The vast majority of French Jews are celebrating Emmanuel Macron’s first-round victory in the presidential runoff. He is a globalist with a social conscience, a convinced European who will not lock France into a populist straightjacket. French Jews, like most of their compatriots. feared the possible presence of two other candidates in the second round: Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the extreme left pitted against Marine Le Pen of the extreme right. But to assume that such a Jewish fear stemmed from the former’s highly critical stance against Israel and the latter’s inability to shed the ghosts of the Vichy past is to misunderstand the current French political situation.
There are times when looking at a country through a Jewish lens is neither particularly instructive nor relevant, and this is the case in France today.
To put it bluntly: Jews who no longer felt at home in France have already left (although they continue to vote passionately in the French elections, even from Israel). Those who have stayed behind are voting above all as Frenchmen with the country’s future in mind. What was and still is at stake in this election is France’s vision of itself, the type of political regime it espouses, the type of economic models it wishes to embrace, and the type of global outlook it wishes to convey to the world. On this count the vast majority of French Jews are on Macron’s side, but as Frenchmen who cherish an open national context and only very secondarily as Jews.
What must be stressed is that the old historical “Jewish Question,” which poisoned the long European past — that is, whether Jews could ever really be fully integrated in any national body politic — is no longer one of the defining issues between the warring camps, not in a country that is the primary target of Islamic terrorism and where Jews are ‘in.” It is the Muslims that occupy the unenviable slot of the “other” now.
This was not always the case, above all in recent times at a symbolic, as opposed to a political, level (as in the prewar past). From the beginning of the second intifada, in 2000, to the terrorist attacks in Toulouse in 2014, Jews felt as though they were being left out qua Jews (not as individual citizens) from the national conscience. The attacks against Jewish targets and victims were not really perceived in the wider French body politic as attacks against France, but as somehow emanating from the situation in the Middle East. This perception changed in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo/Hyper Cacher terrorist attacks of January 2015, when Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced that “France without its Jews would not be France,” and even more so in the wake of the Bataclan attacks of November 2015.
France’s government and Frenchmen understood then that Jews had been the very first canary in the coal mine of what would become a terrorist war against France itself. This change of perspective even had positive consequences for Israel. The Startup Nation has become a reference in the war against terrorism, gaining in the process far greater sympathy, at a time when the horrors in Syria have put Israel somewhat backstage in the minds of many human rights activists. The years of symbolic isolation are to a great extent over.
There is another powerful and (in international Jewish circles) less well-known reason for which France’s Jews and their communities can feel particularly at home in the French context, as opposed to other European countries. Boycott, divestment and sanctions is illegal in terms of French law, and ritual slaughter and circumcision are not issues in France. These practices emanate from religious imperatives (as opposed to the hijab) that the Republic, with its strict separation between church and state cannot touch.
These factors help explain why, in the present context, France’s Jews did not vote with a special Jewish agenda in mind in the presidential election. Beating Le Pen and Mélenchon were ideals they shared with a far wider French public, which like them was asking itself where it would move to if either candidate had won. Macron’s presidential victory is more than probable in political and even in simple mathematical terms. And with it the type of inclusive, open, progressive and even slightly optimistic outlook most Jews have favored historically throughout the West.
Conclusion: There is no Jewish elephant in the French room, and that is something to rejoice about. Now we can all worry about everything else on our troubled planet.
Diana Pinto is a historian living in Paris. She is the author of “Israel Has Moved”(Harvard University Press, 2103).