Marine Le Pen steps down this week as the head of France’s far-right National Front, a temporary move intended to make Le Pen more palatable to French voters. The National Front candidate’s second-place showing in the first round of French presidential elections is part of a dangerous trend. All over the world, authoritarian populists have largely succeeded in normalizing views that would previously have been considered almost unthinkable.
Le Pen steps down in favor of Jean-François Jalkh, but Jalkh is not the man to improve the Front’s veneer of respectability. In an interview in 2000, Jalkh argued that the existence of gas chambers at the Nazi concentration camps should be up for discussion, and that it was “impossible” that the Nazis used Zyklon B to commit mass murder, as reported by the Guardian.
Marine Le Pen has given up her position as leader of the National Front for one reason only — so she can turn its racist fantasies into real policy. Nothing Le Pen does or says can change the history of the party she represents. The National Front was founded by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was forced out by his own daughter when his public comments kept getting the Front into trouble.
In 2016, the elder Le Pen was fined €30,000 for dismissing the gas chambers as a mere “detail,” according to the Guardian. He lost another case for making racial slurs against the Roma, and still another for defending the Nazi occupation of France. Jean-Marie Le Pen also gave an interview in which he defended Vichy leader Philippe Petain, convicted of treason after World War II for his collaboration with the Nazis.
Marine Le Pen had her father expelled from the party because he wouldn’t stop saying this sort of thing, but that doesn’t imply she actually disagrees with him. As the Guardian reports, Marine Le Pen described her father’s comments as “political suicide” and a “total spiral of strategy” — implying that his main sin was not defending the Nazis but being indiscreet about it.
Le Pen’s decision to step down in favor of Jean-François Jalkh shows that the National Front is still what it has always been — a party for Holocaust deniers, Nazi sympathizers, and people who are nostalgic for the Vichy regime. The fact that Jalkh denies being a Holocaust denier should not fool anyone, as his comments were not at all ambiguous. For many years, being a fascist or even an ordinary racist was so unacceptable socially that the fascists were forced to deny what they really were. They learned how to turn this hypocrisy to their own advantage, denying the Holocaust in one breath and then denying their denial in another.
The shameless use of doublespeak has finally achieved what they intended all along. It is now becoming socially acceptable for mainstream conservatives to make common cause with fascists, either by denying their obvious fascist statements and connections or by portraying themselves as heroic defenders of free speech.
The fascist fringe of the far right has been creeping slowly out from the margins and entering the mainstream, but it still doesn’t dare to admit what it really is. When Le Pen stepped down in favor of Jalkh, his Holocaust denials suddenly came to public attention. He wasn’t ashamed to say those things just 17 years ago, but now he says he can’t remember ever saying them. If Marine Le Pen really wants to move away from her father’s disreputable image, why step down in favor of a Holocaust denier?
For the National Front to win, it has to be able to convince French voters it isn’t a fascist party and that its leaders aren’t Nazi sympathizers. Le Pen may have been unaware of Jalkh’s past comments, but there is no way she can remove everyone who shares these views from the party because that it only exists in the first place to provide a home for them. Le Pen steps down to buy herself a little distance from the Front — or in other words, to make it easier for people to lie to themselves.
[Featured Image by Jacques Brinon/AP Images]