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Backgrounder: Jean-Marie Le Pen and the National Front
April 23, 2002

Jean-Marie Le Pen is a right-wing extremist leader in France who has a long history of anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry. The founder and longtime leader of the National Front, a staunchly anti-immigration party that blames an influx of foreigners for France's high crime rate and
Le Pen Photo
Jean-Marie Le Pen (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
unemployment, Le Pen, 73, has repeatedly used hateful words in attempts to stir up resentment against France's minority groups, including Jews.

Le Pen has repeatedly made statements that attempt to diminish or deny the Holocaust, once remarking that the Nazi gas chambers were "a mere detail" in history. He and his aides likewise have consistently espoused anti-Semitism. In February 1997, for example, Le Pen accused President Jacques Chirac of being "in the pay of Jewish organizations." More recently, Le Pen has toned down his anti-Jewish sentiments, while focusing his oratory against Arab immigrants from North Africa.

Le Pen has remained one of the most prominent voices on the far right in France since he founded the xenophobic National Front party in 1972. While his party has consistently garnered about 15 percent of the vote in national elections and averaged between 15 to 21 percent in local elections, Le Pen has never been considered a serious contender for a higher political office.

That changed, however, with the outcome of the April 21, 2002 presidential elections, where Le Pen scored a surprise victory, coming in second behind President Chirac and dashing the campaign hopes of Lionel Jospin, the Socialist prime minister who was considered the front-runner. Le Pen, who cast himself as an alternative to the political status quo in France, unexpectedly garnered more than 17 percent of the vote, placing him second behind President Chirac and qualifying him for the runoff election on May 5, 2002.

A History of Racism and Anti-Semitism

Le Pen's rhetoric and publications leave no doubt that he espouses bigotry, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust revisionism. In 1987, he said that the Nazi death camps were "a mere detail" of World War II. In 1990, he was convicted of incitement to racial hatred by casting doubt on the Nazi persecution of Jews and Gypsies under a French law banning such rhetoric. He was fined the equivalent of $233,000 and appealed the sentence to the European Court of Human Rights. He made similar statements in Munich in 1997, violating Germany's hate speech laws. Le Pen responded to critics using a refrain common to Holocaust deniers and revisionists, saying he would no longer answer questions on the topic because, "It's a taboo subject which is protected by legal and criminal law and the only opinion you can express on it is that allowed by the media. There is a propensity in our political life to exaggerate the importance of the past, particularly of World War II."

One of Le Pen's more egregious comments, evoking widespread protest from parties across the political spectrum and from human rights and Jewish organizations, was that "the races are not equal." The National Front Mayor of Vitrolles, Mine Mégret, repeated this same line. Both Le Pen and Mme Mégret elaborated on the statement by noting that, after all, different races have different strengths -- thus, both said, Blacks are better at sports.

While the National Front's basic platform in the 1990s was to curb immigration, repatriate immigrants, and compel those who remain in France to assimilate, Le Pen and his aides have also consistently espoused anti-Semitism. In February 1997, for example, Le Pen accused President Chirac of being "in the pay of Jewish organizations, and particularly of the notorious B'nai B'rith." In a book about the rise of Jacques Chirac to the presidency, the authors quote Le Pen as saying that only this could explain why Chirac is so "hostile" to the Front National.

In the 1980s, Le Pen repeatedly belittled or ridiculed Auschwitz. He was critical of a then-cabinet minister named Durafour, and in referring to him said, as in a joke and with a smile, "`Durafour-crématoire.' It was a pun on "four," French for oven.

Banned from Public Office

In April 2000, Le Pen was banned from public office and stripped of his seat in the European Parliament for one year, following a 1998 conviction for assaulting a Socialist politician the year before. The Socialists labeled him unfit to serve in Parliament and called for his expulsion.

This decision came at a critical time, on the heels of a hotly contested leadership struggle in 1998 to 1999, in which a long-simmering rivalry between Le Pen and his deputy general, Bruno Megret, had boiled over. Megret was younger and subtler in tactics, but shared similar ideologies and was more open to developing links with mainstream conservatives with leanings toward cooperating with the National Front.

Although the crisis appeared to threaten the future of the party, it was not over ideology, but rather over power and tactics. It ultimately did split the party in two, with Megret leading the new Republican National Movement. This caused a significant setback in the following election, from which the National Front appears to have recovered.

Additional Information - ADL's 1997 report:
Jean-Marie Le Pen: A Right Wing Extremist and His Party.

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