Jean-Marie Le Pen has already been crowned the latest symbol of voter alienation in Europe, but France’s beleaguered Jewish community wants to ensure Le Pen never makes it to the country’s presidential palace.
The Jewish community has been disappointed by the French government’s weak reaction to a wave of anti-Semitic aggression, carried out mainly by Arab youth in reaction to Israeli-Palestinian violence. Yet they probably never thought the alternative would be Le Pen, a far-rightist who favors stricter controls on North African immigration to France — but also has a history of anti-Semitic statements.
In the week since Le Pen won a place in Sunday’s runoff against incumbent Jacques Chirac, half a million French citizens have taken to the streets to say “no” to the Nazism, fascism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism that Le Pen’s National Front Party represents.
On Sunday, some 15,000 French Jews held an anti-Le Pen rally in front of the Pantheon in Paris, the burial place of several heroes of the French republic.
Unlike other rallies that world Jewish communities have held in recent weeks, this one was not to decry the assault on Israel or support the policies of the Sharon government. Rather, it clearly was designed to show that French Jews are proud to be members of the multicultural republic — and that they see anti-Semitism not just as an attack on them but as an attack on the fundamental values of the French republic.
“As a Jew, I am very concerned with the situation in Israel, but I was born in France,” said Muriel, an advertising worker. “I came here today because I love this country and don’t want to see it filled with hate.”
“I am only half-Jewish and nonpracticing, but that is not important,” said Thomas, a financial services worker. “Everyone here, Jewish or not, cares deeply that France had been hurt. That is why you see all the flags waving.”
Co-sponsored by France’s largest Jewish student union, the UEJF, and one of the nation’s oldest and most militant anti-racist organizations, the League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, the demonstration also showed that French Jews are no longer alone in their struggle against racism and anti-Semitism.
Joining the Jewish leaders on stage were one of the foremost Muslim clerics in France, a high-level representative of the Catholic Church and the mayor of Paris.
Taking the podium in front of a sea of French flags and anti-Le Pen signs, each speaker elicited rousing applause with exhortations to fight Le Pen and cast their votes for Chirac on Sunday.
One of the high points of the event occurred when Soheib Bencheikh, the mufti of Marseilles, announced, “I came here today because this is a very powerful moment for our Jewish brothers, and because the French Jew plays the role of a barometer for the Muslim, and if the Jew of France is worried, Muslims should panic!”
Minutes later, Gilles Bernheim, rabbi of one of the largest congregations in France, brought another explosion of applause.
“I want to tell my friend, the mufti of Marseilles, that Jews who, for many generations, have made efforts to integrate in the republic and to respect the values of the country that welcomed us, will always be on the side of our Muslim brothers who are respectful of the values of the French republic.”
Echoing a call made by numerous Jewish leaders over the past week, Bernheim also told the protesters, “Next Sunday, with no hesitation, it is the duty of all of us, not only of the ones that are already convinced and are here today, to vote for the incumbent President Jacques Chirac.”
Such political endorsements from Jewish religious leaders are unprecedented, but the community’s highest spiritual figures issued unequivocal recommendations this week for Jews to get to the polls and vote Chirac.
David Messas, the grand rabbi of France, released a statement strongly encouraging Jews to block Le Pen “in the interest of democracy.”
An official communique from Jean Kahn, president of the French Consistoire, reiterated this message in urgent terms. “No ballot should go missing, no voter should abstain — the future of the Jewish community of France depends on it,” he said.
UEJF President Patrick Klugman voiced similar sentiments in urging French students to mobilize against Le Pen.
“It is not the time any longer for politics or for quibbling,” the student leader advised, “and I don’t care today if Jacques Chirac has been good or not for the Jews and for Israel.”
Despite such displays of unity, however, the Le Pen issue has managed to provoke controversy among some French Jewish leaders.
On Tuesday, the French daily Le Monde reported that Roger Cukierman, the president of CRIF, the umbrella organization for secular Jewish institutions in France, told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that Le Pen’s success actually would help reduce Arab anti-Semitism.
Le Pen’s surprise second-place finish in first-round voting April 21 constituted “a message to the Muslims to stay quiet,” Cukierman allegedly said.
Cukierman later said he had been misquoted when his words were translated into English, but several Jewish leaders, including CRIF board members, were quick to criticize him.
“Such statements can only spread discord between the communities,” Rabbi Daniel Fahri, president of the Liberal Jewish Movement of France, told Le Monde.
“Faced with” Le Pen, he added, “Jews and Muslims are in the same boat.”
The emergence of such solidarity should not be overlooked in a country that in the past 18 months has seen more than 500 anti-Jewish incidents, many of them committed by young Muslims of North African descent who sympathize with the Palestinian cause.
In perhaps the ultimate irony of the election, a hatemongering leader appears to have contributed to a healing process in neighborhoods where Jews and Muslims live side by side.
Since the rise of Le Pen, the frequency and intensity of anti-Jewish incidents have ebbed considerably. The two reported incidents last week — the stoning of a school bus and an arson attack on a storage facility of a Jewish school, both in Paris suburbs — represent a substantial change from the weeks before the first round of the elections, when arson attacks and physical assaults were near-daily occurrences.
Then again, the extra police protection provided by the French government also may have played a role.
It is too soon to tell how long the relative peace will endure. What seems more certain is that Le Pen’s success has awakened many French citizens to the threats such religious violence poses to the country.
Some in the Jewish community remain reluctant to embrace those who have suddenly awakened to the problem of anti-Semitism.
“Jews demonstrated all alone against anti-Semitism because a large part of the anti-racist movement did not want to hear about an anti-Semitism that did not conform to its ideology,” eminent writer and philosopher Alain Finkielkraut reminded the crowd at Sunday’s rally.
Many others, however, are relieved to see their fellow French citizens marching against anti-Semitism, Nazism, and hatred of all kinds.
“I could not believe my eyes when I saw that Le Pen was going to be running in the second round, but I think people have been too apathetic about what has been happening here,” said Eric, a contractor. “Now, people are really getting active, and hopefully France can remove the shame by giving Le Pen less than 20 percent in the second round.”
The rally, which featured many people wearing stickers that said “I Love the Republic,” ended with a hearty rendition of the “The Marseillaise,” the French national anthem.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.