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Alexandria Fanjoy Silver

French Jews’ Paradigm of Uncertainty

The French election represents a new paradigm of uncertainty for the Jews of France: that of there being legitimately no good options that represent a safe future. For as long as Jews have been accepted members of societies, they’ve always been tied to the fate of liberalism and liberal governments (not “liberal” like the Canadian or British “Liberal party” but in the literal meaning of the word — that which stands against illiberalism). In Europe historically, the parties that represented the most dangers to Jews were nationalist governments usually on the “right.” When nationalism is your undergirding, whether or not Jews are specifically the target of rhetoric, they will always end up vilified as these most systemically marginalized group on practically all continents. Jews never flourish in societies in which hatred and xenophobia are normalized. But now, Jews in France (and I doubt it will remain just France) face a new problem: the traditionally “liberal” governments on the left are not so liberal anymore, and antisemitism and antizionism have been adopted practically as gospel, particularly when said leftist groups find common cause with Islamist ones. And while the Le Pen National Rally government appears to have found common-cause with Jews (in that much of the attacks on Jewish citizens in France are coming from Muslim immigrants, the target of much of the National Rally’s political ire) the newly-recognized “enemy of my enemy is my friend” relationship is hardly a structurally stable ground upon which Jews can reasonably place confidence.

In the last few weeks, Macron’s centrist party has collapsed, sending France to new elections; the traditionally far-right National Rally party surged in popularity, leaving a combination of left parties to attempt to confront them in a unified “New Popular Front” party. While Le Pen has tried to distance herself from National Rally’s history of antisemitism (and specifically her father’s), Jews are yet again pawns in another set of elections.

France, the first European country to allow Jews citizenship (in 1790/1791), has always maintained a challenging relationship with its permitted minority. French national identity has always been strong, and even sometimes finds itself based around food — you cannot be truly “French” if you do not eat pork or drink wine. Jews have long been seen as having suspiciously un-French qualities, and at various points in history have been seen as having dual loyalties. The Dreyfus Affair in France is often seen as the jumping point for Herzl’s organization of the World Zionist Congress, and Jews in France suffered greatly during the Holocaust, particularly in Vichy France under Philippe Petain. Antisemitism did not exactly die down after the Nazi period, but in recent decades, the influx of Muslims into the country has caused another form of Jewish hatred, based in Islamism — and these Muslims have become the target of French nationalist anxieties. France is home to both the biggest Jewish population in Europe, and also one of its biggest Muslim populations, and tensions between the two since October 7th have only escalated. They existed before Hamas’ horrific attack though: in 2006, Ilan Halimi was held and tortured for weeks entirely on the basis of his Jewishness (he died); in 2012 a man named Mohammed Merah attacked and killed Jews across Toulouse; in 2014 three North African men attacked a Jewish couple because “Jews have money;” in 2015 and 2016 there were waves of antisemitic violence by people identified with ISIS; in 2017 Sara Halimi was thrown off her balcony to a shout of “Allahu Akbar” … I could continue, but it’s too depressing for words. One of the New Popular Front parties, “France Unbowed” says in its charter the the October 7th attack was a terrorist one, but it also has a member, Rita Hassan, elected to the French Parliament who said that Hamas’ actions were legitimate. It’s a strange party that seems to simultaneously condemn antisemitism publicly while privately condoning or even stoking it within its membership, knowing that it ultimately does play well with the large Muslim community in France, particularly now. 

But the National Rally party is hardly better. Rallying against Macron’s immigration policy and the influence of Islam in French life, Jews are definitely not the primary target of their nationalism. Indeed, in their platform is specifically anti-Islamic policies, such as forbidding hijabs or other head coverings on the streets of Paris. But it’s only one short leap from banning Muslim head-coverings to banning Jewish ones, for both of them are predicated on the same problem: they’re seen as “not-French” and therefore inextricably alien. Keep in mind, successive French governments have also tried to ban both kosher and halal slaughtering, for the same reason. While Le Pen has sought to distance herself from the virulent antisemitism of her father, whether or not all of her party members feel the same is far less clear. Further, Jews historically have never flourished in societies in which xenophobia is normalized, because systemically, Jews are always historically on the outside of nationalist ambitions. When Jews and Israel are used to foment culture wars, which increasingly they are — in France and outside of it — they are put into a very dangerous position. Jews cannot succeed in partisan politics where Jews are summoned as tokenized examples of why one must/ must not support a party. That is a recipe for failure and destruction. 

Jewish citizens in Europe have historically been targeted by right-wing nationalist groups, and therefore leftist parties always traditionally had more support. But at this moment in time, the greater fear is perceived to be from the far left & Islam, who have found common ground in antizionism. So, what’s a French Jew to do? The Chief Rabbi of France this week actually advised French Jews to leave the country, based on the fact that neither party will protect them — and may even do worse. To bastardize Bob Dylan, there’s antizionism to the left of them, and xenophobia to the right, and here they are, stuck in the middle with no good options. 

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About the Author
Dr. Alexandria Fanjoy Silver has a B.A. from Queen's University, an MA/ MA from Brandeis and a PhD from the University of Toronto (all in history and education). She lives in Toronto with her husband and three children, and works as a Jewish history teacher. She writes about Jewish food history on Substack @bitesizedhistory and talks about Israeli history on Insta @afanjoysilver.
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