While there have been many Jewish prime ministers of France, there has only been one Jewish president: Alexandre Millerand, who was baptized and whose mother converted to Catholicism. Millerand was president from 1920 to 1924; since then, a Jew has not led the republic.
France now has a Jewish presidential candidate, the extreme right-wing Eric Zemmour. Although he gained momentum early in the race, he is no longer considered a realistic candidate, and is not likely to make it to the second round of voting. President Emmanuel Macron is in the lead, and holds a comfortable advantage over rivals in the first round of voting, according to Reuters polling.
Other surveys show that Macron would win a second-round runoff against any of his rivals, albeit by a narrower margin than his 2017 victory.
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen has consistently polled in second place. Hard-left contender Jean-Luc Mélenchon has climbed to the third spot, with Zemmour and conservative challenger Valérie Pécresse a few percentage points behind.
Close to half a million Jews in France will face a difficult decision in Sunday’s presidential election: Should they support the Jewish candidate for president, or vote for the moderate Macron?
In conversations this past week with members of France’s Jewish community, many said that leaders of their communities are extremely cautious in what they say, and very nervous about the outcome of the election.
There are no polls that show who the Jews will vote for, but much attention has been paid to Israel and how French Jews in the Jewish state will vote. Many of them are supporting the extreme-Right Jewish candidate, largely because he has recently spoken up against antisemitism.
Some estimates predict that 20%-30% of French-Israeli Jews will cast their absentee ballots for Zemmour, even though he has almost no chance of moving to the second round of voting.
Others indicate that a majority of the French-Israeli Jewish community will vote for Macron.
Heads of the French Jewish community spoke to rabbis in Israel recently and briefed them on the situation. They begged the rabbis to tell their congregants not to vote for Zemmour, saying that could create a negative and even violent reaction toward Jews in France.
On Monday, Zemmour tweeted about the case of Jeremy Cohen, a young French Jew who was killed by a tram. He asked why Cohen’s death wasn’t considered an antisemitic attack, even though a video showed a gang trying to beat him up just seconds before he was killed.
“These images are chilling,” Zemmour tweeted. “The death of yet another of our children and the deafening silence on the facts revolt me. Did he die to escape scum? Did he die because he was a Jew? Why is this case hushed up?”
The tweet bolstered Jewish support for Zemmour, who has been losing substantial support lately, according to recent polls published in France.
On the other hand, heads of the French Jewish community have criticized Zemmour and called him antisemitic, among them French Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia.
Francis Kalifat, head of the CRIF umbrella group of French-Jewish communities, wrote in an op-ed regarding Zemmour, “He’s not a useful idiot – he’s a useful Jew and the new leader of Holocaust denial in our country.”
ARIEL KANDEL, director-general of Qualita, an organization promoting immigration to Israel from France, said on Thursday that “those who immigrated to Israel are mostly right-wing and Jews who suffered from antisemitism when living in France. Therefore, many of them will vote for Zemmour.
“Many French Jews wanted to vote for right-wing parties but couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Le Pen due to her views and family history, which were very problematic for the Jewish community,” he said.
Kandel thinks the story of this election, specifically regarding the Jewish community, is that “there is a chance that someone from the Le Pen family can be elected president – something that wasn’t realistic just a few months ago. Those who don’t want to vote for Macron or for the far-right may abstain in the second round. When there is less turnout, it is always good for extremists.
“The fact that the Jewish candidate – Zemmour – became more extreme than Le Pen made her more acceptable,” the Qualita head said. “It is Zemmour’s fault that Le Pen has a slight chance of becoming president. Le Pen won’t be able to be elected without the help of Zemmour, and I think he will also declare that he supports her. To see a Jew stand on stage with someone with the last name Le Pen, asking his supporters to vote for her, sounds like a crazy Netflix series.”
Kandel said that in his opinion, “Zemmour is an assimilated Jew who is not antisemitic but promotes something problematic. It’s a very scary situation for French Jews.”
If Le Pen is elected, he said, there is a chance of a surge in immigration from France to Israel.
“Many Jews have talked about a situation for years that if Le Pen is elected, they will immigrate to Israel,” he said. “There is no reason we won’t be able to reach 10,000 Jews making aliyah if she is elected.”