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French election: Jewish voters face tough choice on Sunday

Sarah Judith Hofmann
July 5, 2024

As the second round of elections for France's lower house draws near, many Jewish voters are asking themselves which party will protect them from antisemitism. Many believe the far-right National Rally is their best bet.

A line of campaign posters advertising French politicians with black graffiti crossing out names and faces
Out of options: Jewish voters in France feel uneasy with voting for the left or the rightImage: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Daniel Dahan, the chief rabbi of Lyon, made it clear from the start that he wasn't advising anyone in his synagogue to leave France. He said that would be just what antisemites wanted — to let Jewish people believe they didn't belong in France and should "go back to where they came from." 

Instead, Dahan is advising those in his congregation to remain in France and to stand up for democracy. His approach is quite different from that of a rabbi in Paris who recently advised French Jews to emigrate to Israel.

Still, something else Dahan made clear when speaking about the national vote called by French President Emmanuel Macron in the wake of populist gains is that, in his eyes, it was "a choice between the plague and cholera." He said the left-wing New Popular Front  (NFP) alliance was led by what he called "wild antisemites," and added that anyone who thought the far-right National Rally (RN) was any better was kidding themselves.

The National Rally's Marine Le Pen (center) and Jordan Bardella (right) at a Paris rally with French and Israeli flags in the background
Far-right leaders Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella have sold themselves as friends of French Jews but not everyone is buying itImage: Bourguet Philippe/BePress/ABACA/picture alliance

Consisting of Socialists, Greens, Communists and the far-left France Unbowed (LFI), the NFP alliance has been under fire for antisemitism after the head of alliance member LFI, Jean-Luc Melenchon, made several controversial remarks following the Hamas-led attack in Israel on October 7, 2023.

prominent Jewish voice in France, historian and activist Serge Klarsfeld has already said he would sooner vote for right-wing populist Marine Le Pen and RN leader Jordan Bardella than he would for the NFP. Klarsfeld made a name for himself by spending decades tracking down Holocaust perpetrators like Klaus Barbie, perhaps better known as the Butcher of Lyon.

Can Israel supporters be antisemitic?

At least 40 French citizens were among the estimated 1,200 killed in the Hamas-led attack last year. Since then, the right-wing populist Le Pen has indeed positioned herself alongside Israel, condemning the attack as a "pogrom" and stating that Israel had the right to "eradicate" Hamas. So far, Israel's ongoing military operation in response to the October 7 attack has killed over 38,000 Palestinians, some 15,000 of whom were children. 

When Parisians held a mass demonstration against antisemitism last November, Le Pen was in the front row. "We are here to stand up against antisemitism, to support our Jewish citizens, and to fight fundamentalism," she said at the time. Serge and Beate Klarsfeld were there, too.

Serge Klarsfeld's father was killed at the Auschwitz concentration camp. His wife, Beate, made headlines in 1968 when she publicly slapped then-German Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger for his own Nazi past. The couple seems to take RN at its word when the party says it has changed over the years.

Rabbi Dahan knows the Klarsfelds aren't alone in this sentiment. Many in his congregation, he reported, have been thinking about voting for Bardella. Even the French-Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut has publicly voiced such considerations.

Today's RN grew out of the old National Front (FN), which was closely aligned with antisemitic student fraternities and associations. Its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was regularly fined by French courts for denying the Holocaust, glorifying war crimes, and racist hate speech. His public statements were riddled with sexist, homophobic, racist and antisemitic slurs.

After taking over the party's reins, his daughter Marine made a concerted effort to appear more civil and discourage such degrading comments from party members. She even went so far as to expel her own father from the party he had founded. Despite this, journalists have documented evidence of homophobic, Islamophobic and racist statements from roughly 100 of RN's current candidates.       

Fighting antisemitism and Islamophobia in France

Using outrage to harvest votes 

French writer Hubert Haddad has said the RN is "clearly a neo-Nazi party — fascist, racist and antisemitic." The party, he said, "is extremely dangerous, and not just for Jews," adding that the RN was also attacking France's humanist values. Haddad, the son of Jewish immigrants, was raised in the suburbs of Paris after his parents were forced to flee Tunisia amid anti-Jewish pogroms following the founding of the state of Israel.

The intellectual said the current situation appeared to be ushering in a nationalist mood similar to that which dominated France at the end of the 19th century, a time when antisemitism spread across Europe. Minorities, he said, were always made the scapegoats in turbulent times.

Currently, he said, RN is playing Jews off against migrants from Muslim countries — a point with which Rabbi Dahan agrees.

As a spokesperson for the French government recently pointed out, Marine Le Pen only speaks out for Jewish citizens when they appear to be under threat from Muslims. When members of the far-right attack them, she doesn't say a word — even though right-wing attacks on Jewish individuals far outnumber those committed by Muslims.

But, Haddad added, pitting minority groups against one another is also a tactic used by Melenchon of the LFI. The left-wing party has been accusing Israel of genocide, it would appear in an attempt to win over disenchanted voters, predominantly in the suburbs of Paris.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands, is currently investigating claims that Israel is committing genocide on Palestinians in Gaza. While the final verdict is still out, the court has since passed an interim judgment that at least parts of initial claims were "plausible."

Jean-Luc Melenchon stands at a podium, flanked by members of the New Popular Front alliance, and speaks to a crowd
Leader of the left party France Unbowed (LFI) has drawn criticism to the New Popular Front (NFP) alliance for controversial remarks he's made in support of PalestiniansImage: Abdul Saboor/REUTERS

Lumping Israel's government and Jews into one 

Haddad said he can understand people's outrage over the war in Gaza, though he insists that it should be directed at the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and not against Jewish people.

But Dahan said he believes that politicians — like LFI's Rima Hassan — are intentionally blurring the lines.

A member of the European Parliament, Hassan is a leftist politician with Palestinian roots. When she sat down for an interview in November that was a series of "yes" or "no" questions, she indicated that she believed Hamas was pursuing legitimate aims and that Israel did not have the right to defend itself in the way that it was.

Excerpts of the interview quickly spread on social media, prompting Hassan to state that her answers had been taken out of context and that she had condemned the Hamas attack elsewhere in the discussion. Lyon's chief rabbi said he didn't believe her, accusing her instead of intentionally offering ambiguous statements. 

NFP alliance drawing on Leon Blum's historic 'Front Populaire'

Author Haddad disagreed and said he did not believe that the newly formed left-wing NFP alliance is antisemitic. Instead, he pointed out that other members of the alliance have publicly voiced criticism over Melenchon's and his party's rhetoric. Moreover, he said, the NFP stood very much in the tradition of its namesake, the Popular Front.

The original group, led by French Jew Leon Blum, formed a coalition government aimed at countering ascendent fascists across Europe in 1936. Still, Haddad believed antisemitism was present among leftists at the time. He said he also believed that Melenchon's party posed a threat to France's liberal values.

Jews make up roughly 0.6% of France's overall population. The 440,000-member community is the largest in Europe, and many Jewish people across the globe are now looking to France and how it will cast its vote on Sunday.

"We can't lose hope," said Rabbi Dahan, "even if many of us are sitting on packed bags."

This article was originally published in German.