French Jewish people conflicted over voting choices amid antisemitism fears

As France faces a high-stakes second round of elections on Sunday, French Jewish people say they are grappling with tough choices and feel caught between extremes amid concerns about rising antisemitism.

As part of her longstanding efforts to detoxify the image of the far-right National Rally (RN) – currently leading in opinion polls – Marine Le Pen, to the incredulity of many, has sought to present herself as a friend of Jewish people and Israel.

Meanwhile, polling in second place is the left-green New Popular Front (NPF) alliance, which includes the centre-left and greens and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s hard-left party, France Unbowed (LFI). Senior figures within LFI have made comments that many French Jews and others have described as antisemitic.

These dynamics have raised profound questions for French Jewish communities, with many saying they feel stuck in the middle, with antisemitism not being sufficiently addressed.

The Guardian spoke with more than a dozen members of French Jewish communities in the days before the second round of elections, from politicians and public intellectuals to pensioners, student leaders and young professionals. The conversations reflected a diversity of views on political ideology and voting and a broad consensus about fears of rising antisemitic rhetoric and violence.

On Friday, the umbrella group Crif, which represents Jewish organisations in France, and the country’s chief rabbi, Haïm Korsia, were among the signatories of a public statement reiterating their formal stance: “Neither RN nor LFI.”

In an interview in Paris, the writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy said: “All the Jews I know agree they will of course never vote for France Unbowed, and they will never vote for Marine Le Pen.”

When it came to RN, he said: “There is absolutely no evidence of a deep change on the matter of antisemitism.”

RN, originally named Front National, was co-founded by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is well known for his antisemitic remarks. He has been convicted several times of contesting crimes against humanity, including for his claims that the gas chambers used to kill Jews during the Holocaust were only a “detail” of history.

Early members of the party included former leaders of a Waffen-SS military unit under Nazi command during the second world war. Pierre Bousquet, of the Waffen-SS Charlemagne division, was the party’s first treasurer and a founding member.

Even after its rebranding, RN has continued to face repeated scandals, including election candidates making allegedly antisemitic remarks.

The RN and LFI have repeatedly rejected accusations of antisemitism. Neither party responded to requests for comment on the antisemitism allegations.

For many French Jews, both parties are deemed unacceptable.

In the days before the second round, members of the Union of French Jewish Students (UEJF) travelled to key constituencies to try to convince voters not to vote for extremes. As part of efforts to form a “republican front” against the far right, many centrist candidates who came third in the first round have since pulled out, leaving many voters with a straight choice between an NPF candidate and the RN.

Viviane, who asked to be identified by her first name only, said if the left had entered the second round in her area, she might have been open to voting for the far right, adding: “I’m not sure what I would have done at the last minute – I don’t think I would have managed to cast a ballot for the National Rally.”

In the days leading up to Sunday’s vote, a few people told the Guardian they were planning to vote for the far right, despite not feeling fully comfortable with the party. For many others, casting a vote for the RN remains an unthinkable prospect.

After morning prayers at a synagogue in central Paris on Saturday, there were heated conversations over snacks: is the far right really a lesser evil? Is not voting at all best?

French Jews who identify with the left and support the NPF, meanwhile, have also grappled with dilemmas. Lévy said he believed it had been “a political mistake, a moral fault” to include LFI in the leftwing alliance. Not everyone agrees.

Alice Timsit, 30, a city councillor and member of Les Écologistes party, described a growing feeling of isolation within the French left since the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October and Israel’s retaliatory assault on Gaza. “It was very difficult for me to realise that my own political family left us alone,” adding that this was why she had joined Golem, a leftwing French Jewish collective.

Asked about LFI, she said that while some leaders had made antisemitic remarks, it was not antisemitic as a party when it came to policy. “It’s absolutely vital,” she said, to have LFI as part of the NPF because the far right “is a huge, huge risk for democracy”.

Timsit added that antisemitism needed to be addressed, including on the left. “I’m very sure that the left wing can do some great things, but to do that, we have to also face problems. We have to face it, because denying it is the worst thing to do.”

Others on the left share this view – to an extent.

Ariel Weil, a socialist serving as mayor of Paris Centre – an area covering four districts of the capital, said that in his view RN was incompatible with Jewish values, but also raised concerns about elements of LFI, saying he had always been “extremely opposed” to an alliance with them.

“There are only a few places where voters have to choose [on Sunday] between the extreme-right left wing and the extreme right wing … I’ve said, amongst others, that there are maybe 10 people that you can’t vote for amongst the Mélenchon party. You can’t vote for them because they are fascists from the left wing,” he said.

Aside from those candidates, said Weil, voters must back LFI against its far-right opponents.

“We are trying to walk a fine line,” he said, adding that once the election was over the left would have some challenges to address. “We are going to need to rebuild social democracy – and put an end to this alliance with people that do not share [our values].”

The Guardian