The same day that we in Philadelphia were beginning commemorations of Yom Hashoah, citizens in France, a country with a complicated Holocaust history, closed the book on the nation’s modern presidential politics and advanced two outsider candidates to next month’s runoff election.
The two events — the French polling on the one hand, and Holocaust Remembrance Day on the other — have, at first glance, nothing to do with each other.
But in signing off on rightwing firebrand Marine Le Pen of the National Front party and Emmanuel Macron of the upstart leftwing En Marche! Party, France’s electorate has set a country whose national motto is “liberté, égalité, fraternité” onto a path that may end up in the closing of its borders, the denial of freedom of expression and who knows what else.
Make no mistake. The France of Le Pen’s vision takes the image of the United States conjured up during the worst of American President Donald Trump’s campaign appearances and doubles or triples it. In her telling, voters now must free themselves from the shackles of economic stagnation and mass immigration — with a particular focus on the latter.
“The time has come to free the French people,” she said after the closing of polls that put her at 22 percent to Macron’s 24 percent in a four-way race. For a glimpse of what that means, we can look at recent calls by Le Pen to ban the wearing of yarmulkes along with Muslim headscarves, and for the banning of French citizens from holding Israeli passports, as indicative of the xenophobia that marshals her supporters and informs her worldview. She is quick to say she’s not an anti-Semite; she just has an expansive definition of “the other.”
Should she win, conditions in France will get so bad, predicts Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, that its Jews should pack up once and for all.
“The situation there [in France] is very worrying,” Lazar told a Jewish learning conference organized by Limmud FSU, according to a JTA report. “Not only because of immigrants, but also because the general population is heading toward radicalization. The best example of this is the rise of extreme-right parties.”
That Lazar, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, has reached this conclusion is significant. The movement famously encouraged Jews to stay in South Africa when that country was in turmoil, reasoning that Jewish communities should be able to flourish wherever Jews decide to make their homes. To join a chorus that has been clamoring for a mass exodus from France — and to lay the blame for its necessity not on the Islamic terrorism that has left many in danger, but on a rising tide of nativist hatred — is to put not only the French Jewish community, but Jews everywhere on notice that one of the great countries of modern Europe is on the brink of destruction from within.
For his part, Trump, who at one point spoke admiringly of Le Pen, is refusing to endorse a candidate who in many ways drew on the same populist and xenophobic anger that propelled him to the White House. All he was willing to do was point to last week’s attack on a police bus in Paris as an element of Le Pen’s electoral strength.
“I think that it’ll probably help her because she is the strongest on borders and she is the strongest on what’s been going on in France,” Trump told The Associated Press on April 23 after polls has closed. “I believe whoever is the toughest on radical Islamic terrorism and whoever is the toughest at the borders will do well at the election.”
Radical Islamic terrorism and border security are very real concerns for any nation. But France may provide a window into how action on those issues can quickly expand to preclude the rights of anyone deemed not native enough. The dividing line might lie on a certain skin color, a particular religious practice, an ethnic origin or a political worldview.
The potential danger isn’t so difficult to grasp.
But we needn’t worry about France simply because of its history of complicity in the Holocaust or because a Western democracy falling into the violent convulsions of state-sanctioned xenophobia is a little too reminiscent of 1930s Germany. The politics being practiced there should provide a stark reminder of the dangers of the politics being practiced right here at home.
Much has been said of late of how the Trump administration has shown a willingness to moderate some of its more inflammatory impulses. But this week, with the House of Representatives and the Senate in session together for only three days and a looming deadline of 11:59 p.m. April 28 to pass a budget before the government shuts down, Trump began by not calling for, at the very least, a clean funding bill that keeps spending at previous levels. He wants the billions of dollars needed to build his “big, beautiful wall” across the country’s southern border with Mexico.
Like Le Pen, Trump touts the wisdom of this massive project in terms of security. It will “stop drugs and very bad MS 13 gang members” from coming into the United States, he tweeted on April 23. The problem is, even according to the U.S. government, such a wall will have little effect on the overland smuggling that accounts for the bulk of illegal narcotics that make it into the country.
“The most common method employed by Mexican [smugglers] involves transporting drugs in vehicles through U.S. ports of entry,” the Drug Enforcement Administration concluded in last year’s National Drug Threat Assessment. “Illicit drugs are smuggled into the United States in concealed compartments within passenger vehicles or commingled with legitimate goods on tractor trailers.”
In other words, most drug smuggling takes place at U.S. border checkpoints staffed by guards. A wall won’t stop that. No more than depriving Jews of their skull caps or dual citizens of their Israeli passports will keep France safe.
Most policies that filter up from the xenophobic masses seem so logical, so simple. Too bad it seems so hard to realize they’re also so wrong.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at email@example.com.