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Bizarre French election dominated by an obsession with Jews

The far-left and far-right blocs, which are tipped to progress to the run-off vote, are wallowing in the gutter over France’s resurgent antisemitism.
Natasha Lehrer
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Jean-Luc Melenchon

French left-wing party leader Jean-Luc Melenchon has been widely accused of atnisemitism (EPA/Guillaume Horcajuelo)

Published: 26 June 2024

Last updated: 26 June 2024

Since Emmanuel Macron’s shock announcement of the dissolution of the government on the evening of the European elections on June 9, when he and his Renaissance party finished in a humiliating third place behind  the far-right National Rally and the Socialist Party, not a day has passed that has not dealt an almost comical – if it weren’t all so horrifying – new surprise.

In the course of two weeks French political life has become so preposterous that if someone tried to pitch it as a TV series no studio would back it, for being utterly, absurdly implausible.

No one knows why Macron called the election. On the night it seemed like a tantrum, a challenge to the French electorate, “be careful what you wish for.” Two weeks on, with the far-right leading the polls, it’s feeling no less insane. The country is on a precipice. The fact that the Olympic Games begin two weeks later makes it only seem more dangerous. The potential for violent ructions and equally violent repression is real.

The other day an Italian – Italian! – journalist published an article saying that the French are so crazy they need national psychoanalysis. It’s certainly true that what we are seeing, among many other things, is what might be called the return of the repressed.

In this case, a tendency towards the fascism and antisemitism that for 80 years, since the end of the Vichy government’s shameful collaboration with the Nazis, have been considered beyond the pale in France, but which any honest observer would concede has always been hovering on the sidelines.

Though the French don’t like to admit it, post-war France has consistently polled significantly higher support for the far-right than almost any other European country.

Two weeks ago, far-left leader Mélenchon declared that there is only 'residual' antisemitism in France.

This election marks an epochal turning point in the post-war French political landscape. The centrist parties, both right and left, have been decimated, and the election, whose first round is on Sunday, promises to see the far-left and the far-right slug it out the following Sunday, with neither predicted to win an outright majority.

As one might expect, the two don’t have a huge amount in common – except for a shared obsession with Jews.

Who would have predicted even a couple of years ago that the issue of antisemitism would dominate so much of political debate? In a country with a population of 66 million, there are maybe 500,000 Jews (figures are hard to come by in a country notoriously resistant to data on religion and ethnicity) – under two per cent of the population. Whatever the results of the election, it’s likely there will be fewer in a year’s time – there is no smoke without fire.

Marine Le Pen inherited the far-right National Front from her father Jean-Marie, renamed it National Rally, and has worked hard to “dédiaboliser” or sanitise the party to make it more palatable, principally by disavowing the shameless and virulent antisemitism of her father, who in 1987 notoriously called the gas chambers a “detail of WWII history”.

Jordan Bardella, the 28-year-old who will become prime minister if National Rally wins the most votes, has declared that he will “fight the antisemitism that has plagued France since October 7” and the party has withdrawn support for two of its candidates after antisemitic social media posts came to light.

The purpose of all of this is partly to woo Jewish voters, but mostly to claim the party has become moderate. Its main thrust, in the absence of a coherent economic program, is avowedly racist: along with strict rules to limit immigration, their promises include the removal of citizenship, and deportation, for criminal offences; making it illegal for a women to wear the hijab in any public space; legal discrimination against anyone with dual citizenship, including banning them from certain jobs; and the cancellation of a five-century-old tradition of the automatic right to citizenship at the age of 18 to anyone born on French soil of non-French parents.

In 2002, when Le Pen the elder unexpectedly reached the second round of the presidential elections against the incumbent Jacques Chirac, Chirac won by a landslide, thanks to what the French proudly call the “Republican front”, whereby all parties unite to prevent extremists from reaching power. But along with the centre left and the centre right, the appeal of the Republican front appears to have been pulverised, as Marine Le Pen’s party seems poised to gain the largest share of the vote.

A number of Jewish intellectuals say that in a run-off between the far left and the far right, they would – reluctantly – vote for Le Pen.

Le Pen may indeed have disavowed her father’s antisemitism, but many, probably most members of her party have not. One particularly piquant manifesto promise, a ban on both ritual slaughter and the importation of halal and kosher meat, ought to put most Jews off.

But a number of high-profile Jewish celebrities and intellectuals, including Serge Klarsfeld, the Nazi hunter and keeper of French Holocaust memory, and the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, have said that in the event of a run-off between the far left and the far right, they would – albeit reluctantly – vote for Le Pen’s party.

The reason for such shocking declarations is that in recent years antisemitism, once solidly the territory of the far right and the inheritors of Vichy, has infected some parts of the Left to such an extent that many Jews feel they simply cannot vote for it.

The left bloc formed within 48 hours of Macron’s announcement, comprising the far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party France Unbowed, which did badly in the European elections but received 22% of the vote in the 2022 presidential elections, the moderate Socialist Party, headed by Raphaël Glucksmann, who came second in the Europeans, the Green Party and various other smaller parties.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, left, attends a press conference June 24 (AP/Christophe Ena)
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, left, attends a press conference June 24 (AP/Christophe Ena)

Glucksmann always insisted he would never align with France Unbowed, but in a spectacular bout of backstabbing, he was dispatched to do a television interview, and while he was live on television the leader of his own party, the Socialists, did a deal with Mélenchon to create the Nouveau Front Populaire, a wink at Léon Blum’s party that won the election in 1936, bringing to power France’s first and only Jewish prime minister.

Glucksmann and various other Jewish left-wing politicians have over the past fortnight been at the receiving end of a riot of antisemitic tweets on X from members of France Unbowed, supposedly part of the same political bloc.

Mélenchon, despite being unpopular, has the party in his grip and has stated that if it wins, he will be the next prime minister.

This has further exposed what the vast majority of French Jews consider to be the deep-seated antisemitism of Mélenchon and his party, which has put forward the largest number of candidates and will, if it wins the most seats, put forward the next prime minister.

Mélenchon, despite being wildly unpopular, has the party in his grip and has repeatedly stated that if it wins, he will be the next prime minister, a prospect that many in the Jewish community are appalled by.

Two weeks ago, he declared that there is only “residual” antisemitism in France – this amid reports that since the war in Gaza began, antisemitic incidents have increased by 1000%.  Then last Saturday came news of a horrific rape in the Paris region of a 12-year-old girl, perpetrated by two boys aged 12 and 13, apparently because one of them, her previous boyfriend, was incensed that she had hidden from him the fact that she was Jewish.

Only the boys’ first names have been revealed — one Italian and one French. There could hardly be a more potent sign for many Jews that antisemitism in France has reached a tipping point.

Underlining the schisms on the left, on Sunday two separate press releases were put out expressing their revulsion at the rape and decrying antisemitism — one by Mélenchon’s party, the other by Glucksmann’s. One cannot avoid the suspicion that the two main branches of the left bloc cannot bear even to speak to each other, less than two weeks after having signed a pact of union.

Glucksmann’s communiqué proposes a “republican pledge” to combat antisemitism, pointing the finger at “elements of the Left”, while the main thrust of the statement by Mélenchon’s party laments what it calls a “smear campaign” against it. It’s not hard to see which is more sincere in its call to fight antisemitism, and how unlikely it is that the two main parties of the left will be able to work together if they are asked to form a government.

There’s plenty of time for more madness and bad news before the first round of voting on Sunday.

And that’s before the undoubted chaos that will take hold in the Assemblée Nationale when the likely outcome is no majority government and the three main parties – the third being Macron’s deeply unpopular Renaissance party – fail to agree on anything for the next 12 months,  after which  the government can be dissolved and new elections called.

All this with less than a month to go before the start of the Olympic Games. It remains to be seen if they take people’s minds off the miserable political situation or are ruined by the kinds of demonstrations and street violence that the French specialise in. I’m glad I’m going to be on holiday.


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