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Front’s rise to front-runners

Ben Judah's own family history has made him watch the French elections in horror.

    (AP Photo/Jean-Paul Bonincontro)

    I remember the first time I heard the name Le Pen. I was 14 years old, it was the 2002 Presidential election, and I was in Nice.

    There was rage, shame and indignation. The TV babbled with shock and Republican unity. There were millions of people in the street.

    Two weeks ago, I was in Nice, but things are different now in France. In those streets, where France meets Italy, there were no protests, no leftist no pasarán, and that name, a foregone conclusion.

    In just 15 years, the Front National has gone from sneaking, to gliding into the run-off — with polls showing Marine Le Pen heading, not for a humiliating 17.8 per cent of the vote like her father Jean-Marie, but a deafening 40 per cent.

    In just 15 years, the party founded by her father, the ghoulish one-eyed paratrooper, infuriated by his defeat at the hands of Arabs in La guerre d’Algérie — who, on his way into politics, ran a record label distributing Nazi war songs and the poetry of Vichy intellectuals and who bragged the gas chambers were “a detail of history,” is now the most powerful party in France.

    And, it now appears, is endorsed by the President of the United States, funded by the President of the Russian Federation, promoted by Nigel Farage, and indulged by the Daily Express and the Daily Mail.

    I hadn’t come to Nice in 2002, on half-term, to see this begin. I had come to Nice with my mother, brother and sisters to read a name on a memorial.

    The name of my great grandmother Edith Muller is on the stone, on a hill, overlooking the city. I remember on that day, our Holocaust Memorial was also behind barbed wire, and guarded by a thuggish man, glaring at us with an Alsatian.

    Everything in his face told us, if he could get away with it, he’d spit.

    My great-grandmother, a refugee from Germany, was 45, when, grassed up by her neighbours, her flat was broken into by French policemen. They took her wallet, forced her on to a train to Paris, where they numbered her and pushed her into a cycling amphitheatre, le Vel d’Hiv.

    There, with 13,000 Jews, the French authorities rammed her into a suffocating train to Auschwitz, where they gassed her.

    Whenever in Nice, I often think of her last moments. The screams, the bodies falling, clawing on one another and the shrieks of the Shema.

    Two days ago, Marine Le Pen notionally stepped down as leader of the Front National to place herself “above party” in the final week of the race. Filling her seat is Jean-Francois Jalkh, one of the little-known loyalists who have built le premier parti de France.

    Jean-Francois Jalkh is a man who, in July 1991, slipped into the church of Saint-Nicholas-du-Chardonnet for a mass to honour the memory of Maréchal Pétain, the leader of Vichy France, who every record shows, was an enthusiastic participant in the round-up and the extermination.

    Monsieur Jean-Francois Jalkh often thinks about the Holocaust as well. But not like me. The caretaker chief of the Front National believes that the gas chambers were “technically impossible.”

    Meanwhile, his leader, Marine Le Pen, campaigned saying: “France is not responsible for le Vel d’Hiv.”

    I miss my grandmother, who survived, terribly. But today I am happy she is dead if it means that she will not see those who wished her mother annihilated twice — once with denial — so close to the presidency, and smiled at by the most powerful men in the world.

    Ben Judah is the author of ‘This is London’ and ‘Fragile Empire’

     

     

     

     

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