You’ve seen how the mainstream politicians and media in America tried to deride first Donald Trump’s candidacy and now his presidency. In France, the candidate closest to Trump in ideology is undergoing a withering assault just two weeks before French voters go to the polls. And, like Trump, she may actually benefit from the ordeal.
Marine Le Pen, the presidential candidate of the National Front, touched an old but still open wound among Frenchmen this week, when she said her countrymen should stop feeling guilty about rounding up French Jews who were sent to their deaths during World War II, when France was under Nazi occupation.
The National Front’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Marine’s father – was an anti-Semite and a Holocaust denier. But since Marine took over leadership of the party, she has successfully softened its image, while still calling for stronger borders, fewer immigrants and a hard look at France’s participation in the European Union.
Those kind of anti-establishment positions have put her in the cross-hairs of her rivals, as well as most of the French mainstream media. France has a two-round system for choosing its president, and Le Pen has consistently been among the top two in national polls. The first round of voting takes place April 23.
Her top rival, Emmanuel Macron of the moderate En Marche Party, quickly used Le Pen’s heritage to attack her, saying, “You repeat the lies that you heard from your father’s mouth.”
Le Pen’s reference to the Holocaust, which appears to have been off-hand and not pre-planned, may have been inopportune two weeks before a crucial election where polls have her doing well. She may well lose whatever support from French Jews that she ever had. And the newspapers who delight in pillorying her will have a week or so of easy target practice.
But what they, and the French political establishment are forgetting, is this: not many Frenchmen living right now were born during World War II. And the youngest French voters – in their late teens and 20s – have no connection to the Holocaust except what they have read or been told. Certainly they do not feel personal responsibility for a round-up of French Jews that took place 75 years ago.
It is those young voters who will be most affected by the direction France takes in these elections. The youth unemployment rate in France is 23 percent, more than double the national average. While that is not directly attributable to immigrants taking away jobs from Frenchmen, Le Pen’s call to Put France First (sound like she’s Trumpeting someone?) appeals to youths who are don’t believe in the tired, corrupt French political establishment.
Le Pen’s inelegant remarks about French participation in the Holocaust stirred up the usual outrage among her foes. But in seeking to put history in the past – which is, after all, definition of history – Le Pen may be trying to send a message to younger voters who were not alive for those tragic events, and feel no inherited sense of guilt.