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For French Jews, a choice between two widely divergent parties, each with a history of antisemitism

Antisemitism on both the left and right leaves Jews feeling as if they’re living in exile

Among the many questions raised in France by last week’s European elections is “Est-ce bon pour les juifs?” — “Is it good for the Jews?”

Though this perennial question usually arises in times of crisis, it is especially existential today: For the first time in French history, the country’s next government risks falling into the hands of not just one, but two different coalitions whose worldviews could not be more dissimilar, but both of which have been home to the toxin of antisemitism.

It is, of course, yesterday’s news that the extreme-right wing party Rassemblement national, or National Rally, pummeled the other parties in last Sunday’s elections for the European Parliament. Their electoral list, led by Marine Le Pen’s young protégé Jordan Bardella, won over 30% of the vote, more than lapping the list representing President Emmanuel Macron’s party, with the Socialist list led by Raphaël Glucksmann a close third.

The analytics are even more disturbing than the final score. Among the many alarming aspects to this victory is that the RN, long limited to certain regions, now led in every region, including Île-de-France — in the middle of which sits the anti-RN rampart, Paris — and lured demographic groups long allergic to the party, like older and university-educated voters. The next day’s headline of Le Monde put the matter succinctly, “The RN pulls off a historic success.”

Clearly, Marine Le Pen’s decades-long investment in cleaning the house, formerly known as the National Front, of its Nazi-adjacent, antisemitic, and Vichy apologetic residents (including her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen) has paid off handsomely. But handsome is as handsome does, and what Le Pen’s party proposes to do is not handsome at all. Simply put, Le Pen’s house-cleaning has not altered its fundamental design. The RN, despite the kinder and gentler veneer, remains an ethno-nationalist party, one committed to an anti-immigrant, anti-European, and anti-pluralist worldview. As for being a party whose founder always insisted the Holocaust was a “detail of history,” we will get there in a moment.

First, though, is today’s news. The very same night the election results were announced, President Emmanuel Macron did something rarely done in the 66-year- history of the Fifth Republic; he went on television to announce that he was dissolving the National Assembly and calling for new legislative elections at month’s end. Almost immediately, the four principal parties — La France insoumise (Defiant France), Socialists, Ecologists, and Communists — on the French left began consultations to form a coalition to challenge both Macron’s Renaissance Party and Le Pen’s National Rally in the upcoming contest.

This was no mean task. The wobbly beginnings of an earlier leftwing alliance, created after the 2022 legislative elections, finished in a debacle last fall. The proximate cause was the October massacre in Israel, the unspeakable event for which Defiant France’s unbearable leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, proved unable to condemn as a terrorist attack. When another member of his party, Danièle Obono, found a different description for the event — an act by “a resistance movement” — it not only made explicit what was implicit in Mélenchon’s silence, but also made continued association with him impossible for the other parties.

But, as Samuel Johnson observed, nothing concentrates the mind so well as a hanging in a fortnight. Or, in this case, two fortnights. Inspired by the 1936 coalition of left-wing parties, led by Léon Blum, to combat the rise of extreme rightwing forces in France, the four parties immediately launched discussions to form a new coalition: “A new Popular Front representing the nation’s humanist, trade union, and civil movements.” Late Thursday evening, they announced that they had, in fact, reached an agreement.

“We have succeeded,” exclaimed the Socialist Party leader Olivier Faure: “A page of French history is now being written.”

Yes, but the problem is that no one apart from party leaders have yet to see the actual page, much less its fine print. The text will not be unveiled until Friday — the time has not been announced — but the devil is always in the details. In this case, the devil is, in part, found in an agreement on the distribution of seats among the four parties. (All 577 circumscriptions, each of which has a representative in the assembly, are up for grabs in the upcoming election.)

Even more devilish is finding common ground between Mélenchon and Glucksmann. Outraged by Mélenchon’s latest provocation — namely that there is only a “residual” amount of antisemitism in France — Glucksmann had insisted since Monday that all four parties accept certain fundamental principles. He participated in the writing of the agreement and announced this morning that he supported the final version.

In a radio interview, he explained that all the parties not only agreed that the events of Oct. 7 were a terrorist massacre, but that all parties were also committed to battle antisemitism and support Ukraine’s resistance against Russian aggression (yet another matter on which Mélenchon has been evasive). “The only thing that counts right now,” Glucksmann affirmed, “is that the National Rally does not win the legislative elections and does not govern this country.”

Whether the document will reassure French Jews, much less assure victory for the new popular front, remains up in the air.

It certainly did not reassure Serge Klarsfeld. In a televised interview on June 16, the trail-blazing historian of the Final Solution in France and scourge of former Nazis and French collaborators, declared that the Rassemblement national has “evolved” while the resurrected Popular Front, or at least the radical leftwing Defiant France, remains “resolutely anti-Jewish.” If forced to choose between the two, he would not hesitate: “Between an anti-Semitic and pro-Jewish party, I would vote for the pro-Jewish party.”

Several prominent Jewish leaders lamented Klarsfeld’s declaration. Samuel Lejoyeux, the president of the Union of French Jewish Students, exclaimed that Klarsfeld had “stepped into a trap.” The National Rally, he warned, is no less dangerous for French Jewry than is Defiant France. Yet Lejoyeux recognized the bind in which French Jews find themselves: “I am besides myself when I think about my future in France.” 

It turns out Klarsfeld is not alone. Earlier this week, a poll by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) revealed that 92% of Jewish respondents believe the extreme-left La France insoumise is responsible for the rise of antisemitism in France, while only half that number believe the same of the Rassemblement national. No less extraordinary, nearly 60% say they would leave France if an LFI member became prime minister, while only 37% feel the same way about an RN government.

For the moment, French Jewry seems caught between two possible futures and two possible governments, both of which has a past or a present stained by antisemitism. In a powerful sermon delivered earlier this week in Paris, the well-known rabbi Delphine Horvilleur found herself unable to offer a clear answer to the present impasse. Gesturing to the Torah, she observed that it was a “source of inspiration for the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, as well as the constitutions of Western democracies.”

But, she continued, “Tonight I cannot help but think about the threat which now weighs on our Republic.” The Torah, she concluded, was “given to us in the desert. We must now admit that we are back in the desert.”

The length of this exile seems as if it will depend on the votes of the French nation in a few weeks’ time.

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