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France elections: Mounting antisemitism accusations used to 'demonise' the left

Observers fear that the 'defamation campaign' against the left for its support for Palestine and its appeal among French Muslims could lead to victory for the far right
Protesters hold placards which read 'Anti-Semitism is not residual' as they gather to condemn the alleged anti-semetic gang rape of a 12 year-old girl, in Lyon, France, on 19 June 2024 (Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP)
Protesters in Lyon hold placards which read 'Antisemitism is not residual' after the alleged antisemitic gang rape of a 12-year-old girl in Paris on 15 June (Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP)

From the moment President Emmanuel Macron dissolved parliament, France's surprise snap elections have been fierce and contentious. The spectre of antisemitism has only added fuel to the fire, with the sexual assault of a Jewish child bringing the issue to the forefront.

Two suspects, aged 12 and 14, were indicted for gang rape, death threats, insults and violence of an antisemitic nature, after being accused by the 12-year-old girl of calling her a "dirty Jew”.

The crime, which was allegedly perpetrated on 15 June, aroused the indignation of the entire political class. France is home to the largest Jewish community in Europe - around 500,000 people - and has seen an upsurge in antisemitic attacks in recent months.

Some were quick to link the case to France Unbowed (LFI), the dominant party within the New Popular Front (NFP) left-wing coalition running in the elections on 30 June and 7 July.

LFI's pro-Palestinian positions, particularly since Israel's war on Gaza began in October, have attracted accusations that it is antisemitic, which it forcefully denies.

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On 19 June, hundreds of people gathered in front of Paris's city hall to denounce the rise of antisemitism in response to the rape - and castigate the leader of LFI, Jean-Luc Melenchon, and his party.

“Melenchon in prison,” the crowd chanted.

That morning, Melenchon had published a message on social media saying that he was “horrified by this rape”.

Sarah Aizenman, president of Nous Vivrons (We will live), a collective founded after the 7 October Hamas-led attack on Israel and main organiser of the rally, told the crowd: “Let irresponsible politicians stop stirring up hatred by putting a target on the backs of Jews.”

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Yonathan Arfi, president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF), directly accused Melenchon’s party of “fuelling this climate”.

The same recriminations were expressed by Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti, who said: “After incendiary words, there are fires!”

The accusations traded at the rally were a sample of what LFI and its members have experienced in recent months, a period marked by the campaign for the European elections earlier this month and the prominence of the war in Gaza in the public debate.

Two weeks ago, when the left was trying to unite - after the far right stormed to victory in the EU elections and Macron responded by calling the snap elections - many political figures warned against an alliance with the “antisemitic” LFI and its leaders.

And when the New Popular Front was formed and presented its joint programme in Paris, demonstrators accused its leadership of having made “antisemitism” a “campaign promise”.

“The parties of the Republican left have sacrificed the fight against antisemitism,” Afri said. The CRIF leader called the alliance an "absolute shame", since LFI had "made hatred of Jews its electoral stock in trade".

Macron himself declared that the alliance of the left was “indecent”, as it would “make it possible to give 300 constituencies to LFI, and therefore to people who have been very clearly comfortable with not condemning antisemitism”.

The president proceeded to be even more forthright in his criticism, outright accusing the "far left" of "antisemitism" and "anti-parliamentarism".

Conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism

According to official figures, antisemitic acts in France have increased significantly since 7 October, when Palestinians fighters killed more than 1,100 people in southern Israel.

In May, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal announced that 366 antisemitic acts were recorded in the first quarter of 2024, an increase of 300 percent compared with the first three months of 2023.

According to a recent survey, 92 percent of French Jews believe that LFI has contributed to this rise of antisemitism in the country.

Some of them see the far right as a lesser evil, such as renowned Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, who recently declared he would vote for the RN against the leftist alliance, and philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who said he may be “forced” to vote RN to “block antisemitism”.

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But what is behind these fears and accusations, which are even uttered by the head of state and risk harming the only political force that appears able to block the far right?

Melenchon has been accused of having expressed ambiguous remarks and antisemitic stereotypes in the past.

For instance, in 2013 he accused then-Economy Minister Pierre Moscovici of “not thinking French but thinking international finance". Moscovici condemned what he said was the antisemitic trope of the Jewish banker. Melenchon replied he was unaware of Moscovici’s background.

In 2020, there was another outcry when Melenchon said on TV: "I don't know if Jesus was on the cross. I know who put him there, it seems they were his own compatriots." This was considered a reference to Jews as “deicide people, the oldest basis of Christian antisemitism”, according to historian Robert Hirsch.

But since 7 October, the accusations of antisemitism against LFI have become increasingly virulent.

From the start, LFI firmly positioned itself as a defender of the Palestinian people, condemning the Israeli war on Gaza and placing the conflict at the heart of its campaign for the European elections.

This stance, including the initial refusal of some of its members to qualify the Hamas-led attack as “terrorist”, preferring the term “war crime” as per international law, opened wide the political divide, including within the left.

When Yael Braun-Pive, the head of the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, visited Israel to express her "solidarity" and France’s “full support" in the war's early days, Melenchon accused her of "camping out" in Tel Aviv “to encourage the massacre”.

Braun-Pivet, who is of Jewish origin, immediately protested, saying the framing of her "camping out" was antisemitic and in reference to Nazi concentration camps.

While a large part of the political world backed her and lambasted Melenchon, the LFI leader explained that, for "his generation", "campism" referred to positioning for the Eastern or the Western bloc during the Cold War.

French far-right RN leaders Marine Le Pen, Jordan Bardella (right) and Sebastien Chenu (left) march during a demonstration against anti-Semitism in Paris, on 12 November 2023 (Geoffroy Van der Hasselt/AFP)
RN leaders Marine Le Pen, Jordan Bardella (right) and Sebastien Chenu (left) march against antisemitism in Paris, on 12 November 2023 (Geoffroy Van der Hasselt/AFP)

On 12 November, a new controversy erupted when LFI chose not to participate in a march against antisemitism because of the presence of the National Rally and the refusal of the organisers to call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

“Friends of the unconditional support for the massacre [of Palestinians] have their meeting,” Melenchon wrote on X, once again unleashing critics.

To demonstrate against antisemitism, LFI organised another rally at Paris's Place des Martyrs-Juifs-du-Velodrome-d’Hiver.

Melenchon sparked outrage once again earlier this month by saying that antisemitism was "residual" in France, despite the sharp rise reported by the authorities.

He made this comment in a blog post referring to the popular protests caused by the interview of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a prominent French TV channel. After some demonstrators were accused of antisemitism, Melenchon argued that it was "completely absent from popular gatherings”.

‘Playing on the fears of the scourge of antisemitism adds fuel to the fire […] this amalgam risks serving the far right’

- Anne Tuaillon, AFPS

For Anne Tuaillon, president of the Association France Palestine Solidarite (AFPS), all those accusations of antisemitism against the left are meant to delegitimise it for its support for the rights of the Palestinians.

“The qualification of any criticism of Israel and anti-Zionism, which is a political opinion against colonial nationalism, as antisemitism, which is an offence, has taken on disproportionate proportions since 7 October,” she told Middle East Eye.

According to Tuaillon, this “conflation” is part of a campaign that has been led by Israel and its allies for around 15 years, to bring the pro-Palestinian movement into disrepute.

“This is all smokescreen, spread further by the mainstream media, which repeats it without constraint, intended to falsely discredit political adversaries,” she added.

‘Cynical electoral strategy’

LFI has firmly denied any accusations of antisemitism and emphasised its fight against it.

“Antisemitism is poison,” said former LFI MP Mathilde Panot on several occasions.

So has Melenchon. “Anything that resembles discrimination on the basis of religion, sex or skin colour annoys me to the extreme and I fight it politically,” he said.

The party has also repeatedly stressed that the Israeli state should never be conflated with Jews.

“Since the Hamas attacks against Israel on 7 October, testimonies and reports of antisemitic acts have increased in France. We condemn them with the greatest firmness,” the party stated.

“We reaffirm our refusal to read the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a ‘clash of civilisations’ and religious affiliations which only fuels antisemitism and anti-Arab or anti-Muslim racism.”

When Melenchon was being attacked for saying there was "residual" antisemitism in France, an LFI official stressed that he was opposing those who accuse pro-Palestinian movements of increasing antisemitism, rather than saying the issue is unimportant.

The purpose of Melenchon's argument, LFI argued, was to undermine the theory of "new antisemitism" championed by the far right, which blames it on Muslims and people with an immigrant background.

The commitment of the party towards fighting antisemitism and other forms of racism was enshrined in the common platform of the New Popular Front, which notably included an “interministerial plan against antisemitism and Islamophobia”.

LFI leader Jean-Luc Melenchon (center) takes part in a rally against anti-semitism in Marseille in February 2019 (Boris Horvat/AFP)
LFI leader Jean-Luc Melenchon (centre) at a rally against antisemitism in Marseille in February 2019 (Boris Horvat/AFP)

Several intellectuals and political leaders, many of whom have previously been critical of Melenchon, have argued that the LFI leader's ambiguous statements do not qualify as antisemitism, despite the uproar.

“LFI is not a party which has an antisemitic programme, whose activists spread hatred of Jews,” said Hirsch, the historian.

For Simon Assoun, spokesperson for Tsedek, a “decolonial” Jewish collective, "some comments may have been awkward. But there is a bias in interpreting them all in a way to demonstrate that Jean-Luc Melenchon is antisemitic."

No LFI member has ever been convicted of the offence of antisemitism. On the other hand, in 2012, Melenchon won his case against politicians who had accused him of it.

The same cannot be said of the far right, Tuaillon and others point out.

The forerunner of leading far-right party National Rally (RN), the National Front, counted among its founding members in 1972 at least one former Waffen-SS member and some Petainists.

Its former president and founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of current leader Marine Le Pen, was convicted in 2017 for comments downplaying gas chambers during the Holocaust.

LFI has therefore denounced what it sees as political attacks aimed at discrediting the party in the middle of the electoral campaign and making people forget the historic antisemitism of the far right.

‘This exploitation of antisemitism is reprehensible on many grounds. Firstly, because it exonerates the far right’

- Open letter by Jewish personalities

In a column published last week, intellectuals including Annie Ernaux, winner of the Nobel prize for literature, condemned the "infamy" of designating LFI as an "antisemitic party".

“If the verb ‘to camp’ is considered antisemitic, if the term ‘survivor’ is antisemitic, if the word ‘financier’ is antisemitic, then everything is and therefore nothing is,” they argued.

With the united left currently predicted to come second in the elections, according to opinion polls, the authors say the allegations are part of a political witch-hunt.

“We know well why this unleashed offensive is being carried out: the possibility of the left coming to power terrifies the representatives of a social, economic and ideological order," the column said.

“They absolutely must break the left alliance, disqualify through a sort of political killing one of its most important and most combative forces.”

On Sunday, the four main leaders of the New Popular Front released a common statement, denouncing the “defamation campaign” against them “led by a failed macronie [Macron’s entourage]”, and calling for combating antisemitism and all forms of racism.

“We condemn with the greatest firmness those who use our Jewish compatriots as scapegoats for all the ills of the planet. We all stand alongside our Jewish compatriots who are afraid in the face of these threats, as well as all our fellow citizens threatened because of their religious faith […].

“The cynical electoral strategy of the right and the far right undermines the essential fight against antisemitism.”

‘Extremely dangerous’

Similarly, in an open letter published on 21 June, Jewish personalities and academics warned of the dangers of "instrumentalising antisemitism instead of fighting the far right".

"By conflating criticism of Israeli policy and just support for the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people with antisemitism, we end up opposing the essential fight of all democrats against the National Rally," they wrote.

“This exploitation of antisemitism is reprehensible on many grounds. Firstly, because it exonerates the far right, whose history and roots are inseparable from racism, antisemitism and xenophobia," they added.

“Then because it prevents the creation of a dyke capable of blocking the RN. Thirdly, because it aims at breaking up the alliance of the left and the ecologists - a break which would only benefit the far right - and because it thereby attempts to destroy the only credible and desirable alternative to this major risk for freedom, equality, fraternity and democracy.”

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For journalist Thomas Legrand, “the demonisation of LFI makes us forget that the far right is the real danger for our democracy”.

Tuaillon, the president of AFPS, shares those concerns. “Playing on the fears of the scourge of antisemitism is extremely dangerous; it adds fuel to the fire, because passing off as antisemitism what is not antisemitism is counterproductive for the fight against antisemitism”, she told MEE.

“Presenting as truth something that has never been brought to light by the courts nor condemned is extremely serious,” Tuaillon added.

“This is unworthy of the Republican debate and this amalgam risks serving the far right.”

The loser in this whole manoeuvre could very well be Macron himself.

Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the far right, told MEE: "The old temptation of the centre to represent the political axis not as going from left to right but as a rainbow where the two ends meet, as Macron is currently doing by putting the RN and LFI or even the NFP on the same footing, is risky, just like its entire political strategy since the dissolution of the National Assembly.

“Macron wanted to give the people a chance to speak; he did not believe in the left and he thought that the French would be afraid of the RN. But he seriously underestimated the fact that his words have no impact any more, and that the more he speaks, the deeper he sinks,” he added.

According to the latest polls, the National Rally and its allies are predicted to win 35.5 percent of votes. The Together presidential coalition is far behind in third place, with 19.5 percent, after the left-wing alliance on 29.5 percent.

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