French election illustrates the poor choices facing European Jews

While Marine Le Pen is considered a threat to Jewish life, President Emmanuel Macron represents a centrist establishment that has failed to meet the challenge of Islamism.

A kiosk in France shows French presidential election candidates incumbent Emmanuel Macron and challenger Marine Le Pen, April 24, 2022. Credit: Hadrian/Shutterstock.
A kiosk in France shows French presidential election candidates incumbent Emmanuel Macron and challenger Marine Le Pen, April 24, 2022. Credit: Hadrian/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

As far as most French Jews are concerned, they don’t have much of a choice in this week’s second round of their country’s presidential elections. Given that the alternative is Marine Le Pen of the National Rally Party, it’s clear that a large majority will likely vote for incumbent President Emmanuel Macron.

Le Pen’s associations with right-wing anti-Semitism, her vow to ban the wearing of kipahs in public (along with Muslim headscarves) and her dubious foreign-policy stands make her a clear and present threat to the security of the third-largest Jewish community in the world. But anyone who thinks that another five years of Macron is, in and of itself, good for French Jewry or the relationship between France and Israel isn’t thinking seriously about the problems Jews have there or why so many have been immigrating to Israel.

The steady stream of French Jews making aliyah in recent years has been an indicator of the difficult situation that the Jewish community there has faced. After a pandemic pause, that number began to surge again in 2021. The reason is no mystery. The rising tide of anti-Semitism that has swept across the globe has been particularly felt in Western Europe, and especially, throughout France.

Antagonism towards Jews has always been a feature of the extreme right in France dating back to the Dreyfus affair through the Vichy era to today. At the same time, an increase in anti-Israel sentiment emanating from the intersectional and anti-Zionist left has combined with the anti-Semitic sentiments that most of the approximately 9% of the French population that is Muslim brought from their homes in North Africa and the Middle East. That has created a toxic brew of Jew-hatred that has rendered Jewish life in France more precarious than at any time since the Holocaust.

That anti-Semitic spirit has made itself felt in numerous instances of anti-Jewish assaults, including murders. It’s also manifested in a situation where Jews are advised not to wear jewelry or clothing that indicate their identity, lest they be made to suffer insults and acts of intimidation sometimes leading to violence on the streets of major cities like Paris and Marseille.

While Macron and his government have made statements condemning anti-Semitism, it’s hard to escape the sense that the French elites he represents don’t consider the issue to be a priority.

But in a broader sense, he is regarded by an increasingly large segment of voters as part of a bigger problem involving the inability to control immigration from Muslim lands, as well as a failure to help that sector of the population assimilate into French society. As has been happening all over the West, middle- and working-class people believe that the country’s political establishment and its corporate partners are working against their interests.

That was seen in the yellow-vest protests that nearly paralyzed France a few years ago as workers demonstrated against rising prices and the breakdown of societal norms as a result of mass immigration. A backlash against unfettered immigration from former French colonies, as well as from within the European Union, has continued to grow in the years since then, along with concerns about rising crime and an economy that serves the interests of the governing and educated classes at the expense of those lower down on the socioeconomic ladder.

That’s proved fertile ground for Le Pen in the current election. Although she remains a clear underdog, polls show her closing the gap from 2017 when Macron, then a political newcomer, beat her in a landslide in which he won two-thirds of the vote.

Since then, Le Pen has renamed her party; distanced herself from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is a Holocaust denier and anti-Semite; and concentrated more on economic issues in the campaign. She was also helped by the candidacy of Ḗric Zemmour in the first round of the voting. Zemmour, who is Jewish, outflanked Le Pen on the right, taking a far more extreme position against Muslim immigrants while also seeming to embody the Vichy rightist tradition more than Le Pen, a bizarre choice given his Jewish background.

Though at one point it looked like Zemmour would emerge as the candidate of the right in the second round, he faded in the last weeks, and the comparatively moderate Le Pen wound up winning 23% of the vote to finish second to Macron’s 28%. Zemmour finished fourth with only 7% with the candidate of the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon coming in third with 22%.

Interestingly, the two parties that dominated French politics in the postwar era—the Republicans (who inherited the Gaullist tradition that traces its origins to the politically conservative movement founded by President Charles de Gaulle), and the Socialists—both collapsed in the first round of voting. For good or for ill, the French believe their system is broken, and while a majority gave Macron’s centrist technocratic platform a try in 2017, his dismal record has left him vulnerable to a possible upset by an outlier like Le Pen.

French Jews have good reason to be concerned about a possible Le Pen presidency. As the successor to her father at the head of a party known for its anti-Semitism and xenophobia, she has been seen by Jews as a threat to their place in French society, even if many of them understandably shared her dim view of the impact of the influx of so many unassimilated Muslims into the country. She has compounded that with a record of friendship for Russian President Vladimir Putin, support for the barbaric Bashar Assad regime in Syria and even Iran to the point where she has expressed indifference to Tehran’s quest for nuclear weapons.

By comparison, Macron’s ambivalent stance towards Israel, which is a continuance of a longstanding French policy that was deeply critical of the Jewish state that dates back to de Gaulle, looks good. French foreign policy has been distracted from its traditional backing for the Palestinians in recent years as other problems, including the defection of Great Britain from the European Union and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have given them little time to snipe at Jerusalem. Though Le Pen has made some noises about better relations with Israel, few believe that she would improve the French-Israel relationship.

The problem is that Le Pen is everything that many in the West accuse Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán—to whom some compare her—of being. Though both want to stop mass immigration into their countries so as to preserve its national character and remain skeptical of the European Union and the leftist elites who are associated with it, Orbán is a friend of Israel and has made the security of Hungarian Jewry a priority. Some French Jews would love to embrace a conservative challenger who would stand up against the anti-Semitic tide, as well as Islamist influence. But her hostile outlook on Jews and the fact that she would ban kipah-wearing in public along with the ban of Muslim garments simply disqualifies her from consideration for those who care about the continuance of Jewish life in France.

While Hungary improbably has produced a conservative nationalist government that combines friendship for the Jews with a defense of the nation-state against globalist influences, that doesn’t seem to be possible in France. And so it leaves French Jews stuck with Macron, whose elitism and inability to respond to the concerns of working people on a host of issues, including immigration, has made a Le Pen presidency a realistic scenario. Faced with such choices, it’s little wonder that many French Jews are heading for the exits. The one thing we know for sure about the election is that the steady increase in aliyah from France will continue, no matter who wins on April 24.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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