French Jews worry Muslim unrest could see Macron flip on Israel, putting them at risk

Reversing his stated support for Israel, the president demanded an end to ‘killing babies,’ triggering fears that he’s bowing to local pressures and thus inciting antisemitism

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a meeting with officials from Western and Arab nations, the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, November 9, 2023. (Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP)
French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a meeting with officials from Western and Arab nations, the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, November 9, 2023. (Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP)

On a solidarity visit to Israel last month, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to stand by Israel for the duration of its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“I want to assure you that you will not be left alone in this war against terrorism,” Macron on October 24 told President Isaac Herzog at a meeting in Jerusalem following Hamas’s deadly October 7 attack on Israel. Macron even proposed that France participate in a coalition fighting against Hamas, as it did against ISIS.

Less than three weeks later, however, Macron became the first leader of a major Western power to demand that Israel “stop bombing” in Gaza. He added to this plea vivid language rarely used by French heads of state in describing the actions of a friendly country.

“Civilians are bombed,” Macron told the BBC on Saturday. “These babies, these ladies, these old people are bombed and killed. So there is no reason for that and no legitimacy. So we do urge Israel to stop.”

The about-face surprised Israeli diplomats. It also shocked French Jews, some of whom experienced it as a betrayal that they fear will only fuel the surge of antisemitic incidents that is causing them to live in fear.

To some, it’s a sign that French diplomacy on Israel is “being held hostage,” as one Jewish critic put it, by pro-Palestinian Muslim rioters.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) greets French President Emmanuel Macron before a meeting in Jerusalem on October 24, 2023. (Photo by Christophe Ena / POOL / AFP)

“These remarks by Macron really took us by surprise especially because of how squarely supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself President Macron had been just a couple of weeks ago,” an Israeli official told The Times of Israel.

Macron tried “to correct the impression” by calling Herzog on Sunday to say that his BBC interview was not meant to suggest that Israel targets civilians, noted the official.

But Macron had diplomatic reasons for changing his tune, Christophe Barbier, a former editor of L’Epxress daily, said Sunday on BFMTV. “We’re a month after the tragedy of October 7, we’re past the emotional stage, we’re in the political one,” he said.

This picture taken from the Israeli side of the border with the Gaza Strip on November 11, 2023, shows smoke rising over buildings in the Gaza Strip, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Hamas terror group. (Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD/AFP)

It was a reference to how France and the world are getting over the shock over the atrocities committed by the force of about 3,000 Hamas terrorists who on October 7 invaded Israel, killing some 1,200 victims and abducting some 240 others, among other war crimes.

Israel is now over a month into the massive military operation it launched to topple Hamas in response to the onslaught. According to unverified numbers from officials in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, at least 10,000 Palestinians have died as a result of the campaign — a number Israel says includes terror operatives and civilians killed by hundreds of misfired rockets aimed at Israel — and coverage of the conflict has shifted from a focus on Israeli victims to Palestinian suffering.

People gather around an ambulance damaged in a reported Israeli strike in front of Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on November 3, 2023. (MOMEN AL-HALABI / AFP)

The Israeli official, who spoke to The Times of Israel under the condition of anonymity, said he believed the change came about due to “internal politics in France.” He declined to elaborate on those dynamics.

Philippe Karsenty, a French-Jewish media analyst and former deputy mayor of the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, was more specific. “Macron is seeking to avoid a civil insurrection by Muslims. He doesn’t want another French intifada, so he’s betraying Israel,” said Karsenty.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin at the Sorbonne University in Paris on October 26, 2023. (Thomas SAMSON / POOL / AFP)

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin on October 12 issued a nationwide ban on rallies against Israel, citing concerns that they risk exacerbating a surge of antisemitic incidents. Since October 7, the CRIF umbrella of French Jewish communities has documented more than 1,000 antisemitic incidents — more than double the 2022 tally.

Macron addressed the ban in a televised address on October 13. “Let us not bring ideological adventures here by imitation or by projection. Let us not add national fractures… to international fractures,” Macron pleaded. “Let us stay united.”

A protester holds a sign reading ‘Genocide in progress in Gaza, and the French government is banning demonstrations in support of Palestinian people. We won’t forget’ in Paris, on November 4, 2023 (Geoffroy VAN DER HASSELT / AFP)

Thousands of protesters have flouted the ban, resulting in several violent clashes with police amid fears of a repeat of one of the periods of civil unrest that have engulfed France in recent years, sometimes in connection with Israel, and often featuring large numbers of demonstrators in or from heavily Muslim neighborhoods.

Macron on October 19 acknowledged in more explicit terms that he’s worried that the conflict between Israel and Hamas might spill into France unless it’s handled correctly. “If we handle this poorly, this could become an element of division,” he told a journalist during a meeting with young adults.

Riot police officers patrol as smoke billows from burnt vehicles on the third night of protests sparked by the fatal police shooting of a 17-year-old driver in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, France, June 30, 2023. (AP/Aurelien Morissard)

In June and July, a deadly wave of protests rocked France for weeks following the death of a 17-year-old Muslim killed by police, reportedly after failing to pull over when driving without a license. Rioters wounded hundreds of security officers, torched nearly 6,000 vehicles and vandalized at least 1,000 buildings in clashes that resulted in the arrest of some 3,500 suspects and the death of two of them.

The riots died down eventually following the indictment for manslaughter of a police officer, but clashes erupted again in September, during a march in Paris against alleged police brutality. Hundreds vandalized a bank office and hurled objects at police.

A fire burns in Sarcelles, France, following a rally that turned into a riot by pro-Palestinians, July 20, 2014. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)

In 2014, a round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas triggered riots by Muslims against Jews and police officers who tried to restore public order. Streets in central Paris were filled with tear gas and fighting, and at one synagogue, Jewish men held off Muslims as hundreds of worshipers were barricaded inside the house of worship.

“We’re fresh on the heels of the July riots, and Macron is appeasing the rabble to prevent a rekindling,” Veronique Chemla, a journalist and blogger from Paris, told The Times of Israel. “That’s very serious: French diplomacy is being held hostage by internal Muslim agitation. This is a new stage.”

FILE: Rioters throw projectiles at French riot police officers in Sarcelles, a suburb north of Paris, on July 20, 2014, after clashes following a demonstration denouncing Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. (Photo credit: AFP/ PIERRE ANDRIEU

By accusing Israel of killing children, women and the elderly in the BBC interview, “he’s diffusing a blood libel against Jews, and in France right now that means inciting violence by Muslims against Jews,” Chemla said.

Many French Jews share Chemla’s frustration with Macron. CRIF, the umbrella group of French Jewish communities, posted an unusually critical statement on X, in which it said it is “troubled” by his remarks, which CRIF said “open the door to those seeking to divide France.”

File: CRIF President Yonathan Arfi delivers a speech during the 37th annual dinner of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France (CRIF – Conseil Representatif des Institutions juives de France) in Paris, France, on February 13, 2023. (Alain JOCARD/AFP)

It was an unusual rebuke by CRIF of a leader whom many French Jews laud for making unprecedented gestures of support. Months after his election in 2017, Macron became the first presiding French president to assert that anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism. He has called Netanyahu his “friend” and has condemned radical Islam, calling it a “hydra.”

On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people marched against antisemitism in Paris at a rally organized by the presidents of the lower and upper houses of the French parliament. Former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande also marched, but Macron was conspicuously absent.

Protesters march against antisemitism in Paris, France on November 12, 2023. (Geoffroy VAN DER HASSELT / AFP)

Macron, a passionate speaker whom supporters praise for his empathy, offered an unemotional explanation for this when an interlocutor, Yaël Perl Ruiz, used a handshake encounter to quiz the president on his sitting out the march.

“I don’t attend demonstrations of any kind,” Macron told Perl Ruiz, a granddaughter of Alfred Dreyfus, a French soldier whose 1898 wrongful conviction for treason has made him a symbol of antisemitism in France. “If I did, I’d have to spend every day at rallies,” he added in the exchange, which television reporters filmed.

This perceived indifference by Macron is painful to many Jews at a time when they need the authorities to protect them from antisemitism by Muslims, Karsenty said.

At least 50,000 French Jews have left France over the past decade for Israel alone – roughly equal to the number of newcomers from France in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s combined. The first wave began shortly after the first major jihadist terrorist attack against French Jews, in which a Muslim extremist killed four people in 2012 at a Jewish school in Toulouse.

Those who remain adapt to a “reality of fear,” said Chemla, who has concealed her mezuzah by moving it to the inside of her doorframe. She is currently dealing with a related issue: Her landlord is threatening to charge her for corrective renovations because she’s refusing, due to safety concerns, to allow into her apartment a building crew he hired. The men are foreign workers from Egypt, and she doesn’t want them to see that she’s Jewish.

Paris does not feel like a safe city regardless of the Islamist threat, she added. “As a woman, you’re always on edge, in the metro or on the street.” The fear of being recognized as Jewish “just comes on top of that,” she said.

Karsenty, a public figure who many recognize on the street in Paris, has also adapted his life to living with the threat of violence by Muslim extremists and criminality, he said. “Frankly, I hardly leave the nice neighborhoods. I’m not taking any risks and besides, I don’t have the taste for it,” he said about the prospect of visiting some of Paris’s heavily Muslim areas. “I’m staying in my own environment. It doesn’t make me immune. Anything can happen. But right now I feel kind of protected,” Karsenty said.

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