While François Fillon‘s presidential campaign is punctuated with embarrassing and inconvenient revelations – at least he is still capable of occasionally saying the right thing.
At the weekend, his party’s Twitter account published a cartoon of the centrist candidate, Emmanuel Macron, that could have come straight out of Der Sturmer, the Nazi propaganda sheet published by the infamous Julius Streicher. Captioned “The truth about Macron’s galaxy”, Macron was depicted as a hook-nosed banker in a top hat cutting a cigar with the Communist symbol of the red sickle.
Macron is not Jewish, but once worked at the Rothschild investment bank – and in the world of antisemitic conspiracy theorists, the word Rothschild is catnip and has become synonymous with Jew. When they want to be clever and avoid the accusation of antisemitism, they think that if they use the word Rothschild they have a get out jail free card.
On being informed about the cartoon, Fillon swiftly had the tweet deleted and promised to discipline whoever was behind it.
Which is interesting, and the right thing to have done. But, more interesting, surely, is that such a cartoon should ever have been deemed appropriate by members of a mainstream party.
Clearly the Republicans have not been paying attention to the National Front playbook. Because the rise of the party to the brink of the presidency has in part been enabled by Marine Le Pen’s determination to “detoxify” the party’s image – and its reality – under her father’s leadership.
To which end, any mention of Jew hate has now become a taboo among modernised French fascists. You will go to the ends of the earth and back before you find Ms Le Pen expressing open dislike for Jews. So in the looking glass world of French politics today, it’s now more likely that you’ll see expressions of antisemitism from the Republicans than you will from the National Front.
(Hilariously, the Republican’s secretary general, Bernard Accoyer, said the cartoon was being “wrongly interpreted”, presumably in much the same way as a punch to the head is sometimes wrongly interpreted as a being other than a friendly stroke.)
But there’s another way to look at this. Because this is not really about French politics at all. It’s rather a phenomenon that seems to be developing across the Western world – the return of antisemitism to politics.
It’s rarely couched like that, of course, and rarer still expressed openly. But search for the word Zionist or (as we saw this weekend in France) Rothschild on social media and you will be swamped.
In Britain, this is most often associated with supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, many of whom manage at the same time as parading their supposed anti-racist politics to spout their hatred of “Zios”, and to post links to sites which purport to show that the world is secretly run by the Rothschilds. How very clever! How could anyone possibly accuse them of being antisemitic when they never make any mention of Jews?
But look at their actions and you see where this all leads.
In a little-noticed decision in January, for example, Labour’s National Executive Committee decided it was more important to uphold the rights of bigots to express their bigotry than it was for the victims of that bigotry to be protected from it.
Last February, a number of members of the Oxford University Labour Club were accused by two Jewish members of antisemitic bullying. The club’s co-chair Alex Chalmers resigned in protest at what he described as “intolerant tendencies” towards Jewish members.
The official Labour Students group immediately investigated and accused six people of “numerous examples of serious, repeated and potentially criminal antisemitism over a sustained period of time”.
Labour then appointed Baroness Royall to lead an inquiry. She concluded that “there have been some incidents of antisemitic behaviour and that it is appropriate for the disciplinary procedures of our Party to be invoked”.
That was last summer. When the matter came to the NEC this year, it decided to drop all action against the two party members whose cases had been viewed as most clear cut.
Indeed for some on the NEC, it was those accused of antisemitic behaviour who were the real victims. One NEC member suggested “these two gentlemen have been through enough”. Another said: “These two need an apology, not a warning.”
Not surprisingly, Baroness Royall responded that the NEC’s actions should be seen as “confirming a widely held view that we don’t take antisemitism seriously”.
It is easy to imagine that the antisemitism of so-called “keyboard warriors” on social media is of little real consequence. Silly fools mouthing off in their pyjamas who have no impact on anyone.
This shows the reality – that antisemitism is a force in politics with a very clear impact.
Not, of course, that this is a phenomenon solely of the extreme Left in Britain or even of more traditionally antisemitic French politics.
Look at the US. Some of President Trump’s best friends – and family – may be Jews. He may be, as he tells us “the least antisemitic person” you could meet. But that hasn’t stopped him repeating, almost to the letter, ideas propagated on white supremacist, neo-Nazi websites suggesting that the provenance of the recent wave of grave desecrations and bomb threats targeted at Jews may not be antisemites but Jews themselves.
Oh, those dastardly clever Hebrews.
So whether or not President Trump is antisemitic is almost irrelevant – for what it’s worth, I very much doubt he is – because what matters is the impact he has had on US politics. And that impact has been to unleash some of the darkest forces known to man.
In France, the UK and the US antisemitism has moved from the margins where it had been banished for decades to once again be a factor in mainstream politics.
On one level, this is shocking. Have we really learned nothing from history?
Then again, if history is our guide, the real surprise is surely that antisemitism was for so long absent from the mainstream.