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French Jews are caught between ‘les extrêmes’

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The big headlines out of France this week were about the unexpected failure of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party to take power in a snap election. Instead, a sprawling left-wing coalition of parties won the plurality of seats. But many French Jews had mixed feelings about the results.

Top Jewish leaders had campaigned against both Le Pen and Jean Luc Melenchon, who led the left-wing coalition’s largest party, branding them as “les extrêmes.” Other prominent Jews, like the famed Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, even encouraged a “vote for the right.”

Le Pen, who has sought to court Jews like Klarsfeld by supporting Israel and portraying Muslims as a common enemy of both the far right and Jews, has also been welcomed at a number of rallies against antisemitism in recent years.

An April survey of French Jews by the American Jewish Committee found that an overwhelming majority of French Jews viewed Melenchon’s party, La France Insoumise, or France Unbowed, as a source of antisemitism, compared to roughly half who felt the same way about the far-right National Rally.

 

Le Pen’s party was dogged by “Nazi attire and racist comments.” But Melenchon, who now leads the largest part of the victorious left-wing coalition, comes out of a French left that has sometimes viewed Jewish identity as antithetical to the universalist values prized in the country.

He raised eyebrows three years ago for stating that Judaism was responsible for the ultranationalist platform of Eric Zemmour, a Jewish political pundit who was mulling a presidential run.

“He reproduces many cultural themes: ‘We do not change tradition, we do not evolve,’” Melenchon said. “All these traditions are much linked to Judaism.”

Simone Rodan-Benazquen, the French director of AJC’s European offices, said the election left many Jews in the country without a political home.

“During the entire campaign everybody said the danger is not the far left; the danger is the far right. So French Jews decided to fight the far right,” Rodan-Benazquen told me. “But now they are very concerned.”

Some French leftists have insisted that the New Popular Front can only succeed as a “real anti-racist front” that confronts all types of discrimination, including antisemitism.

Sarah Benichou, a journalist covering the French left, said she was “optimistic” that this more holistic approach might be more successful than past efforts where discussions of antisemitism have been subsumed by arguments over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Rodan-Benazquen is more skeptical. She argued that Melenchon’s flirtation with antisemitism underscores what some describe as the “decibel left” that prefers theatrical disruptions over the serious work of governing.

“Wish us luck,” she said.

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