Jean-Marie Le Pen, honorary president of France’s National Front (FN), has plunged the party into hot water over new allegations of anti-Semitism only weeks after a stunning poll victory won in part by playing down some old far-right stands.
Le Pen drew criticism from Jewish groups and even some prominent members of his own party at the weekend for a quip about a French Jewish singer that appeared to include an implied reference to concentration camp ovens used in the Holocaust.
Still combative at 85, Le Pen said only “political enemies or imbeciles” would interpret his comments as anti-Semitic, but the party withdrew from its website the weekly video interview in which Le Pen lashed out at the FN’s critics.
The National Front, now led by his pragmatic daughter Marine, took first place in France in the European Parliament election two weeks ago, the first time the anti-immigrant, anti-EU party had won a nationwide poll in its four-decade history.
Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls called that victory an “earthquake” and several celebrities – including U.S. singer Madonna, French comedian Guy Bedos and tennis star Yannick Noah – expressed alarm that the FN garnered 25 percent of the vote.
In the video posted on Friday, Le Pen lashed out at them. Reminded by his interviewer that Jewish singer Patrick Bruel was among the critics, Le Pen chuckled and said: “That doesn’t surprise me. Listen, we’ll do up a batch next time.”
Le Pen has often used subtle word play to hint at anti-Semitic views without explicitly expressing them. His word for “batch” – fournee – is a baking term that originally meant “ovenful”.
He was convicted of inciting racial hatred in 1996 for saying the gas chambers used to kill Jews in the Holocaust were “merely a detail in the history of the Second World War.”
Bruel responded to his video with a tweet saying: “J.M. Le Pen reoffends … Did he need to remind us of his true face and that of the FN?”
FN vice-president Louis Aliot had not seen the video but told the Le Parisien daily: “If he used the term ‘batch’, that’s one more wrong phrase. It’s politically stupid and deplorable.”
Gilbert Collard, an FN member of parliament, called the comments “unacceptable, intolerable” and harmful for the party. He hinted on BFM TV that Le Pen should retire.
Jewish groups reacted sharply to Le Pen’s comments. The French Jewish students’ union UEJF said it would sue both Le Pen and his daughter for what it called “this openly anti-Semitic declaration”.
The European Jewish Congress called on the European Union to remove his parliamentary immunity and for him to be charged with incitement. Le Pen is a European Parliament deputy for the FN.
European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor said Le Pen’s latest comments had “unmasked the true face of the far-right of Europe days after their electoral successes”.
“While some have tried to whitewash and mainstream these parties, Le Pen’s comments demonstrate that they still stand on foundations of hatred, anti-Semitism and xenophobia,” he said.
Le Pen, who turns 86 later this month, responded to the wave of criticism on Sunday by saying on BFM TV he had never made an anti-Semitic declaration in his 60-year career in public life.
Florian Philippot, another FN vice-president, regretted the brutality of Le Pen’s attack on the party’s critics but denied it was anti-Semitic, saying: “Anti-Semitism is contrary to all the FN’s values.”
Since taking control of the party in 2011, trained lawyer Marine Le Pen has transformed the image of a party once tainted by association with anti-Semitism and sought to make of it a party of government, marginalising the party’s old guard and punishing overt racism in party ranks.