, certainly comes across as more “humane” than her father Jean-Marie), it remains replete with extremists.
Earlier this month, the FN had to suspend a party official for Holocaust denial, and examples of FN candidates in municipal or legislative elections sharing anti-Semitic posts on social media are numerous.
An LR-FN alliance would officially mark the end of LR as a respectable mainstream party and durably reinforce the French far-right.
Furthermore, the French right doesn’t think it has a problem with anti-Semitism today. In the mid-1950s the attitude of the French right towards Jews improved for a number of reasons, including the new favour which the Jewish population of Algeria benefited from.
Both groups found common ground in lamenting the loss of Algeria, which gained independence in 1962. In fact, French conservatives these days are concerned, above all, about the ability of Muslims to integrate in French society and the compatibility of their faith with republican values.
But given current social tensions amidst an inflammable electoral season, it is likely a matter of time before the toxicity of the current mind-set around Islam is directed to other minorities, chief among them Jews.
The French right today is certainly not what is was during the Dreyfus Affair or Vichy France.
But the populist direction it has taken during this presidential campaign is a serious cause for concern. French conservatives should be appealing to “the better angels of our nature” – not stirring up voters’ darkest instincts. We already know what this can lead to.