Europa Europa: The “Devil you know” in France
Jun 1, 2022 | Alex Benjamin
“Hold your nose and vote Christian Democrat,” an Italian journalist once quipped back in the early 90s, such was the dearth of choice facing the electorate there.
This Hobbesian choice immediately sprang to mind after talking to a number of French Jews about their vote in the recent French election, the one that pitted the “Sun King” Emmanuel Macron against a xenophobic wolf in sheep’s clothing, Marine Le Pen. As you likely know, Macron won by 58.55% to 41.45%, a greater margin than expected.
Brussels collectively breathed a sigh of relief at the result, and some commentators predicted that populism had reached a high-water mark and was now receding. Yet there was little jubilation and few cries of “Vive la République!” to be found amongst French Jewry.
The same unanswered questions, the same threats that led to the highest levels of emigration to Israel in Europe, remain under Macron.
For French Jewry, Marine Le Pen represented a case of “know your enemy” writ large. Her National Rally party’s attempt to whitewash its past right-wing antisemitism; her vow to ban the wearing of Kippot in public along with the Hijab; her rejection of Kosher and Halal slaughter and her cosying up to dodgy despots and “strongmen” across the world put her beyond the pale. Such a transparent political choice is in a sense comforting. You know what’s on offer, the agenda is in plain sight.
Macron offered no similar clarity. Mercurial, adept at nuance and appealing to the widest possible audience, he tries to be all things to all people, apparently without a strongly defined set of core values. He throws tidbits to the right to sate their worst impulses. He courts the left by offering reformist social policies. As a result, many French Jews feel he stands for nothing, or, worse, he is hiding what he really thinks.
They know his ambivalence towards Israel and support for Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon. They hear his rehearsed lines about fighting antisemitism, but many feel he does little to actually deal with the real causes. Many see him as an enabler of a bigger problem: a reluctance to regulate immigration from Muslim lands, accompanied by a failure to ensure proper integration into French society. Some of these immigrants bring their antisemitic and radical baggage with them, unchecked, where it festers in the suburbs and explodes periodically. This results in dead Jews in kosher supermarkets, at Jewish day schools and in their own homes after being attacked by neighbours.
Those French Jews who send their kids to state schools report horrific antisemitism and a reluctance to tackle this baggage when it ends up in the classroom. Calling out these problems is perilous. Teachers are slapped, attacked and in one tragic case a secondary school teacher, Mr Samuel Paty, was beheaded for trying to teach about the circumstances leading up to the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in 2015 (he showed the cover of Charlie Hebdo that depicted the Islamic prophet Muhammad in class).
French Jewry therefore finds itself in perpetual limbo. Key issues that matter to them, that affect their well-being and their future, are glossed over or rarely touched upon by the political classes.
I witnessed this first hand in the early days of the first Macron presidency. Following attacks in Paris, I went along with a colleague for an informal meeting with the French diplomatic team based in Brussels. I decided to address the elephant in the room – this imported, festering antisemitism – and suggested that to even begin moving forward would require a recognition of said elephant in France. I was told to my bafflement that this could not be done: it would lead to civil war and the fracturing of French society. I didn’t have the tenacity to point out that it was already fractured and, without a thorough self-examination, had little hope of healing, while France’s Jews would continue to die or simply vote with their feet.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that when Europe’s Jews prosper, Europe prospers. For this small minority of the population to be regarded as such a barometer is flattering, of course, but there is a wider truth here. I earnestly believe that the health of a democracy can be measured by how its Jewish population is treated.
Do French Jews feel they live in a healthy democracy? A democracy, yes; a healthy one, less so, hence the consistently high levels of emigration.
Macron once asserted that “the status quo leads to self-destruction”. I think he was rhetorically gilding the lily a bit – it would be better to say that the “status quo leads to decay.”
And that is why French Jews held their noses and supported Macron – while noting that the decay is starting to smell. That this was their choice is a frankly depressing replay of an old adage. For many French Jews, it was simply a case of “better the devil you know” in the second round of voting on April 24.