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Robert Zaretsky teaches at the University of Houston and the Women’s Institute of Houston. His latest book is “Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in Times of Plague.
The shockwaves caused by Hamas’s attacks on Israel last week continue to reverberate across the European political landscape – and its effects have been particularly worrying in France.
Fearing a “rise in tensions” internally, President Emmanuel Macron met with representatives from all political parties last week to discuss potential responses to the situation.. His fears are well-founded. France is home to the third largest Jewish population in the world, as well as the largest Muslim population in Europe. Additionally, the country’s past as a colonial power in North Africa and the Middle East – as well as its past as a collaborator with Nazi Germany in the Final Solution – makes the risks even more real.
In fact, tensions have already risen. The same day, Macron met with political parties, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin met the press. More than 100 anti-Semitic acts have taken place in France since the Hamas massacre, he announced. And when asked if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be “exported” to France, Darmanin replied Yes and no – Yes and no. There was no evidence of this on the streets, but it was a different matter on the screens, where the far-left France Insoumise (LFI) “does not try to avoid the importation of the conflict “, did he declare.
Clearly, French politicians have no more need to import conflicts than French bakers need to import croissants. As Darmanin’s implicit accusation against LFI shows, French anti-Semitism is an essential ingredient of the current political conflict. Indeed, the reality of anti-Semitism has long been explicit in modern French politics and culture. As the French historian Eugen Weber pointed outanti-Semitism has been “as French as croissants” since the end of the 19th century.
The French far right is particularly fond of this toxic ideology. Over the course of a century – from the Dreyfus affairwhen the Jewish French officer Alfred Dreyfus was unjustly accused of treason, by the business of detailwhen former political leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was rightly accused of Holocaust denial, insisting it was just a historical detail – anti-Semitism was the cornerstone of French reactionary thought.
However, anti-Semitism in France is not an exclusively right-wing affair. From Pierre-Joseph Proudhon to Georges Sorel, influential thinkers of the French left have attached themselves to the figure of the Jew as the origin of all the social and economic ills of the modern era. Not only was the cosmopolitan Jewish banker the engine of capitalism, but the immigrant Jewish worker was a competitor for employment. Yet by the 1930s, the French left was mature enough to appoint the Jewish politician Léon Blum as its leader (and future Prime Minister).
All this brings us back to the current progress of the Mélenchon affair. In the aftermath of the massacre of 1,300 men, women and children by Hamas, the unstable leader of LFI Jean-Luc Mélenchon defied calls to call the attack “terrorist”.” Instead, he insisted that “the violence unleashed against Israel and Gaza proves only one thing: violence begets more violence.”
Mélenchon’s assertions – which he and his entourage still refuse to reject – sparked a storm of criticism. Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, whose father survived Auschwitz only to commit suicide a few years later, denounced Mélenchon’s “revoltingly ambiguous” statement. We cannot equate, she said, a democratic state with a terrorist organization that has just attacked it – a position, Borne suggested, that smacks of anti-Semitism.
More revealing, the leaders of other parties belonging to the New Ecological and Social Popular Union (Nupes) as well as LFI were also outraged. “Stunned” and “disgusted” by Mélenchon’s position, socialist deputy Jérôme Guedj warned that this “raises the question” of whether the Socialists should remain in the coalition. Party leader Olivier Faure echoed Guedj’s anger, but he also refused to withdraw from the coalition. (On Tuesday, Faure changed his mind, announcing that the socialists would observe a “moratorium” to participate in the weekly meetings organized by Nupes.)
Marine Tondelier, the leader of the newly named Green Party, also hesitated. She deplored that the coalition, who “had been a source of hope for so many people, has today become a source of despair”, and admitted that she “no longer knows what to say about Jean-Luc Mélenchon”. Nonetheless, Tondelier insisted that his party was not yet on the verge of splitting from Nupes.
The hesitation is not surprising. With relatively thin parliamentary representation, the socialists and ecologists need the LFI more than it needs it. But Mélenchon’s position angered even members of his own party, notably François Ruffin, who gained national fame as a journalist, filmmaker and activist before becoming a member of parliament. Distancing itself from Mélenchon’s position, in an interview with Le Monde, Ruffin was direct. What Hamas did, he said, “was an abomination.” And in a thinly veiled criticism of Mélenchon, he declared that “our words did not live up to the seriousness of the events”.
What is even more revealing and disturbing is that the words of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally – founded by her father as the National Front close to fascism half a century ago – were up to the seriousness of the events. At the National Assembly, Le Pen announced that “we saw what we thought we would never see again in history: pogroms where women, children and men were killed solely because they were Jewish.” . After a round of applause from the right and many members of the ruling party, she then denounced “those who support, excuse or relativize the unbearable, some of whom sit in this chamber”.
There was no reason for Le Pen to name names – just as there is no reason to look far to find the reasons for this position. Since inheriting the party, Le Pen has sought to transform it from a movement led by an anti-Semite and steeped in nostalgia for French Algeria into a political party. like the others – like the others. We can rightly question the sincerity of his remarks made in the National Assembly, but what is beyond doubt is his sense of political timing.
There are good reasons to be concerned about this strange moment in French history. First, it reminds us that the country needs an electorally viable and morally reliable political left. More worryingly, it also reminds us that a morally unreliable far-right party is now a little more viable.