Will France's National Assembly perpetuate antisemitism? - opinion

In the National Assembly, 131 now represent the hard-left bloc of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and a further 89 are from Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally. Both have been accused of antisemitism.

 ON SUNDAY, French President Emmanuel Macron visits the newly inaugurated Shoah memorial at the former Pithiviers’ train station, as part of a ceremony commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, in Pithiviers, France. (photo credit: Christophe Petit Tesson/Reuters)
ON SUNDAY, French President Emmanuel Macron visits the newly inaugurated Shoah memorial at the former Pithiviers’ train station, as part of a ceremony commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, in Pithiviers, France.
(photo credit: Christophe Petit Tesson/Reuters)

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Yair Lapid made his first international trip as prime minister, meeting in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron. The centrist president, reelected in April to a second five-year term, is challenged to govern effectively, as he lacks a majority in the new National Assembly. But the French legislature isn’t just Macron’s problem, its composition raises serious questions for French Jews and bodes ill for Jews everywhere.

In June, French voters elected 577 members of the National Assembly. Of those, 131 now represent the hard-left bloc of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and a further 89 are from Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally. Both have been accused of antisemitism.

Marine Le Pen claims that neither she nor her party harbor any hostility towards Jews. During the elections, she even proclaimed that the National Rally is best positioned to “protect French people of the Jewish faith.” Many remain unconvinced.

The political movement she leads was founded in 1972 by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, notorious for abhorrent remarks about the Holocaust. In 1987, Jean-Marie Le Pen referred to the Nazi gas chambers as a “detail of history.” And in 2005, he wrote that the Nazi occupation of France “was not particularly inhumane.”

Marine Le Pen has purposely endeavored to distance her political movement from the extremism and Holocaust revisionism of her father, but while some see this as a genuine ideological transformation, others fear her strategy is to sugarcoat an ultra-right agenda.

Marine Le Pen, leader of French far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National) party and candidate for the 2022 French presidential election, gestures as she delivers a speech after partial results in the first round of the 2022 French presidential election are announced, in Paris, France, April  (credit: REUTERS/PASCAL ROSSIGNOL)Marine Le Pen, leader of French far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National) party and candidate for the 2022 French presidential election, gestures as she delivers a speech after partial results in the first round of the 2022 French presidential election are announced, in Paris, France, April (credit: REUTERS/PASCAL ROSSIGNOL)

Fueling such skepticism are some of Marine Le Pen’s own comments. In 2014, she stated that “antisemitism is due to the implantation of Islamism in our country,” effectively whitewashing historic homegrown French antisemitism – from the expulsions and massacres of the Middle Ages, through to ideologues Edouard Drumont and Charles Maurras, and the collaborationist Vichy regime.

Like Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon piously denies any anti-Jewish prejudice. After all, as a radical socialist, he advocates the equality of humankind and rejects all ethnic hatreds.

Yet, when it comes to the Jews, Mélenchon also has a history of disquieting pronouncements. In 2021, he was quoted as saying that the murder of three Jewish children in Toulouse a decade earlier was “planned in advance” so as “to point fingers at Muslims.”

In 2020, Mélenchon seemed to repeat the historic deicide charge, saying: “I don’t know if Jesus was on the cross. I know who put him there; it seems that it was his own compatriots.”

“I don’t know if Jesus was on the cross. I know who put him there; it seems that it was his own compatriots.”

Jean-Luc Mélenchon

Furthermore, Mélenchon has a serious problem with the Jewish state. He has espoused a radical anti-Zionist narrative that sees Israel as an illegitimate colonialist implant created at the expense of the country’s indigenous Palestinian inhabitants.

Not just France

Marine Le Pen and Mélenchon’s electoral successes have significance well beyond the borders of France. Indeed, they are part of a disturbing trend reverberating in recent years across Western Europe and North America.

For much of my term as Israel’s ambassador in London, the Labour Party was headed by leftist Jeremy Corbyn, who, as leader of the opposition, was always just one election away from becoming prime minster.

Corbyn was accused by members of his own party of antisemitism and his many enthusiasts often embraced the tropes that were once seen as the sole prerogative of the racist right. And throughout the years that Corbyn led Labour, the Community Security Trust’s annual reports invariably documented increases in antisemitic incidents.

Tellingly, in the recent French elections, the Mélenchonists invited Corbyn, now suspended from membership in Labour, to campaign for them. When the left bloc was criticized for enlisting the support of a reputed antisemite, it responded that Corbyn had been the victim of a conspiracy.

Across the Atlantic, the Anti-Defamation League’s data illuminates a disturbing picture of antisemitism in the United States. Although Jews are only some 2% of the overall population, they are the victim of 60% of all religious-based hate crimes. In 2021, there were 2,171 antisemitic incidents – an increase of 34% over 2020. While most of these attacks were perpetrated by white supremacists, 345 emanated from the ultra-left and Islamists – almost double the figure of 2020.

And like the French Mélenchonists, noted progressive Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez chose to legitimize Jeremy Corbyn. Despite his antisemitism receiving significant media coverage in the US, in 2019, she nonetheless parleyed with the controversial Englishman and later tweeted that “it was an honor to share such a lovely and wide-reaching conversation.”

Theodor Herzl and French antisemitism

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the toxicity of French antisemitism drove Theodore Herzl to Zionism. As the Paris correspondent for the liberal Viennese newspaper Neue Freie Presse, Herzl was in awe that the French-Jewish officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was convicted of treason on the basis of cooked-up evidence, while the popular antisemitic press stoked the flames of hatred and the crowds in the streets chanted “death to the Jews.”

What made the Dreyfus Affair significant for Herzl was that this outpouring of hate was not occurring in the reactionary backwaters of Czarist Russia or in the underdeveloped hinterland of the Ottoman Empire, but in the heart of Western Europe. This was Paris: the birthplace of the 1789 Revolution with its expressed commitment to liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Moreover, Herzl saw that antisemitism was not just propagated by the reactionaries, monarchists, and arch-clericalists, but was clearly present among liberals and the left. The pillar of the French enlightenment, Voltaire, had expressed strong anti-Jewish prejudice. So, too, had the founding ideologues of French socialism, Charles Fourier and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

From all this, it was clear to Herzl that modernization didn’t necessitate the continued expansion of Jewish emancipation. On the contrary, democratization could also unleash nefarious political forces that would ultimately threaten the physical safety of the Jews.

In Herzl’s time, French society was divided between those who condemned Dreyfus and the Dreyfusards who proclaimed his innocence. Perhaps the spirit of the latter finds expression today in the fact that the president of the French parliament is Yaël Braun-Pivet, a practicing Jew, and that France’s Prime Minister, Élisabeth Borne, is of Jewish heritage, her father an Auschwitz survivor.

This week, Macron attended a ceremony to commemorate 80 years since the Vél d’Hiv deportation of Jews to the Nazi death camps, stating, “We have not finished with antisemitism, it is still here – stronger and more rampant.” Sadly, Herzl’s conclusions from over a century ago were remarkably prescient.

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is the chair of the Abba Eban Institute. Follow him at @MarkRegev on Twitter.