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April 19, 2017 6:06 pm

French Jews Fear Extremists on Right and Left, But Have No Favorite in Sunday’s First Round of Presidential Election

avatar by Barney Breen-Portnoy


French presidential election posters show the 11 candidates in Sunday’s first round of voting. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

French Jews are apprehensive and have no favorite candidate among the 11 running in the first round of their country’s presidential election on Sunday, a number of community figures told The Algemeiner this week.

One candidate who most French Jews will not be voting for, is Marine Le Pen — the head of the far-right National Front party who polls show will likely be one of the two contenders to advance to the election’s final round on May 7.

According to Robert Ejnes — the executive director of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions — the Jewish vote will be largely divided between Francois Fillon (of the center-right Republican party), Emmanuel Macron (a centrist independent) and, to a lesser extent, Benoit Hamon (of the center-left Socialist party).

“French Jews in their vast majority reject the extremes,” Ejnes said.

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The top concerns of French Jews ahead of the election, Ejnes noted, are “antisemitism and anti-Zionism.”

“The extreme right is promoting exclusion, hate and nationalism — which have never been good tendencies for the Jews,” he said. “Many in the National Front party still express the xenophobic, racist and antisemitic ideas of Jean-Marie Le Pen (the founder of the National Front and Marine Le Pen’s father). The extreme left political parties are very anti-Zionist. It is not the policies of the Israeli government that they criticize, but the very existence of Israel. Anti-Zionist ideas very often hide antisemitic expressions. Both the extreme left and right do not share our values of democracy and justice.”

French-Israeli journalist Jonathan Simon-Sellem — founder of the JSS News website and an elected representative of the French community in Israel — said he expected Macron would draw support from Jews who normally vote for the Socialist party (of which current President Francois Hollande is a member), but are turned off by Hamon’s pro-Palestinian positions.

Also, Simon-Sellem explained, “French Jews are concerned by Marine Le Pen, of course, but also no less by the far-left communist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is gaining a lot of strength in the polls. Even though it sounds crazy, Le Pen and Melenchon could be in the second round of the election against each other.”

Melenchon, Simon-Sellem pointed out, “gets support from a lot of antisemites on the left and backers of the BDS movement.”

Some 2%-5% of French Jews would vote for Le Pen in the first round, Simon-Sellem predicted, “only because of her positions on Islam and immigration.”

Philippe Karsenty — deputy mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine and a Republican candidate in June’s parliamentary elections — said there was “no chance” Le Pen would win the presidency, but if she did it would be “a big disaster for the whole country. We would have a real civil war.”

“She’s not an option for the Jews,” Karsenty continued. “You’d really have to be a nutcase to vote for her.”

In Karsenty’s view, a majority of Jews “prefer Fillon, except we’re really upset with how he handled his money” — a reference to the financial corruption scandal the former prime minister has become embroiled in.

Karsenty continued, “The main worry for French Jews is, apart from Le Pen, we have some leftists who are very, very anti-Israel. We’re concerned about the slow move against Israel and against the Jews which has been seen for the last 70 years in Europe. Each and every time, it is getting worse and worse and worse.”

Dr. Shimon Samuels — the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Paris-based director for international relations — said France was experiencing a similar polarization phenomenon to that which is also occurring in the US.

“I would call it the America syndrome,” he said. “Opinion in general is polarized, there is no center any longer and Jewish opinion is also polarized. And as such, you have different approaches to the same questions, with a great deal of uncertainty.”

Regarding Le Pen, Samuels said, “There is no question that around her there is a retinue of an old guard that is still in the cast of her father who do not like Jews. They hate Muslims far more, but they certainly do not like Jews.”

Samuels described the 39-year-old Macron as an “unknown entity.” With Macron, Samuels said, “it’s a question of who would surround him in government. With Fillon and Le Pen, it’s clear who they’d be taking. But Macron is the only centrist in a fractured society. And as a centrist, he is going to have to satisfy people on both sides of the spectrum.”

While Macron’s support for Israel has been “very quiescent,” Samuels said, “he has a close relationship with former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who is clearly pro-Israel. Valls will probably be an element in any coalition that Macron brings together. But then the question is who else? And also, if it is too extended from right to left, will it be self-sustaining?”

Ron Agam — a French-Israeli artist and activist who lives in New York — said, “The overwhelming majority of French Jews are fearful of their future if Le Pen gets elected. This is the first time a candidate who belongs to an extreme-right party whose base is viciously antisemitic could get access to power. So the Jewish community in France is in a state of emotional instability right now.”

A Le Pen victory, Agam went on to say, “could be an opening for a new wave of a radical form of antisemitism that will enfranchise people who have until now kept their mouths shut.”

“If she gets elected and she pursues a policy of taking France out of the EU, getting out of NATO and becoming closer with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, this would ultimately bring Europe to the brink of a political, economic and military disaster, very close to what happened in the 1930s, because it would give Putin a very strong incentive to do what he has always wanted to do, which is to restore the Soviet Union,” Agam continued.

Terrorism is never far from minds in France these days, and both Karsenty and Samuels mentioned the possibility of a pre-election attack influencing the election results.

“One of the only scenarios in which Le Pen could win is if there is a huge terrorist incident,” Karsenty said.

Ejnes said that the feeling of insecurity once felt only by France’s Jews is now — following the Paris and Nice attacks over the past year and a half — shared by all the country’s citizens.

“There is an understanding that the hate which starts with the Jews never ends with the Jews,” Ejnes said. “The war against jihadist terrorism will be a long one, and French Jews, like the French people as a whole, are worried about the casualties that may arise from terrorist attacks.”

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