In 21st-century Europe, Jews need new allies

The shock and dismay about the results of the first round of the French parliamentary elections held last weekend on the part of most liberal observers of European politics is palpable. The victory of the right-wing National Rally Party led The New York Times to publish a number of dirge-like analyses declaring that the French were on the verge of catastrophe. That echoed the pronouncements of the country’s own liberal establishment about the vote. The possibility that the party led by Marine Le Pen would win a majority of the National Assembly after the second round to be held next Sunday is viewed by the leaders of the traditional mainstream parties of the center and left as nothing short of a disaster. For them, the likes of National Rally, Le Pen and even her 28-year-old protégé Jordan Bardella, who is in line to be France’s next prime minister if his party controls parliament, are no better than fascists.

One of the most curious elements of National Rally’s triumph is the fact that what may well be a significant percentage of the demographic slice of the French public that had hitherto been most deeply opposed to the party is now backing it. As a panicked article in Foreign Policy magazine plaintively asked this week, “Why are French Jews supporting the far right?”

Figures like famed Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, as well as leading intellectual and author Alain Finkelkraut, have said that voting for National Rally is now an acceptable and even perhaps necessary action on the part of French Jews. As much as its steady progress towards electoral success in the last two decades, this is also a measure of both the sea change in opinion about the party and the increasingly desperate position of the French Jewish community as antisemitic invective and violence have become commonplace.

Antisemitism on the left

While historian Robert Zaretsky, the author of the Foreign Policy article, thinks that there is no excuse for this shift in opinion, the reality of contemporary France and the efforts of the National Rally party to move beyond its origins have made it inevitable. And the circumstances of the elections may have even made it necessary.

A huge immigrant population of Muslims—estimated to make up anywhere from 8% to 10% of the population—brought with them their contempt and hatred for Jews and Israel from their countries of origin. Suburban neighborhoods known as banlieues, where Muslims predominate on the outskirts of cities like Marseilles have been referred to as “no-go” zones for non-Muslims, as well as a source of violence against Jews. At the same time, the parties of the French left have largely embraced the same spirit of intolerance for Jews and Zionism that has been so apparent on American college campuses since the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the founder of France Unbowed—the coalition of Socialists, Communists, Greens and others on the left, and its candidate for president in the last three elections—is a virulent opponent of Israel.

These two forces have combined not merely to mainstream antisemitic attitudes and positions, but to be seen as incitement to the string of antisemitic hate crimes that have rocked France in recent years.

French President Emanuel Macron has opposed National Rally and the parties on the left. But in the current circumstances, he is allying himself with the left to stop Le Pen’s party from winning a majority. That feels like a betrayal to many French Jews, who rightly see the alliance of Marxists and Islamists—and not the right—as the main threat to their precarious existence.

Yet if they are now voting for National Rally, it’s not so much a case of them taking leave of their senses as it is one in which they are rationally assessing the situation and choosing new allies rather than allowing the past to dictate their actions.

From Dreyfus to Vichy to Le Pen

In the late 19th and throughout much of the 20th century, there was no doubt about which end of the French political spectrum was fundamentally antisemitic. The treason accusations against French Jewish Army officer Alfred Dreyfus in the 1890s helped galvanize a right-wing movement that coalesced behind the toxic myth that French Jews were a foreign and traitorous presence in the country. The anti-Dreyfusards were a manifestation of the same argument that had raged in France since 1789 about the legitimacy of the French Revolution. But it was only in the white heat of that controversy that old religious prejudices against Jews merged with modern notions of racism that had recently created the term “antisemitism.”

Jew-hatred was a feature of the French right throughout the decades that followed and became a core tenet after the collapse of the Third Republic after France was defeated by Nazi Germany in June 1940. The collaborationist Vichy regime that ruled part of the country under the leadership of Marshal Philippe Pétain and Pierre Laval actively assisted the Nazis in the roundup of Jews, dooming approximately 21% of them to death.

While the open antisemitism of Vichy was suppressed in French political culture in the decades after the war, and especially on the right by the dominance of Charles De Gaulle (who is remembered for his hostility to Israel in his last years in power, though embodied the resistance to Vichy and was opposed to antisemitism in France), it lingered on the margins of society. It seemed to come back to life in the waning years of the 20th century, and then at the start of the 21st, with the emergence of Jean Marie Le Pen and his National Front Party.

Le Pen was open about his antisemitism and even Holocaust revisionist beliefs. He represented not just traditional antisemitic rightists but the spirit of resentment felt by those who regarded France’s loss of Algeria and the subsequent ouster of about a million French citizens from that country (known as Pied-noirs) as an unforgivable defeat. As the surge of immigration from North Africa and former French colonies boosted the Muslim population, that resentment grew and led to limited electoral success for Le Pen. France was shocked when he made it into the second round of the French presidential election in 2002. Still, Le Pen only garnered 17.8% of the vote as the forces of the center, traditional Gaullist right and the left united in revulsion at even the theoretical prospect of his attaining power to support President Jacques Chirac.

Marine Le Pen’s shift

Le Pen was replaced as the head of his party in 2011 by his daughter, Marine, who is now 55. She set about the long and difficult task of rebranding and remaking it into something that could appeal to more than just the extreme right. French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy has referred to her as “the far-right with a human face,” but there is no denying that she has worked hard to transcend her father’s legacy. She even went as far as expelling him from the party she renamed National Rally for comments he made in 2015 dismissing the gas chambers used by the Nazis in the Holocaust as a “detail of history.” She forbade all mention of such Vichyite beliefs as well as any talk about France’s colonial wars.

While there’s little doubt that there are still some in its ranks who are more than comfortable with the prejudices articulated by the elder Le Pen, the party she currently heads is not the same as the one her father founded. And, to the chagrin of other parties, it has steadily gained support because of the growing influence of the Muslim population and the refusal of the parties of the mainstream right to do anything about it. Marine Le Pen made the presidential runoff in 2022 and won 33.9% of the vote, even though President Emanuel Macron easily won re-election.

But as Macron’s failures have grown, it is Marine Le Pen and National Rally that have now eclipsed his Renaissance Party, as well as what is left of the old Gaullist conservatives that the French president helped destroy as the main alternative to the parties of the left. And while her strong opposition to Islamism and support for the State of Israel, especially in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks, are dismissed by mainstream media and the French liberal establishment as merely an attempt to cover up her party’s past, her positions stand in strong contrast to those of the left and even Macron. Both still regard her raising the issue of immigration as a threat to the essential nature of the French Republic.

As is the case elsewhere in Europe, questions about the collapse of national identity are changing the political landscape of France. Leftist sentiment that despises the legacy of Western civilization and the rise of an aggressive Islamist presence in nations where there are large numbers of immigrants has fueled a response from populist rightist parties. Like National Rally, such political factions are despised by the political establishments in Europe.  Some of them also have legacies from a fascist or antisemitic past that are worrisome. In the cases of Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party and Netherlands political leader Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom, such problems have been successfully eclipsed. In Germany, the AfD Party seems unable to do the same.

During the recent European Union elections where populist parties won big, the National Rally was particularly successful. Worried about the implications of that victory for his government in Paris, Macron called a snap parliamentary election, hoping that he could duplicate past votes when, faced with the possibility of Le Pen’s party actually gaining power, French voters recoiled from the prospect. But he miscalculated.  The anger in France about the failures of Macron’s technocratic government to deal with the economy or the immigration issue led to the public more or less duplicating the results of the E.U. election last weekend, essentially eviscerating Macron’s party.

In response, Macron is trying to pull together a joint effort with the left to prevent National Rally from gaining a parliamentary majority. That would stop Bardella from becoming prime minister. Such a victory for Le Pen’s party would not only be unprecedented but also set her up for what might well be a successful run for the presidency of France in 2027 after Macron finishes his second term in office.

The Jewish dilemma

That leaves French Jews with an interesting dilemma. If they follow the lead of Macron, they will be empowering a left-wing faction that is not merely hostile to Israel but allied to forces that make it impossible for them to continue to live in the country due to justified fears of prejudice and violence. And that is why a great many of them have decided that throwing in with Le Pen is the only rational alternative.

Doing so requires not just disregarding the history of the French right. It also involves embracing the pushback against Islamism that can be branded as illiberal. Le Pen wants to ban the wearing of Muslim headscarves in public—an item of apparel that is considered a symbol of a dangerous shift in the culture of hyper-secular France and a threat to French national identity. In the past, Le Pen has also asked Jews to renounce their right to wear kippahs in public as a necessary sacrifice in order to defeat the threat of Islamism. That’s something the Jewish community can never accept.

We don’t know what a France led by Le Pen or Bardella will look like. Perhaps it will be like Hungary, where the populist right led by Viktor Orbán has proved to be both philo-semitic and pro-Israel despite Hungary’s troubled past. Perhaps not. But with French Jewish life more precarious than at any time since the Holocaust, supporting a party that is intent on rolling back Muslim political influence can be defended as a reasonable choice rather than a betrayal.

It’s easy for liberal Jews, especially those not currently living in Europe, to rule out alliances with groups that are opposed to intolerant Islamist and Marxist parties that present a clear and present threat to Jewish life. But to take such a stand is not so much a defense of liberal values as a refusal to live in the present. European Jewry must deal with the challenges of living in the 21st century rather than the past. Those who condemn French Jews for seeing Le Pen and National Rally as a lifeline are prioritizing the political interests of the left and European political establishments, not those of an embattled Jewish community.

Source: JNS