France's Le Pen courts Jewish vote

JERUSALEM Thu Apr 19, 2007 11:36am EDT

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who once called the Holocaust a detail of history, tried to win over Jewish voters on Thursday ahead of the first round of the presidential election on Sunday.

The 78-year-old, who shocked the country by finishing second in the 2002 election, said his right-wing rival Nicolas Sarkozy's Jewish origins worked in his favor with Jewish voters but he said there was no recognizable "Jewish vote" in France.

"The Jews in France are divided among the candidates," he said in an interview with Israel's Hebrew-language Maariv newspaper.

"The Jews in France who are French and are connected to France, whose interests are France's interests, should definitely vote for me," Le Pen said.

In 1987 Le Pen caused outrage by saying that the Holocaust was a "detail" of history but he told Maariv those comments were not met to upset anybody.

"I did not deny the Holocaust happened. All I said was simply that the gas chambers were a detail in the story of World War Two. This is not something that should spark anger."

Le Pen, who is lying in fourth place in opinion polls, is battling for some of the same voters as the frontrunner Sarkozy.

Sarkozy has tried to win over National Front voters by focusing heavily on Le Pen's traditional territory of immigration and security.

Le Pen has responded to this with increasingly vicious attacks on Sarkozy, including questioning his qualifications to lead France because his is the son of a Hungarian immigrant and a mother of Greek Jewish origin.

Asked why French Jews liked Sarkozy, Le Pen told the newspaper: "His being a Jew on the Greek side, but not on the Hungarian side, works to his benefit a bit. Sarkozy is always favorable towards Jewish organizations and Israel."

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