French Jews caught between extremes in polarising snap election

FILE PHOTO: Demonstration against anti-Semitism at the Place de la Bastille in Paris

By Elizabeth Pineau

PARIS (Reuters) - As French Jews, Maury and Alain Fischler feel trapped between equally unpalatable extremes as France rushes into a snap election with the far right ahead in the polls, followed by a left-wing bloc they say harbours antisemites.

President Emmanuel Macron called the parliamentary election on June 9 after his centrist Together alliance was trounced in European elections by the anti-immigrant National Rally (RN), which is now the frontrunner to form France's next government.

This is profoundly worrying for the Fischlers, who detest far-right ideology and see the RN's transition from a party that once flirted openly with antisemitism into one that denounces it as a cynical ploy to create a veneer of respectability.

"Just because they've painted the door glossy and produced 10 good-looking people with impeccable rhetoric, that doesn't mean we should believe them," said Alain Fischler, 61, a furniture designer, speaking in the couple's apartment in Paris.

RN leader Marine Le Pen has worked hard to detoxify the party's brand since taking the reins from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party founder, who was convicted of inciting racial hatred for saying the gas chambers used to kill Jews in the Holocaust were "a detail" of World War Two history.

She joined protesters marching through Paris in November to denounce a surge in antisemitic incidents following the Hamas attacks on Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel's retaliatory assault on Gaza. The RN has adopted a strongly pro-Israel stance.

Her efforts have won over some French Jews, including prominent lawyer and Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, 88, who said on June 15 that in a run-off between the RN and the left, he would vote for the RN which he described as "pro-Jewish".

But for others including Fischler, the son of a Holocaust survivor, this doesn't wash. He accused the RN of courting Jews as cover for stigmatising Muslims.


Just as frightening to the Fischlers is the New Popular Front, a leftist coalition hastily assembled to counter the far-right surge and currently in second place in the polls, ahead of Macron's centrist camp.

The group includes La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), a hard-left party that opponents say has repeatedly crossed the line between criticism of Israel's military action in Gaza and antisemitism, which it denies.

"I feel like I'm caught between plague and cholera," said Maury Fischler, 61, an optician, using a colloquial expression to describe a choice between equally unpleasant alternatives.

Tensions over Gaza were already running high in France, home to Europe's largest Jewish and Muslim communities, before the unexpected election exacerbated political tensions.

Antisemitic incidents ranging from insults to vandalism and physical assaults rose by 300% in the first quarter of 2024 compared with the same period last year, according to figures released by Prime Minister Gabriel Attal. The number of anti-Muslim incidents has also risen, though less steeply.

France Unbowed leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said earlier this month that antisemitism was "residual" in France, one of a long list of comments by him and others in his party that critics say have stoked and normalised anti-Jewish hatred.

After a 12-year-old Jewish girl was raped and insulted with antisemitic slurs last week, protesters in Paris held placards with slogans like "Antisemitism is not residual" and "Have you got used to antisemitism? We haven't".

Protester Sidney Azoulay, himself a Jew, described the political stances of some parties as akin to "the pyromaniac-turned-firefighter."

"It's a shame that in 21st century France Jews are still making the headlines for this kind of reason," Azoulay said.

Melenchon, who denies being antisemitic, condemned the rape as did politicians from across the spectrum, including the RN. A police investigation into the incident is ongoing and three teenagers have been arrested.

Taking part in a protest after the incident, Yonathan Arfi, head of the CRIF umbrella organisation of French Jewish groups, called on voters to rally around the values of the French republic and reject both extremes.

"Our responsibility for now is to ensure that neither France Unbowed nor the National Rally come to power," he said.

(Additional reporting by Nicolas Coupe; writing by Estelle Shirbon; editing by Mark Heinrich)