French Israelis headed to the polls Sunday, joining their countrymen in France choosing a new president in a watershed election seen as a referendum on the future of France, and possibly the European Union.
At polling stations in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Netanya, Haifa and elsewhere, long lines formed, as French citizens cast their ballots for either far-right firebrand Marine Le Pen or centrist Emmanuel Macron.
“I came quite simply to defend the Republic. To block the extreme right,” said a voter named Daniel, who said he opposed Le Pen’s plans to stop allowing dual nationalities.
According to the embassy, 8,434 French citizens voted in the first round of the elections, and numbers were expected to be similar in this second round. Nearly 58,000 people in Israel are registered on the French electoral roll.
By 8:30 a.m. a few meters from the beach on one of the main streets of Tel Aviv, police and staff were taking extra precautions to ensure voter safety.
Despite no longer living in France, voters in the long lines showed they were still invested in what direction the country takes, with most opposing Le Pen, whose National Front party has a history of anti-Semitism and who has espoused plans to crack down on religious freedoms as a means of targeting Muslims.
“It is important for my whole family who are still in France, and even though I live here, France is still also my country,” said Rebecca, who has been in Israel for four years. “My hope is that [Macron] will be able to put France back on track, restart the country’s economy and boost employment. France must remain a democracy and a welcoming country as it has always been.”
Annette, who is 82-years-old and lived in Paris for 52 years, said she preferred Macron from the beginning and was worried about what she saw during the debate between the candidates.
“I saw the debate, and Le Pen’s words reminded me of 1939. ‘I’m for the people, I’m for the people,’ [Le Pen said]. We know what happens next. Everything she said was shocking because she was so aggressive,” she said.
Like Le Pen, Macron is also an outsider, but his centrist policies are seen as a counterweight to Le Pen, and he is widely expected to cruise to victory when first results are announced at 9 p.m. Israel time.
Many voters have expressed unhappiness with both candidates, who each got just over 20 percent in the first round of elections last month. Elisheva was one of those, and she said she would cast a protest vote with a blank slip. Exasperated at the long lines, she said she would return later to register her displeasure with the elections.
“Neither of the two candidates represents me,” she said. “I do not think either of them are looking after retired people, security, or terrorism. Macron didn’t speak about it at all! He is the friend of the Arabs and buddy of [former president François] Hollande… France, for me, is finished. I wanted to vote because my children still live in France, that’s all.”
A bit further back in line an ultra-Orthodox couple waited patiently. Esther, 35, from Bnei Brak, didn’t seem bothered by the length of the line. She told The Times of Israel that the important thing for her was the safety of the rest of her family who lives in France: “I came to vote for them,” she said. Marine Le Pen cannot lead the country, she said, “It cannot happen.”
In Haifa, three generations of the same family from Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu showed up to vote, though grandson Naftali, seated in a stroller was too young to actually cast a ballot.
His grandfather Naftali said more family members would also show up soon to vote.
“Of course I still have a connection with France. It is my family’s country, my roots. I vote in all the elections, it is important,” he said.
For Naftali senior, the key thing is to prevent Le Pen becoming president.
“Marine Le Pen is the return of fascism,” said Naftali.
In the first round, Le Pen won only 3.72% of the votes cast in Israel (311 votes out of 8,434 voters), falling well behind Francois Fillon, who won over 60% in Israel but failed to reach the second round with a poor showing in France, and Macron, who won over 30% in Israel.
Many people mentioned Le Pen’s statement that France was not responsible for the round-up of more than 13,000 Jews at the Vel d’Hiv cycling track which was ordered by Nazi officers in 1942 as a reason to oppose her.
“One can not even imagine the extreme right coming to power in France,” said a voter named Leon. “My mother told me that in 1933 Hitler had come to power in the same way.”
AFP contributed to this report.