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French Jews ‘immensely relieved and immensely worried’

Macron must cobble together a disparate coalition that includes far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose antisemitic posturing has sent tremors through Jewish Twitter.
Natasha Lehrer
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French legislative elections, July 7 2024

Scene at the Bastille in Paris after second round of the French elections (EPA/Yoan Valat)

Published: 9 July 2024

Last updated: 9 July 2024

What a wild and unexpected end to the legislative election in France. Despite it's standout showing in the first round, Marine Le Pen’s far right party National Rally was relegated to third place in last weekend’s final election, held after President Macron’s shock dissolution of parliament four weeks earlier.

The left-wing Popular Front, a group of leftwing parties that range from the Trotskyite far Left to the social democrat Socialist party and the Greens, now holds the most seats in the National Assembly, while a group of centrist parties, including President Macron’s Renaissance, holds the second largest, having done far better than anyone was expecting. Sanity seems to have been restored.

And yet, as a thoughtful friend remarked to me on Sunday evening, “I’ve discovered this evening that it’s possible to be simultaneously immensely relieved and immensely worried”. For with three distinct blocs in parliament and no majority, France is faced with an incredible challenge. Politics in France’s Fifth Republic are not based on compromise or cohabitation.

When de Gaulle established the Fifth Republic in 1958, parliament’s role was limited by design; de Gaulle placed the presidency at the heart of the system, with parliament playing a supporting role. The Assemblée Nationale became a site of performative argument, rather than a place for debate and legislation, and the president, who in practice is always aligned with the majority party in parliament, has the leeway to govern by decree.

The trouble, as Macron, who lost his parliamentary majority in 2022, has discovered over the last three years, is that it is almost impossible to govern without a majority, for the opposition parties would not dream of voting with a president who represents another faction, even when their policies align.

Though there is a palpable sense of relief at having averted the worst outcome – the far Right gaining the majority of the seats in parliament, or, failing that, the highest proportion of seats – the success of the Popular Front remains a real concern for many French people, Jews and non-Jews alike.

Though there is a sense of relief, the success of the Popular Front remains a real concern for many French people, Jews and non-Jews alike.

The left-wing group now stands a chance of governing in the new coalition, though it is difficult to say how it will be made up. Jean-Luc Mélenchon and several of his foot soldiers are calling for the prime minister to be chosen from the ranks of his party, the far-left France Unbowed.

Mélenchon is so unpopular outside his party that the likelihood of it being him is low and, given that his party gained only 74 seats out of 577, the idea that the prime minister should be a member of France Unbowed is easily rebutted. Except that this charismatic populist doesn’t see it that way.

The irony is that, although Mélenchon consistently challenged Macron’s legitimacy, when the latter’s Renaissance party held 220 seats – less than a majority – in the Assemblée Nationale, now, with a far smaller number held by France Unbowed, he has announced that “his program” (sic) is to be immediately implemented, by decree (ie without the backing of parliament) if necessary. Apparently he sees no contradiction and cares rather less about democratic governance now that it is in his hands to avert it.

Macron will have to name a prime minister who can somehow govern without creating a coalition of chaos.

A core element of Mélenchon’s program is a commitment to recognising the state of Palestine. This prompted an immediate response in Israel. Never one to miss an opportunity for opportunism, Avigdor Liberman, leader of the Israeli political party Yisrael Beytenu, last night called on French Jews to “to leave France and immigrate to the State of Israel,” adding that there is “no time” to lose.

Mélenchon, says Liberman, “became famous with plenty of statements against Jews and the State of Israel. His party represents pure antisemitism and a significant increase in hatred of Israel and antisemitism.”

We saw similar fearmongering in the UK when Corbyn was leader of the Labour party and extravagant statistics were bandied about of the number of Jews preparing to leave the country should he gain power.

French Jewish Twitter is full of similar panic that a party with antisemitism running through its veins is about to take control of France, with wild claims that the majority of Jews are already planning their escape. It would signal the end of a thousand years of Jewish French history.

The truth is likely to be much less dramatic. Over the next few weeks Macron will try to pull together a government of different parties who will commit to working together. He will have to name a prime minister who can somehow govern without creating a coalition of chaos that will not be able to agree on anything and will destabilise the country both socially and economically.

It’s no small task, but he has the numbers to do it. There is a rainbow coalition of parties, likely to range from the Socialists and Greens to the traditional Republican right, and likely leaving out Mélenchon and Le Pen, both of whom will perform loud and angry outrage, as will their constituents, and there will no doubt be violence in the streets, but in the end Macron’s gamble is likely, at least in the short term, to have paid off.

Far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon (left) after the election results (EPA/Andre Pain)
Far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon (left) after the election results (EPA/Andre Pain)

However, it will only pay off if Macron and his government learn from these elections. There is a huge and growing constituency of disaffected and angry voters who are ready to blame everything except themselves for what is wrong with their lives.

The derisory level of debate over the last two weeks, the ludicrousness of populist programs that promise wonderful things like higher wages, lower prices, fewer taxes, more benefits, earlier retirement, better pensions, but show no understanding or even any apparent interest in how any of this might be funded, only underline the dire state of French political discourse.

There has to be a grassroots rebuilding of politic trust, a real sense that politicians are listening to the people.

The challenge is enormous, and this is emphatically not the time for kicking the proverbial can down the road. There has to be a grassroots rebuilding of politic trust, a real sense that politicians are listening to the people and acting in their interests.

It is not at all clear that any of this can be achieved in a country that is still suffering from the effects of Covid and is divided between those who believe in the European project and those who are protesting against a perceived loss of sovereignty; between those who believe in the net good of immigration and those who are overtly racist, dreaming of an all-white, all-powerful France that they learned about in school.

In his post-election speech, 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, who was all set to be named prime minister until his party came a humiliating third, let slip that his party had just joined Orban’s pro-Putin, far-right European parliamentary group, Patriots for Europe, and that he will be its president. It was a shocking moment, and only underlined the disaster the National Rally would have been for France’s citizens, its democratic institutions, and its standing in the world.

Now it is the job of its newly elected politicians to make sure France doesn’t go down that road again. It will take a great deal of humility and wisdom on the part of these democratically elected representatives to apply the lessons learned; it remains to be seen if that is one thing that the country’s famed education system has taught them.


Prominent French Jews decry far left’s election gains amid fears of ‘new antisemitism’ (Times of Israel)
French rabbi advises young French Jews to move to Israel because of mainstream discrimination; journalist says NPF victory sends message of impunity to ‘anti-Jewish Islamo-Fascists’.

‘Mélenchon is threat to Jews:' French Jewish leader calls for moderate government - exclusive (JPost)
"We need to raise awareness among the moderate left, that it will not be acceptable to be in a coalition with Mélenchon," said CRIF president Yonathan Arfi.

Le Pen's far-right rout is a reprieve for France and French Jews. For now. (Haaretz)
French Jews' relief at the far-right's reversal of fortunes is tempered by their revulsion at the far-left's gains. The election campaign has left scars on the French body politic, now more embittered and divided than ever, and on French Jewry, which fears for its very existence.

Refused to condemn Hamas massacre: far-left leader wishes to be French PM (Ynet)
Jean-Luc Mélenchon claims Israel committing genocide, promotes Syrian-Palestinian party member who spread unhinged conspiracy theories against Israel and seeks to promote recognition of Palestinian state.

What is the New Popular Front, surprise winner of the French election? (Guardian)
With a radical manifesto and an uneasy alliance, the left and green alliance has a difficult task ahead.


  • Avatar of Rachel Sussman

    Rachel Sussman9 July at 08:16 am

    I find it so incredible sad and even infuriating that we Jews just do not learn the lessons of the past. We will deny reality until we find ourselves in a Ghetto again and then of course it will be too late… once more… I do not like Ben Gvir but he is correct…. All one has to do is watch the demonstrations of the day after the elections calling on the Jews to leave and flying high the Palestinian flags to wake up…. England is not far behind and if I lived there I would also consider it to be time to move to the only place we can fight on our ground – Israel. I am in Australia and I feel it will not be long before it is time to leave here also…

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