French voters reject far right, but value left-wing alliance with history of anti-Semitism accusations

French voters reject far right, but value left-wing alliance with history of anti-Semitism accusations

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the New Popular Front (NFP), speaks to thousands of supporters at Place de la République on June 30 in Paris. Sunday’s election marked a triumph for Mélenchon, who has been accused of dog-whistling, echoing anti-Semitic stereotypes and downplaying the threat of anti-Semitism. (Pierre Crom/Getty Images via JTA.org)

Shira Li Bartov

In a surprise result, French voters rejected a far-right party with anti-Semitic roots but backed a left-wing alliance that has itself faced allegations of anti-Semitism.

The country’s most prominent far-left politician, meanwhile, promised in his victory speech to push for recognition of a Palestinian state.

No party won an absolute majority in Sunday’s second round of legislative elections, where all 577 seats in the National Assembly were at stake. According to Le Monde, the New Popular Front (NFP) won 182 seats, while the centrist Ensemble party, backed by President Emmanuel Macron, won 168.

“We will have a Prime Minister from the New Popular Front,” wrote Jean-Luc Mélenchon on X on Sunday evening. “We will be able to decide many things by decree. On the international level, we will have to agree to recognize the State of Palestine.”

The far-right National Rally, led by Marine Le Pen, won 143 seats, a disappointing result for the party that came out on top in the first round a week ago and appeared to be on the verge of winning an absolute majority. Instead, centrist and left-wing candidates worked together to defeat the National Rally by dropping their candidates in polls where the other party had a better chance of winning.

The result is a setback for Le Pen’s party and a relief for many Jews who consider it radioactive. The party’s founders include Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has been convicted multiple times for incitement to hatred and Holocaust denial, and Pierre Bousequet, a former member of the Nazi party’s Waffen-SS. Candidates in that election had also been accused of anti-Semitism.

But Sunday marked a triumph for Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left La France Insoumise party, who has been accused of dog-whistling, echoing anti-Semitic stereotypes and downplaying the threat of anti-Semitism. Even as the French government has reported a surge in attacks on Jews — including more than 360 incidents in the first three months of 2024, a 300% increase from 2023 — Mélenchon has called anti-Semitism in France “residual” and has also repeatedly criticized those who protest anti-Semitism.

The vote and the result put many French Jews in an uncomfortable position. Political scientist Jean-Yves Camus said before the vote that he felt “trapped” by the far left, especially since the more moderate Socialists formed a coalition with Mélenchon’s party. (The leader of France’s center-right party had also made waves by supporting the National Rally.)

“We are very angry and disappointed,” Camus told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “As Jews, we feel betrayed and we think it would have been much better if the Socialist Party had not entered into this kind of alliance with the extreme left.”

Many French Jews believe that the rhetoric of the far left has opened the door to anti-Semitism. According to a poll by the American Jewish Committee in Europe, 92% of French Jews believe that France Unbowed has “contributed” to the rise of anti-Semitism.

The impasse now appears to be France’s future and could dominate the remaining years of Macron’s term, which ends in 2027. After the race, centrist Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, who is of Jewish origin, said he planned to resign.

Marine Le Pen (L), leader of France's far-right National Rally party, speaks alongside party president Jordan Bardella in Paris on June 9, 2024. (Julien De Rosa / AFP)

Marine Le Pen (left), leader of the far-right National Rally (RND) party, speaks alongside party president Jordan Bardella in Paris on June 9. (Julien De Rosa/AFP via JTA.org)

France’s 500,000-strong Jewish community has been shaken by the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent military campaign in Gaza that destroyed large swathes of the enclave. France has also seen a surge in anti-Semitism since October 7. In a recent incident that rocked the country, two teenagers were accused of raping a 12-year-old Jewish girl and hurling anti-Semitic insults at her.

“Many Jews are very shocked by the events that have happened since October, but not everyone is shocked in the same way,” sociologist Martine Cohen told JTA. “There are people who are shocked by the ongoing war in Gaza, not just by the trauma of the October massacres.”

On October 7, French Jews were shocked by the refusal of several far-left politicians to explicitly condemn the Hamas attack on Israel. Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, sought to detoxify her party’s image, renouncing anti-Semitism, denouncing the Hamas attack, and advocating a pro-Israel stance. The party now emphasizes anti-immigration and Eurosceptic positions.

The CRIF, an umbrella organization for France’s Jews, has urged the community to reject both the far right and the far left. But ahead of Sunday’s vote, in the face of the rise of La France Insoumise, some prominent Jewish voices have called on the community to vote for Le Pen’s party instead. One striking expression of support for the National Rally came from Serge Klarsfeld, a French Holocaust survivor known for tracking down Nazi criminals and lobbying for their prosecution.

“The National Rally supports the Jews and the State of Israel,” Klarsfeld, 88, said in a nationally televised interview last month. “When there is an anti-Jewish party and a pro-Jewish party, I will vote for the pro-Jewish party.”

Alain Finkielkraut, a prominent French philosopher, also told Le Point magazine that he would “consider the nightmare of having to vote for the National Rally to block anti-Semitism.” Meanwhile, a group of leaders of the French Jewish community met with Le Pen on Monday.

But elements of the National Rally’s anti-Semitic history resurfaced during the vote. Ludivine Daoudi, the National Rally’s candidate in Normandy, was forced to withdraw from the second round when a photo surfaced of her wearing a Nazi cap adorned with a swastika, even though she had won nearly 20% of the vote in the first round. Other candidates circulated anti-Semitic and racist messages on social media.

It is difficult to determine with certainty how Jews voted nationwide, as France prohibits the collection of data on its citizens’ religion and ethnicity. But some areas with large Jewish communities illustrate the dilemma Jews faced in this election.

The Paris suburb of Sarcelles, for example, has both a traditionally right-wing Jewish neighborhood and an immigrant neighborhood that tends to vote left. (Many of its residents, both Jewish and Muslim, are immigrants from North Africa.) Sarcelles gave 27 percent of its vote to the National Rally in the first round of the election, less than the party’s share of the vote nationally but nearly double the constituency’s share two years ago. In the second round, however, a far-left candidate, Romain Eskenazi, won the constituency with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Eskenazi, whose father is Jewish, chose to campaign in Sarcelles when his centrist predecessor thought the constituency would be right-wing, according to a report in the French magazine La Vie. He was stopped in a synagogue and told by a Jewish voter: “You are associated with evil. I voted for you two years ago, but now I can’t do it anymore,” the report said.

“What if you’re in a constituency where there’s no moderate candidate and you have the choice between Mélenchon’s party and the National Rally?” asks political scientist Camus before the vote. “What do you do? Do you stay home? Do you just say, ‘It’s none of my business’?”