(JTA) — As in its previous two presidential elections in France, major Jewish groups in the country turned partisan and called on Jews to vote against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.
But this time, the call sparked a community debate about the role of French Jewish institutions that shed light on the growing polarization of French Jewry.
The Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives de France, or CRIF, a group that lobbies the French government on Jewish issues, and the Consistory, which provides religious services and employs the country’s chief rabbihave become increasingly partisan over the past decade amid a rise in popularity of the far right, which they and many other French Jews see as dangerous.
Last week, the two groups urged French Jews to vote for centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron in the second round of Sunday’s presidential election.
“Our individual freedoms, our social diversity, our tradition and the stability of our country are at stake,” CRIF said in its statement. “The CRIF calls for an electoral defeat for Marine Le Pen and a massive vote for Emmanuel Macron.
The Consistory also in turn endorsed Macron, Elie Korchia, the president of the Consistory, confirmed to Le Monde.
This is because “for the first time there is a real chance that a far-right candidate will win the election,” Korchia told Le Monde.
But he also acknowledged in the same interview that French Jews are as politically divided as the rest of the country.
“Generally speaking, Jewish citizens espouse the political positions of all other citizens,” he said.
Other Jewish institutions and figures criticized the endorsement as an overly partisan move by two groups that strive to represent all French Jews.
The Europe-Israel Association is a right-wing nonprofit that itself often calls on politicians to speak out against perceived biases against Israel, but it rarely criticizes CRIF and the Consistory as it has on the approach. Sunday. Jean-Marc Moskovicz, the head of the association, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he felt most “Jews in France do not appreciate this call to vote for Macron.”
“We believe that everyone should educate themselves and form their own opinion without being told what to think,” the group said in a statement.
The backlash also underscored the creeping acceptance of Le Pen’s National Rally party and other far-right figures among Jewish voters.
Tribune Juive, a major communal newspaper, published on Monday an editorial by renowned psychoanalyst and author, Charles Rojzmanin which he offered a thinly veiled critique of the leadership of CRIF and the Consistory.
“Their selfishness makes them even dismiss ordinary people as fascists because they adhere to a rhetoric that allows them to protect their identity,” Rojzman wrote, taking to task communal leaders, whom he did not name. The base of French Jewry, he added, is “threatened by what we call ‘the racailles, the enemies of coexistence’,” he wrote, using common euphemisms for Muslim extremists.
Jean-Piere Lledo, eminent French Jewish filmmaker, went furtheraccusing the CRIF, the chief rabbi of France Haïm Korsia and the Consistory of not respecting the principles of separation of religion from the state in an editorial in Tribune Juive.
Their partisanship “is a bit like what the Islamists did, calling on their supporters to vote for Jean-Luc Melenchon,” Lledo wrote, referring to the far-left presidential candidate who came third in the first round of presidential elections.
The latest polls show Macron leads Le Pen by more than 10 points; he won their 2017 runoff round by over 30 points.
Le Pen has been at the head of the National Rally since 2011, when it was still called the National Front. Under her, the party has grown from a powerless fringe movement into a formidable political force that seems to be growing. In addition to having the party’s best electoral result in the 2017 elections, Le Pen led the National Rally to win several mayoral elections.
Nationalist convinced against the increase in immigration, Le Pen told Jews she would be their ‘shield’ against anti-Semitic violence by Muslims. But her plans to restrict religious freedoms to counter the presence of Islam in French society would mean a ban on the headscarf and yarmulke worn by Jews, she acknowledged. She invites French Jews to make this “sacrifice” for their country.
Jewish support for the National Rally was non-existent under his Holocaust denier father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was kicked of the party in order to restore its reputation. But a 2014 poll suggested that National Front’s popularity with French Jewish voters has risen to 13.5% under his daughter.
Many Jews, Korchia added, supported Éric Zemmour, a far-right Jewish politician who has several political positions similar to those of Le Pen but who failed to qualify for the second round. In Israel, 53% of the votes of French citizens in the first round went to Zemmour.
Korsia, the chief rabbi, called Zemmour, whose children and wife are Jewish and who attends the synagogue, an anti-Semite and a racist. Zemmour has three convictions for inciting hatred against certain ethnicities – one of them was for saying that most drug traffickers in France were Arabs or Africans.
During the last days of his presidential campaign, Zemmour made the death of a young Jewish man, Jérémie Cohen, a central theme. Cohen was killed in February in a collision with a streetcar in the Paris suburbs, and his death was treated as a traffic accident until his family provided Zemmour with footage they had independently obtained. It showed Cohen running towards the tram tracks after an altercation with several men on a street in Bobigny, a working-class Paris suburb with a large Muslim population.
At campaign rallies, Zemmour framed the incident as part of what he described as a problem of lawlessness in some French municipalities, particularly those with many immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. These issues are widely believed to partly explain why French Jews are apparently increasingly open to voting for far-right candidates.
“Eric Zemmour ran into a number of issues, traumatic issues for French Jews, which are not imagined: they are real,” Korchia said.