PARIS – Across France’s largest cities, where the nation’s remaining Jews are concentrated, up to 10 armed guards protect each synagogue on a daily basis ever since a national emergency went into effect over two years ago.
The number of guards increases on major holidays, such as this past week’s Passover holiday, as well as on the Sabbath. Indeed, French Jews have been fleeing the country in fear of violence against them for Israel and the United States in a consistent pace since the mid-2000s, and French authorities fear that a new, high-profile attack against Jews or their institutions will guarantee the departure of the rest.
Emmanuel Macron fears this as well. The 39-year-old presidential candidate – an unknown quantity here just two years ago– is campaigning for the Jewish vote, keenly aware of the threat. But when France goes to the polls on Sunday, its Jews will face a unique choice: To vote in the spirit of Jewish Americans, prioritizing principles of welfare and liberal democratic values, or in the Israeli posture, with security first in mind.
Macron is betting on the former, appealing to Jewish community values shared with the French Republic of liberty, equality and fraternity.
“He knows there is a real danger from a double extremism – from the far-Right with Marine Le Pen, and from the far-Left,” said Gilles Taieb, a prominent member of the French Jewish community who joined Macron’s En Marche! campaign in August. “He understands the specific needs of the Jewish community.”
Senior campaign officials told The Jerusalem Post that Macron considers Le Pen (National Front) a threat to French Jews, woven from the same cloth as her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who famously minimized the Holocaust during his own political rise.
For years, Le Pen tried to distance herself from her father’s comments, seen as an acknowledgment that veiled antisemitism would not bode well for a candidate launching a serious national campaign.
Yet in recent weeks, she has made comments of her own that suggest she shares her father’s views.
Le Pen’s efforts to recruit French Jews revolves around her open hostility to the Muslim community here – roughly 8% of the population– which even liberal politicians say is responsible for the majority of acts of violence and vandalism against French Jews. She claims substantial Jewish support based on her promise to crack down on immigration. But her views of “Frenchness” and “cultural otherness” pose risks to the Jewish community as well.
Le Pen says that Jews will have to choose between retaining French citizenship and obtaining Israeli citizenship: They will not be allowed to maintain both if she has her way, as she seeks to eliminate dual citizenship altogether. As she strives to rid French Muslims of the right to wear the veil, she has also suggested that French Jews should “sacrifice” the kippa in their embrace of pure French secularity. And just this month, she denied France’s role in a major round-up of Jews during the German occupation that has come to signify French coordination with Nazis during the Holocaust.
Macron claims that an equally significant threat to French Jews comes from the Left, from which Jean-Luc Mélenchon, founder of the communist Left Party, is running as an independent.
Mélenchon is highly critical of Israel and vocal in his support of the Palestinian cause. He questions the extent to which antisemitism has spread across France, and has been accused of minimizing the tragedies that have befallen the French Jewish community in recent years.
“Since 2001, there’s been a new antisemitism rising in France– the traditional one, like that of Marine Le Pen’s father on the far-Right, and a second and third one from more far-Leftists and from the Muslim community,” said Alexandre Amiel, a journalist and documentarian who recently completed a film on Jews in France. “Macron occupies a place somewhere between the right side of the Left and the left side of the Right, and has been quite sensitive on the issue of laïcité (secularity).”
In the past, Mélenchon has called for a right to return for Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948 – a policy that Israel says would undermine its status as a Jewish state in one fell swoop – and characterized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “colonial” in its dimensions, fundamentally questioning Zionism and Israel’s right to exist. During Israel’s operation in Gaza in 2014, he defended rioters in Sarcelles who targeted Jewish businesses and a synagogue.
“Mélenchon is not antisemitic– he’s not close to that at all,” Amiel said. “But in his political neighborhood, there are people with huge problems with Israel. And a lot of those people are hiding the fact in their anti-Israelism that their real problems are with Jews.”
In 2014, a liberal European think tank called Fondapol identified three “foci of antisemitism” in France: The far-Right, represented by the National Front; the far-Left, represented by Mélenchon and his followers; and France’s Muslim community. Macron’s focus on two of these threats fits neatly with his political challenges.
Together with the only conventional candidate left in the running – Republican candidate Francois Fillon, who is currently mired in scandal over a public payments scheme he set up for his family members – Macron, Mélenchon and Le Pen appear to be splitting the vote in a four-way race entering the first round of voting, ahead of a runoff scheduled for May.
With all four polling within mere points of one another – and with only the two highest vote-getters able to proceed – every vote will count this weekend, including those few Jewish voters who chose to stick around after riots in Sarcelles, a massacre of Jewish children in Toulouse and the targeting of shoppers in kosher Paris marketplaces..
But the highly publicized, violent attacks are not what French Jews worry most about, Taieb says. It is, rather, the daily incivilities and intimidation tactics that prevent these French citizens from living full Jewish lives in the land they have come to call home.
“Jewish community values are of tolerance, humanity and anti-racism,” Taieb said. “The role of Jews here is to support Republican candidates who support French values.”
Macron, a banker and former economy minister, has become the subject of antisemitic cartoons and trolling online. One cartoon came from Fillon’s official campaign, which spread an image of Macron caricatured as hook-nosed as he carried a sickle and cigar. Macron called the image an antisemitic appeal to populist impulses.
“All of this contributes to the debasement of public life,” Macron said at the time, filing a suit against the Republicans over the attack.
France is the third-largest home to Jews outside of the US and Israel, but its status as a haven for the community has dwindled in light of an increase in threats, real and perceived, from all sides.
“You hear ‘Jews, it’s not your home,’ or see attempts at attacks on synagogues such as in Sarcelles,” Taieb added, describing the tense environment. “Macron is very sensitive to racism, and he is conscientious about the trauma the Jewish community feels.”
“You hear ‘Jews, it’s not your home,’ or see attempts at attacks on synagogues such as in Sarcelles,” Taieb added, describing the tense environment.
“Macron is very sensitive to racism, and he is conscientious about the trauma the Jewish community feels.”
Several campaign aides told the Post that Macron opposes the BDS movement targeting Israel and would combat boycott efforts as president. He would also preserve dual citizenship for French-Israelis and encourage and protect those donning a kippa, they said.
“We are at an historical moment for France, and for the world, where populism is taking power,” said Taieb. “Mélenchon and Le Pen are real dangers for democracy and for the Republic.”