Updated: April 28, 4:29 a.m. EDT
France’s Jewish community is watching the second round of this year’s presidential election with profound unease, as Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front has unveiled plans to ban the ritual slaughter of animals for kosher and halal meat and promoted a deputy who has been accused of praising an infamous Holocaust denier.
Le Pen temporarily stepped aside this week as the leader of the extreme nationalist party founded by her Holocaust-denying father, Jean-Marie, as part of an effort to present a more moderate face in the general election.
That attempt was immediately spoiled, however, by the revelation that the former associate of her father she put in charge of the party, Jean-François Jalkh, told a scholar in 2000 that he did not accept evidence that the Nazis used the pesticide Zyklon B to murder Jews in the death camps.
Jalkh’s comments were published 12 years ago in an academic journal, but not widely known about until a reporter for the Catholic daily La Croix, Laurent de Boissieu, came across them on Tuesday.
During a three-hour interview with the researcher Magali Boumaza, for her dissertation on the National Front’s youth activists, Jalkh, who joined the movement at 17, said that he had been struck by the “seriousness and rigor” of arguments made by the Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson about the gas chambers.
That reading led Jalkh to consult a chemist, he added, before saying, in a passage shared on Twitter by the reporter who unearthed it: “the use of a gas, for example, called Zyklon B, I personally consider that from a technical point of view, it is impossible, clearly impossible, to use it in […] mass exterminations. Why? Because it takes days before decontaminating a room … where one used Zyklon B.”
Although Jalkh quickly denied ever having made such comments, Boumaza, who is now a professor, told Le Monde that she still had a recording of the conversation. “The interview lasted three hours, and it was he who spontaneously broached the subject of the gas chambers,” she said. “At no time did he ask me to stop recording or not to transcribe his words.”
Le Monde also noted that its own archives reveal that in 1991 Jalkh attended a memorial for Marshal Pétain, the wartime leader of Vichy France who collaborated with the Nazis, at which prayers were said “for the restitution of the outraged honor of this great soldier.”
Jalkh’s appointment clearly undermined Marine Le Pen’s ongoing effort to detoxify her party’s image — which led her to expel her own father two years ago, after he minimized the Holocaust and reiterated praise for Pétain. Recently on the campaign trail, however, the younger Le Pen seemed to pivot back to her father’s views, declaring that the deportation of French Jews to Nazi death camps by Pétain’s Vichy regime during the war was not a stain on the honor of France.
Following Jalkh’s appointment, the Council of Jewish Institutions in France, which is known by the French acronym CRIF, asked why would anyone would be surprised that the new leader of the National Front is “a traditional Lepenist.”
Unease over Jalkh’s past led to his sudden replacement on Friday morning by another party member, Steeve Brios, who is the mayor of Hénin-Beaumont in northern France. Brios has no record of Holocaust denial, although he is due to stand trial soon in a French court for inciting racial hatred by making the false claim on Twitter last year that the absorption of migrants has led to “an explosion in sexual assaults” in Germany, Sweden and Austria.
After officially taking her leave from the National Front, Le Pen campaigned among butchers at a market in Paris on Tuesday and defended her proposal to ban the ritual slaughter of animals without prior stunning, in accordance with Jewish and Muslim dietary regulations, as a matter of animal welfare.
Like her earlier call for a ban on religious head coverings, including hijabs and yarmulkes, Le Pen’s proposed policy appeared to be a strike aimed at preventing devout Muslims from adhering to their faith, but she seemed entirely untroubled by the “collateral damage” the ban would cause to France’s Jews.
In response to the proposal, the Chief Rabbi of France, Haïm Korsia, told Agence France-Presse Le Pen’s idea was “stupefying.”
“Is it necessary to launch real religious wars in France by saying that it is essential to ban Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughtering?” Korsia asked.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Korsia has endorsed Le Pen’s rival, Emmanuel Macron, in the election to be held on May 7th. “It is necessary to call on all of those who believe in France to vote for Emmanuel Macron,” the rabbi wrote on Twitter, “because he now carries this hope of fraternité.”
Le Pen’s call for a ban on the ritual slaughter that would make it impossible for French Jews to keep kosher attracted the attention of Israeli journalists. Gilbert Collard, a member of the National Front’s political bureau, was pressed on the issue during an interview on Wednesday with the French channel of Israel’s i24 news network. Collard defended the move as essential to protecting secularism in France, and even argued that anti-Muslim measures were necessary, in part, to protect French Jews.
Attempting to cast the National Front as the defender of French Jews, Collard pointed to what he said was an outrageous example of anti-Semitism by leftist protesters – the slogan “Jews: Thieves, Murders!” (“Juifs: voleurs, assassins“) which he said was chanted during a recent demonstration.
In fact, Collard was repeating a willful misinterpretation of video that showed protesters chanting instead “Cops: Rapists and Murders!” (“Flics: violeurs, assassins“) while marching on April 16 against the National Front in Paris. That slogan makes reference to the violent anal rape with a police baton of a young man named Theo in a Paris suburb in February.
Nonetheless, video of the chant shared by Collard on Twitter and Facebook with that inaccurate transcription has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. (Collard appears to have gotten the video, and the inaccurate transcription, from a self-described French-Israeli Zionist who posted it on Twitter earlier the same day.)
Amandine Sanchez, an independent journalist who was with the protesters on the street where the video was recorded confirmed to The Intercept on Thursday that the chant was indeed about the police, not Jews.
Video recorded at street-level during another part of the demonstration that day — scroll to the 5:20 mark of the Periscope clip embedded below — appears to confirm that the anti-fascist protesters were indeed chanting “flics: violeurs,” not “juifs: voleurs.
As supporters of the demonstrators and journalists pointed out, there is quite a lot of evidence on social networks that this slogan about police brutality has become common at left-wing protests across France since Theo was brutalized in February.
Back on the campaign trail, Le Pen spent part of Thursday with Collard on a fishing boat in the Mediterranean region he represents in the French parliament. The outing gave rise to some bizarre images of the politicians attempting to fit in on the boat, including video of Le Pen demonstrating her dolphin call for the non-plussed fishermen.
From the Paris suburbs, where he was demonstrating his skills with a soccer ball, Macron mocked Le Pen’s outing on Twitter, suggesting that her promise to take France out of the European Union would devastate the French fishing industry.
The night before, Macron’s rhetoric against Le Pen was even sharper, telling supporters that while “she pretends to be one of the people, she is an heiress.”
Le Pen’s attempt to cast herself as the champion of the common man, despite her well-off upbringing, inspired some of her critics to share a photograph of her and her sisters with their father in evening clothes in front of the family mansion in 1988.