A fraught debate over antisemitism is helping Marine Le Pen

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Welcome back to the special French election edition of Europe Express.

Early on in the three-week campaign to elect a new Assemblée Nationale, Marine Le Pen received an endorsement which for decades would have been unthinkable for the party founded by her antisemitic father and a group including former Waffen-SS and Vichy collaborationists: Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld.

The 88-year-old activist, whose work on the Holocaust has helped convict the “Butcher of Lyon” Klaus Barbie and Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon, said on June 15 that he would back Le Pen’s Rassemblement National over La France Insoumise, the far left party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

“The RN supports the Jews, the RN supports Israel and it is normal for me to vote for a pro-Jewish party,” he told broadcaster LCI.

Serge Klarsfeld
France’s renowned Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld in his office in Paris © AP

Klarsfeld’s endorsement is a striking sign of Le Pen’s decade-long “detoxification” of her party. It also shows how the Hamas-led October 7 attack of Israelis and the ensuing Israeli retaliatory offensive in Gaza have weighed in the French elections. They have crystallised a shift in perceptions among French Jews as well as among some prominent liberal intellectuals — to the point where it could help the RN in its attempt to reach a parliamentary majority tomorrow, when the run-off round is taking place.

I am Anne-Sylvaine Chassany, a senior FT editor and former Paris bureau chief. We are dedicating this Saturday edition of Europe Express and the following to French politics. The stakes are high: the snap elections called by centrist president Emmanuel Macron could allow the eurosceptic, anti-immigration RN to form its first government. This outcome would be a seismic political event for France and the EU. You can also read it en français here and write to me at: anne.chassany@ft.com

The far-left is now perceived as the biggest threat to French Jews

Klarsfeld’s position underlines the perception among the vast majority of Jews and a growing part of French intellectuals that it is the pro-Palestinian far-left and its contingents of young Keffiyeh scarves-wearing protesters who are now posing the biggest threat to Jews.

These accusations from influential voices including Bernard-Henri Lévy and philosopher Élisabeth Badinter matter at a time when parties ranging from Emmanuel Macron’s centrists to Mélenchon’s LFI are tactically joining forces and urging sympathisers to back whoever stands against the RN tomorrow.

When the moment comes to cast their ballot across France’s 577 constituencies, many will nurture doubts about the LFI candidates and may be tempted to abstain. This would mathematically increase the far-right candidates’ chances of being elected.

How Marine Le Pen became a defender of the Jews

Jean-Marie Le Pen’s antisemitism was well established by French courts: the 96-year old was convicted multiple times under France’s restrictive anti-hate speech laws for making antisemitic comments or downplaying the Holocaust. Since 2011 as party chief Marine Le Pen has strived to erase these antisemitic undertones. She sacked her own father in 2015. 

But she went further by trying to lure part of the Jewish electorate with her tough stance on Islamism, identified by the RN as the new threat to the French way of life and entrenched secularity. In the past decade her message has increasingly resonated after attacks by Islamist extremists including the killings of Jewish children in Toulouse in 2012, a wave of Isis-led terror attacks in 2015-2016 and the beheading of secondary school teacher Samuel Paty in 2020.

The fallout of the Gaza war and the explosion of antisemitic acts has opened another fraught chapter. A quarter of French Jews say they have been the targets of such acts since October last year, according to a survey by Ifop.

About 90 per cent identify LFI as the culprit and 57 per cent say they would leave France if Mélenchon’s party were to govern. Only 30 per cent say they would do so if the RN came to power. This was echoed by rightwing writer Alain Finkielkraut on BFMTV: “If Mélenchon comes to power, it is over for the Jews.” He did not say however if he would join the 18 per cent of French Jews declaring to vote for the RN.

The prospect of an LFI-led government is a remote possibility. Mélenchon’s party secured less than 10 per cent of the votes in EU elections last month and is now part of the leftwing New Popular Front alliance, which comprises social-democrats such as former Socialist president François Hollande, the Greens and the Communists. But the far right has seized on these fears during the campaign.

Le Pen went further this week with an op-ed in rightwing newspaper Le Figaro, with the title: “How long are we going to accept the far-left’s abasements over antisemitism?” In it, she feels the need to remind readers of her position on the Holocaust: “Didn’t I declare as early as 2011 that the (concentration) camps had been the peak of barbarism?“, she writes. She also acknowledges, for the first time, the responsibility of the French state in the deportation of French Jews under the Vichy regime — a contentious topic within the far-right.

Israeli officials applaud — if only they knew about some RN candidates

The message was met with approval in Israel. Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli (Likud) told the Kan public broadcaster on Tuesday: “It is excellent for Israel that [Le Pen] will be the president of France, with 10 exclamation marks.”

Asked whether his party leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, agrees, Chikli said: “I think I and Netanyahu are of the same opinion.”

The pro-Israel message from the top has not reached all the candidates the RN has fielded: as usual, the French press has unearthed racist and antisemitic mis-steps by looking at candidates’ Facebook accounts and other social media platforms. The latest discovery on Tuesday: one candidate in Normandy, who had made it through to the second round, had posted a picture of herself wearing a Nazi officer cap. She had to withdraw from the race.

The liberal intellectuals are deeply and passionately split

The debate has created a deep rift among liberal intellectuals. Many now consider that Mélenchon — and his alleged leniency towards Islamist extremists — is the biggest danger to the Republic. Centre-left politician Raphaël Glucksmann, who suffered insults from fellow Jews on the campaign trail for striking an alliance with LFI, has been at pains to point out that the leftwing alliance’s manifesto included clear wording about the fight against antisemitism and a reference to the “terrorist” attacks of October 7.

The Human rights national commission, which published its annual report on racism and antisemitism last week, also noted that far-right sympathisers were those most in agreement with traditional antisemitic biases: more than a third of them say that “Jews have too much power”, half say they have a “double allegiance” or particular relations with money. 

This fraught debate has resulted in confusing messages to voters on the eve of the second round. The council of Jewish institutions in France (CRIF) urges voters to stay away from both extremes — the far right and the far left. But driving through France in a van, the French Union of Jewish Students has called voters to pinch their nose and cast their ballot for any anti-RN candidate, even if they are from LFI.

How is this debate going to play out tomorrow?

The centrists and leftwing blocks have tactically agreed to withdraw candidates to avoid a fragmentation of the anti-RN vote. But will voters obey? Pollsters are running prediction models based on vote transfer assumptions that may be proved wrong tomorrow. They are projecting the RN to secure the largest block in parliament — up to 205 seats, according to Ipsos — but short of a majority of 289.

This would mean a parliament split in three big blocks with vastly different programmes and ideologies. Once — if — the RN threat is thwarted, a whole new set of challenges will emerge.

More on this topic

Florian Gauthier, founder of Lareserve.tech, and Maurice Ronai set up this French speaking AI chatbot on ChatGPT to try and convince voters reluctant to back the New Popular Front and its LFI allies to bar the RN from securing a majority in parliament. Two starting points: “I don’t vote for the extremes” or “I don’t vote for antisemites.”

The FT’s editorial board has called for all anti-RN parties to co-ordinate in the second round to prevent the far-right party from governing France

Anne-Sylvaine’s picks of the week  

An analysis of RN’s rise by political scientist Olivier Roy, journalist Ivanne Trippenbach and sociologist Félicien Faury in Le Grand Continent

George Parker’s portrait of Keir Starmer, the new British Labour Prime Minister, who beat the Conservatives on Thursday

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