French Jews wary of far left’s election gains amid surging antisemitism

Socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon has vowed to recognize a Palestinian state; 92% of French Jews say his party has contributed to rising antisemitism

Far-left La France Insoumise - LFI - (France Unbowed) founder Jean-Luc Melenchon, right, clenches his fist with other party members after the second round of the legislative elections Sunday, July 7, 2024, in Paris. (AP Photo/Thomas Padilla)
Far-left La France Insoumise - LFI - (France Unbowed) founder Jean-Luc Melenchon, right, clenches his fist with other party members after the second round of the legislative elections Sunday, July 7, 2024, in Paris. (AP Photo/Thomas Padilla)

In a surprise outcome, French voters rejected a far-right party with antisemitic roots — but elevated a left-wing alliance that has faced antisemitism allegations of its own.

The country’s most prominent far-left politician, meanwhile, vowed in his victory speech to push to recognize a Palestinian state.

No party won a majority in the second round of France’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, in which all 577 seats of the National Assembly were in play. According to Le Monde, the left-wing New Popular Front alliance won 182 seats while the centrist Ensemble, backed by President Emmanuel Macron, won 168.

“We will have a prime minister from the New Popular Front,” Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the French far-left leader, posted on X on Sunday night. “We will be able to decide many things by decree. On the international level, we will have to agree to recognize the State of Palestine.”

The far-right National Rally, led by Marine Le Pen, won 143 seats, a disappointing result for the party after it led the first round of voting a week ago and appeared to be in striking distance of an outright majority.

Instead, centrist and left-wing candidates worked together to defeat National Rally by having their candidates drop out of races where the other party had a better chance of winning.

Jean Luc Mélenchon, a leader of the left wing New Popular Front, speaks in front of thousands of supporters on Place de la République on June 30, 2024 in Paris. (Pierre Crom/Getty Images via JTA)

The result is a setback for Le Pen’s party and a relief to the many Jews who consider it radioactive. The party’s founders include Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has been repeatedly convicted of hate speech and Holocaust denial, and Pierre Bousequet, who served in the Nazi Party’s Waffen-SS. Candidates in this election had also been accused of antisemitism.

But Sunday marked a triumph for Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left France Unbowed party, who has been accused of dog whistling, echoing antisemitic stereotypes and dismissing the threat of antisemitism.

Even as the French government has reported a surge in attacks on Jews — including more than 360 incidents in the first three months of 2024, a 300% increase from 2023 — Mélenchon called antisemitism in France “residual.”

The vote, and result, put many French Jews in an uncomfortable position. Political scientist Jean-Yves Camus said before the vote that he felt “trapped” by the far left, especially as the more moderate Socialists entered into a coalition with Mélenchon’s party. (The leader of France’s center-right party had likewise made waves by endorsing National Rally.)

“We are quite angry and disappointed,” Camus said. “As Jews, we feel betrayed and we think it would have been much better if the Socialist party had not entered into this kind of alliance with the far left.”

Many French Jews say that rhetoric from the far left has opened a door to antisemitism. According to a poll from the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in Europe, 92% of French Jews believe that France Unbowed has “contributed” to rising antisemitism.

Now, deadlock appears to be in France’s future. Following the race, centrist Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, who has Jewish roots, said he planned to step down.

People gather at the Republique plaza after the second round of the legislative election, Sunday, July 7, 2024, in Paris. Surprise polling projections in France say a leftist coalition that came together to try to keep the far right from power has won the most parliamentary seats in runoff elections after a high turnout among voters. (AP Photo/Louise Delmotte)

The country’s Jewish community of 500,000 has been shaken since October 7 of last year, when thousands of terrorists from the Gaza Strip invaded southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people and taking 251 hostages.

The attack sparked an ongoing war between Israel and the Hamas terror group, prompting global backlash against Israel and a surge in antisemitic incidents worldwide. France has also seen a spike in antisemitism since October 7.

In a recent incident that rocked the country, two teenage boys were charged with raping a 12-year-old Jewish girl and hurling antisemitic epithets at her.

“Many Jews are very shocked by the events since October, but not everybody is shocked by the same thing,” sociologist Martine Cohen told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “You have people who are shocked by the ongoing war in Gaza, not only by the trauma of the October massacres.”

A shock for some French Jews came in the immediate aftermath of October 7, when several far-left politicians refused to explicitly condemn Hamas’s attack on Israel.

Le Pen, meanwhile, has sought to detoxify her party’s image, renouncing antisemitism, denouncing the Hamas attack and pushing a pro-Israel position. The party now emphasizes anti-immigration, Euroskeptic stances.

CRIF, an umbrella organization of French Jews, has urged the community to reject both the far right and far left. But ahead of Sunday’s vote, faced with the rise of France Unbowed, some prominent Jewish voices called for the community to vote for Le Pen’s party instead.

One striking expression of support for National Rally came from Serge Klarsfeld, a French Holocaust survivor famed for hunting down Nazi criminals and pressing for their prosecution.

“The National Rally supports Jews, supports the state of Israel,” Klarsfeld, 88, said in a nationally televised interview last month. “When there is an anti-Jewish party and a pro-Jewish party, I will vote for the pro-Jewish party.”

French far-right National Rally party leader Marine Le Pen (left) speaks as party President Jordan Bardella stands to her side in Paris, on June 9, 2024. (Julien De Rosa/AFP via JTA)

Alain Finkielkraut, a prominent French philosopher, also said in the magazine Le Point that he would “consider the nightmare of having to vote for the National Rally to block antisemitism.” Meanwhile, a group of French Jewish community leaders met with Le Pen on Monday.

However, elements of National Rally’s antisemitic history resurfaced during the election. Ludivine Daoudi, a National Rally candidate in Normandy, was forced to withdraw from the second round of voting when a photo surfaced of her wearing a Nazi cap emblazoned with a swastika — after she won nearly 20% of votes in the first round. Other candidates have circulated antisemitic and racist posts on social media.

It is difficult to ascertain how Jews voted nationally, since France bans collecting data on the religion and ethnicity of its citizens. But some areas with large Jewish communities have showcased the dilemma Jews faced in this election.

The Parisian suburb of Sarcelles, for example, handed 27% of its votes to National Rally in the election’s first round — less than the party’s vote share nationwide, but nearly double its support in the district two years ago. In the second round, however, a far-left candidate won the area with more than 60% of the vote.

“What if you are in a constituency where there is no moderate candidate, and you have a choice between Mélenchon’s party and the National Rally?” said Camus ahead of the vote. “What do you do? Do you stay at home? Just say, ‘It’s none of my business?’”

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