PARIS – In early April, two weeks before the first round of the French presidential election, Benjamin Hadad, the president of the main Orthodox synagogue in Paris’s 15th arrondissement gave an unusual Shabbat sermon.
He explained that he had never before spoken about politics at the synagogue, yet this time he felt he had to speak up and discuss the upcoming election.
He did not mention the extreme-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, by name, but his message was loud and clear: “Go home and speak with your friends and family about the grave decision each and every one of you must soon make. Remember, easy responses to daily difficulties may lead to hatred of the other, to xenophobia and to incitement.”
French law prohibits polling according to religion or race, so there is no way of knowing exactly how French Jews voted. And actually, there is no tradition in France of a “Jewish vote” (or a “Muslim vote,” for that matter). But after talking to several Jewish leaders, the feeling is that many of them cast their first-round vote in favor of the right-wing candidate François Fillon, a former prime minister in the government of Nicolas Sarkozy.
It is no secret that Sarkozy enjoys, even today, great support among French Jews. So the Fillon vote was apparently less out of affinity for the candidate – who in the past made some controversial comments visà- vis the Jewish community – than out of prevailing strong pro-Sarkozy sentiments.
Careful not to enter the political quagmire, Jewish leaders had warned over the past few months against voting for any “extremist” party, hinting not only at the National Front candidate but also at the extremeleft Jean-Luc Mélenchon, notorious for his anti-Israeli positions.
But, evidently, the time of hints and suggestions is now behind us. Ever since the April 23 first election round, Jewish leaders across France have amplified their message against Le Pen. Shortly after the firstround results were published, Francis Kalifat, president of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France, French Jewry’s umbrella organization, called to vote for independent candidate Emmanuel Macron.
“We are calling for the greatest possible mobilization, in order to block the National Front,” added Kalifat, a plea that was echoed by other Jewish groups such as the Unified Jewish Social Funds.
Speaking on RCJ, “the radio of the Jewish community” on April 24, Alliance israélite universelle director- general Ilana Cicurel Revcolevschi said that the Jewish community should not believe National Front claims that it has changed and no longer espouses antisemitism.
“We should not be fooled; there should be zero Jewish votes in France for the National Front,” she said.
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The statement by Le Pen, just days before the first election round, about France not being responsible for the 1942 Vel d’Hiv roundup of Jews to be sent to a concentration camp, seemed to expose a facade that she has been trying to hide for many years. Another sign came this week, on April 25, when Le Pen repeated her objection to ritual slaughter, both Jewish and Muslim.
The concern about voting expressed by the Jewish community reflects larger concerns across the country. True, logically speaking, Macron should easily defeat Le Pen in the May 7 second round. He has the mainstream left and right constituencies on his side. But with Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote, nothing is sure any more, and several elements could interfere with Macron having the upper hand.
To start with, pundits fear that the long weekend of May 7 (on May 8 France marks victory over the Nazis and the end of World War II) may tempt too many voters to go on vacation and abandon the political race, out of the belief that Macron would win the election with or without their support.
More serious arguments are related to the post-firstround political arena. Indeed, most mainstream politicians spoke out, stating that they will vote for Macron. Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon was quick to call upon his constituency to vote for Macron, just minutes after the release of the first results. So did right-wing Fillon.
Even President François Hollande, who had been careful not to intervene in the election process, stated on April 24 that “the presence of the extreme Right [in the second round] threatens our country. Facing such a risk, it is impossible to keep silent and to hide within indifference. As for me, I will vote for Emmanuel Macron.”
Former president Sarkozy, definitively not a fan of Macron, tweeted that he will vote for Macron, and called upon all the right-wing senior officials and all leaders of the country to do the same. The term used by many French politicians was “a Republican vote,” namely voting in order to preserve the French Republic and its values.
But there are other politicians, too, politicians who refused to endorse Le Pen’s rival. Mélenchon for instance. It seems that he was so sure that his miraculous ascension in the polls would eventually lead him to the second round that he actually refused to acknowledge the first results published by the different TV channels. Then he refused to recommend to his supporters any of the two finalists. Le Monde criticized him for irresponsible behavior.
Indeed, some extreme-left voters could vote for Le Pen, as her position on preference for French industry, for instance, resembles that of Mélenchon. Other right-wing senior officials refused to say that they would vote for Macron, with one of the senators saying that “one cannot vote for a newbie.”
So Macron must work hard these coming days in order to guarantee his victory. But while he is busy crisscrossing France, the independent candidate is already at work on another front as well – that of the parliament.
Macron has no party, only a social movement called En Marche. Macron chose this path of a movement when he left the Hollande government, in order to rally around him supporters from all political camps. But what has proved, so far, to be a great advantage, encouraging people to vote for an “out-of-the-system” candidate, could soon become a major obstacle.
Journalists who covered the election night organized by En Marche at the Paris Exposition Center could testify that while Macron’s volunteers were enthusiastic and full of goodwill, the lack of a leading hand and a party structure was evident. This demonstrates the difficulties Macron would have to tackle if and when elected.
He is well aware of this lacuna, and even referred to it at his victory speech on April 23, stating that he will welcome anyone who adheres to his movement’s values and ideas, “without checking where this person came from.”
As president, he would need to form a majority in a parliament in which he actually has no representatives. This is an issue he must confront sooner than later.