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Will Marine Le Pen defend French Jews? Antisemitism in France has taken a radical new turn

In France, antisemitism never went away. (FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP via Getty Images)

In France, antisemitism never went away. (FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP via Getty Images)


November 23, 2023   5 mins

When more than 100,000 people marched in Paris against antisemitism on 12 November, one participant attracted particular notice: Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-Right Rasssemblement National (“National Rally”). As many recall, the party’s founder, and her father Jean-Marie, was himself a notorious antisemite, and counted veterans of the Waffen SS among his early cadres. Was it possible that Marine’s party had showed up for the wrong march?

In fact, the RN leader has been denouncing a “new antisemitism” for many years, and trying to build Jewish support for the party. She instigated the party’s greatest rupture with its own past in 2015 when she expelled Jean-Marie from it, and has increasingly sold herself as French Jews’ “shield against Islamist ideology”, in the words of her co-leader, Jordan Bardella. But for much of France, the far-Right is still built upon and tainted by antisemitism. Le Pen’s change of position is certainly strategic; whether it is a genuine change of heart is a different question. But the contradiction is telling: it is of a piece with the complex and paradoxical history of the Jews in France, stretching back many centuries.

At first glance, this history can seem overwhelmingly dark. During the Middle Ages, French Jews suffered frequent pogroms, blood libels, and expulsions from the country. After the last of these, in 1394, Jews did not return to France for centuries. As late as the 18th century, the Alsatian town of Colmar imposed a tax equally on all Jews and heads of cattle entering the town. In 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte issued the so-called “Infamous Decree” that presumed all Jews in eastern France guilty of illicit business practices, unilaterally cancelled debts to Jews, and restricted Jewish movement and commerce. In 1832, the betrayal of a charismatic royalist leader by a Jewish-born advisor unleashed a torrent of antisemitic hatred.

Worse was to come. A new wave of antisemitism began in the late-19th century, propelled by Édouard Drumont’s vile 1886 book La France juive, one of the greatest bestsellers in French history with over 100 reprints in just its first year. In 1894, the conviction of Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus on trumped-up treason charges prompted yet more ferocious attacks on Jews, many of the worst rhetorical ones delivered from church pulpits. Even after irrefutable proof of Dreyfus’s innocence came to light, a second trial confirmed his conviction, and he did not win his exoneration until 1906.

Then, in 1940, the antisemites achieved real power. Following the Nazi Blitzkrieg, the Germans occupied much of France, but allowed a quasi-independent state to survive in the south, headquartered in the former spa town of Vichy. Acting on its own initiative, the Vichy government banned Jews from most professions, forced them to wear yellow Stars of David, seized property, and ultimately deported some 76,000 to the death camps. Its emblematic figure was the half-mad Louis Darquier, subject of Carmen Callil’s remarkable biography, who headed its General Commission of Jewish Affairs and helped organise an infamous roundup of Jews in Paris in 1942. After the war he claimed, from his refuge in Franco’s Spain, that only lice had died in the Auschwitz gas chambers.

Yet alongside this history there developed another one running in parallel — very different, and considerably more hopeful. Already in the late-18th century, influential French writers such as Henri Grégoire were arguing in favour of full civil rights for the Jews. And these rights were actually granted in the early years of the French Revolution. Even as Napoleon passed the “Infamous Decree”, his armies were demolishing ghetto walls in central Europe. He also set up a system of “consistories” to mediate between French-Jewish communities and the government that has survived to the present.

The Third Republic established in the 1870s opened up unprecedented opportunities for Jews in French politics, business, law and academia. At a time when Jews were still largely banned from American universities, figures such as Émile Durkheim and Henri Bergson rose to the heights of the French university system. Jewish families like the Camondos, the Ephrussis, and the Rothschilds compiled massive fortunes, and used them to build elegant townhouses and villas full of rare art that they later bequeathed to the French state, as James McCauley recounts in his study The House of Fragile Things. In French Algeria, Jews gained full French citizenship in 1870, a status unavailable to most Muslims. The Dreyfus Affair, painful as it was for French Jews, did end in Dreyfus’s exoneration. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, France welcomed hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants. Today, France has the third-largest Jewish population in the world, after the United States and Israel.

To be sure, even some of these apparently favourable turns of fortune were hardly unalloyed. Henri Grégoire, the champion of Jewish civil rights, nonetheless described the Jews as a degraded and clannish people, and saw their emancipation as a step not only towards full assimilation, but towards their ultimate conversion to Christianity. The authors of the French Revolutionary rights legislation, meanwhile, insisted that the Jews “must make up neither a political body nor an order within the state”. In other words, they needed to restrict their Judaism and Jewish identity entirely to the realms of private life and private conscience.

These principles have endured to the present, and do much to govern the lives, not only of Jews, but of other minority groups in France as well (especially, today, Muslims). The French “melting pot” does not allow for what Americans call “hyphenated” groups (such as Italian-Americans or Polish-Americans) whose strong sense of community identity helps to shape civil society in general. This is one reason why, even if France has had many notable Jewish writers and artists, few of them wear their Jewishness on their sleeves in the manner of a Philip Roth or Woody Allen. Meanwhile, the patriotic generosity of families such as the Camondos did not save them from Vichy’s persecutions — and even deportation to the death camps.

In the past few decades, the history of both French Jews and French antisemitism has taken a radically new turn, in both cases thanks to immigration from North Africa. On the one hand, decolonisation, coupled with rising antisemitism in the Arab world, brought hundreds of thousands of Sephardi Jews to the French metropole, where they soon outnumbered the older Ashkenazi communities of largely Alsatian and Eastern European origin. And the migration of much larger numbers of North African Muslims led to the establishment of communities in which many people principally associate Jews with Israel.

Since the Eighties, the perpetrators of the most serious antisemitic attacks in France have been Muslims who have seen their actions as an extension of the Middle East conflict. These attacks include everything from assaults on a synagogue and a well-known Jewish restaurant by Palestinian terrorists in the early Eighties, to the numerous murders of Jews by radicalised young French Islamists, including at a kosher supermarket in January 2015. The Jewish victims have been largely Sephardi. The principal target of the horrific November 2015 attacks by Isis terrorists was the Bataclan theatre, which had just been sold by its long-term Jewish owners. In this context, it is not surprising that far-Right leaders such as Marine Le Pen now rush to defend France’s Jews. If anything, their Islamophobia has trumped their residual antisemitism.

With the Israel-Hamas war, antisemitic incidents in France have risen once more. There are stories across France of Jewish men covering their kippas and Jewish families removing the mezuzahs from their doorways. The November 12 march offered a welcome response. But with world attention already swivelling to Israeli tactics in Gaza, and Hamas’s horrendous October 7 attacks already receding in memory, this sort of public support for French Jews may also soon fade. The resolutely anti-Israeli socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon refused to join the march, and his point of view resonates with much of the French Left, and may well become more popular. But however the situation develops, onlookers should resist the easy temptation to see it as the simple continuation of French-Jewish history — this history defies the simple interpretation that would suit either side.


David A. Bell is a history professor at Princeton with a particular interest in the political culture of Enlightenment and revolutionary France. His latest book is Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution.

DavidAvromBell

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
5 months ago

Newsflash. We know who the antisemites are and it ain’t LePen. This far right racist narrative is so tired and divorced from reality – the reality we see on the streets every day.

Peter D
PD
Peter D
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Nobody hates Jews more than Muslims. That is a problem for the Muslims to sort out for themselves. Just not in the West. I’m sure that with time, they will sort it out, but we in the West should not be involved and having large numbers of Muslims in the West does not help anyone.
The time has come for the West to find its backbone again.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
5 months ago
Reply to  Peter D

How exactly does Islam solve its antisemitism? And, come to think of it, how does it solve the problem it has with agnostics and non-believers?

The Old and New Testaments in no way pretend to offer a complete system of goverment and legal code. From this gap spring interpretation, debate, and politics. Politics is the only means to resolve religious conflict outside of the confines of religion. This is the long Judeo-Christian heritage of man-made legal systems.

The Koran and Hadith on the other hand are a complete system of government and legal code. There is little left to interpret, let alone debate. Islam *is* politics so there is no way to manage religious conflict outside of the confines of Islam. The result, seen in every single Muslim majority state today, is at best marginalisation and restrained intolerance of non-believers.

Many expect Christianity’s 500 year process of reformation and moderation to be repeated by Islam. But that is to confuse cause and effect. Christianity’s reforming upheaval was motivated by a desire to return to the very basic life and teachings of Jesus and his small group worshipping inside the confines of and separate to the state. This gave rise to so many Christian interpretations in the European states that a political settlement was needed. Once you have a political settlement for Christian differences, it is easier to extend this accomodation equally to other groups.

An Islamic reformation and desire for traditionalism is going to have a very different result. Islam began as a state and was the state. Traditional Islam means a caliphate, a unified and dominant Ummah, and that sort of reformation is accommodating no one else except as the Koran permits: second class status and jizyah or death.

We probably are in fact in the midst of an Islamic reformation. Everywhere traditionalists are on the march. We see ever more brutal attempts at establishing caliphates in the Middle East, and further afield moderate Muslims are being sidelined by traditionalists in mosques from New York to London and Paris.

Last edited 5 months ago by Nell Clover
Peter D
Peter D
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

You make me sound like a Rose coloured glass wearing optimist Nell. Maybe I am because I have had the good fortune of knowing moderate Muslims over the years. It is these people and people like them that give me hope that they can make out of this join us or die mentality.

The woke aren’t any better either. Still, recent history has shown us that we can’t keep taking people into the West. We are living off borrowed time and money. If our system falters, then it will be back to might makes right, but everywhere

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
5 months ago
Reply to  Peter D

There is no such thing as a moderate Muslim any more than you can have an atheist catholic.
You are either Muslim or a non-believer. Those you class as moderate will soon fall into line when the wind blows the right way

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Hatred of Jews well predates Islam, going back to Ptolemaic Egypt if not before.
Perhaps ‘we’ should ask why this is? For example is it anything to to do with people like the late Robert Maxwell, Bernie Madoff or only the other day, one Samuel Bankman-Fried Esq?

ps. As at 0846 GMT, 25.11.23. ONLY minus 50!
Surely YOU can do better than that? I was betting on minus 100 as a minimum!

Last edited 5 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
5 months ago

The kind of comment that is unworthy of Unherd. I suggest the moderators need to to do their job.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

Explain yourself please.

Come on ROCKY MARTIANO at least live up, to your preposterous pseudonym.

Last edited 5 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Ardath Blauvelt
AB
Ardath Blauvelt
5 months ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

No. We have a right to see and hear everyone’s opinion and the more obnoxious, not obscene, the more we need to know it’s out there. I do not need nor want a speech nanny. My nature ears can handle it.

Andrew Dallal
AD
Andrew Dallal
5 months ago

Personally I have no idea why someone would base their view on Jews on the disproportionately low number of Jewish criminals you cite rather than say the disproportionately high number of Jewish Nobel Prize Winners, or even just the majority of non-famous, perfectly nice Jewish people (I’m one of them!).

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Dallal

I would have thought it was patently obvious that I am just asking a question.
Perhaps my version of human history over say the last two years is at variance to yours?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago

Even if you are right about the Jews you mention, could you not find any more positive examples? Einstein, Freud, Leonard Cohen, Yehudi Menuhin, not to mention that Jews have been awarded over 20% of Nobel prizes. Unless of course you are an anti-semite?

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

What on earth is WRONG with you? What has happened to your powers of comprehension?
I am simply stating that antisemitism well predates Islam, and want to know WHY?

To get the ball rolling I hypothesised that it may have something to do with financial scandals, but obviously expected someone to expand on this. What is so difficult about that?

Jane Davis
Jane Davis
4 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

He is an anti semite

Roy Mullins
Roy Mullins
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Islam doesn’t seem to have a centralised authority so I am wondering what is the mechanism for any change / reform ?

Last edited 5 months ago by Roy Mullins
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Roy Mullins

The Ottoman Caliphate was abolished in 1924 and since then the whole thing has gone rogue.

Bret Larson
BL
Bret Larson
5 months ago
Reply to  Roy Mullins

The sword.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

You said what I was thinking only expressed it far more eloquently

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Antisemitism is far far older than Islam, so perhaps we should be discussing the reasons for that?

I made an earlier more detailed comment along these lines but it seems regrettably/inexplicably to have been CENSORED.

POSTED AT. 14.47 GMT.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Peter D

“Nobody hates Jews more than Muslims”

That is only a very recent phenomenon or have you perhaps forgotten Europe’s record and in particular that of the self-styled ‘master race’?

Peter D
Peter D
5 months ago

And Hitler wanted to replace Christianity with Islam in Germany. The Nazis were nothing more than a bunch of extremely lucky criminals who were willing to use any methods necessary for their own ends.They were a death cult very much in the same style as every other death cult including Hamas.
Be careful Charles, you are slipping into this rubbish ideology of a crime is only a crime as long as the perpetrator is white.

Jane Davis
Jane Davis
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter D

wrong. Most English as a second language provision in London was organised by two Jewish ladies. The overwhelmingly Muslim recipients were aware of this. I ‘m Jewish – I taught students of this background for seven years and only heard one antisemitic remark in all that time.
Yes, Jihadis hate jews. They also hate other Muslims who don’t agree with them, women and gay people.
Jihadis and Islamists represent Islam as accurately as the Ku Klux Klan represent Christianity.
The Christian right hate jews as much as muslims – they just see the latter as their main rivals at the moment
Of the direct antisemitism I have experienced in the Uk, the greatest amount has come either from the whte working class English or religious christians who see me as a Christkiller

Any Jewish person who seriously believes Marine Le Pen is on ‘their side’ is thick as a brick.

Katharine Eyre
KE
Katharine Eyre
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I think you can fairly accuse Le Pen of political opportunism here, but still: the (far) right seems to be the wrong bogeyman to be focusing on here. Too many are still stuck in post-1945 narratives with their reliable and comforting galleries of heroes and villains. The world has moved on and there is a struggle to comprehend that the roles and battle lines have changed.

Last edited 5 months ago by Katharine Eyre
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
5 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

So LePen is damned if she shows her support and damned if she doesn’t.

Catherine Conroy
Catherine Conroy
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Quite, Melanchon is a socialist.

D Glover
DG
D Glover
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

If anything, their Islamophobia has trumped their residual antisemitism.

I think it’s time to question this word ‘Islamophobia’. A phobia is an irrational fear of something. Faced with a horror show like the Bataclan theatre attack, what’s irrational?

james goater
JG
james goater
5 months ago
Reply to  D Glover

Exactly, and this point cannot be overstated. “Islamophobia” is a propaganda term, nothing more, designed to protect Islam from scrutiny and criticism from secular societies. And it is very effective.

starkbreath
starkbreath
5 months ago

Good article, except for the use of the term ‘Islamophobic’. Were the Allies ‘Naziphobic’?

Bruno Lucy
BL
Bruno Lucy
5 months ago

« The largest Jewish community behind the US and Israel “
Well, this largest community is …….500 000 souls big when Muslims represent over 10 % of the 66 millions population. Twisting words and creating bias is a skill the author excels at…….I can count and this makes 6,6 millions as opposed to 500 000 ……..
Anti semitic reported events accounted until last week to 1500 + and 135 anti Muslim……not that it excuses them, equally revolting ……….the fact remains that you are a lot safer being a Muslim in France than a Jew.
Stand up comedians make all sort of jokes about Jews and Christians. One could debate how funny or not they are. Not one has the balls to crack one about Muslims. If that doesn’t speak volume, what does ?
I really love the way the author cooks the books.

Last edited 5 months ago by Bruno Lucy
Rocky Martiano
RM
Rocky Martiano
5 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

I’m not sure what your objection is. The author is comparing the size of Jewish communities in different countries, not the Muslim population in France. Or am I missing something?

Bruno Lucy
BL
Bruno Lucy
5 months ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

My point is I wouldn’t apply the word largest to 500 000 in the present circumstances. People’s minds are so wired that they compare. With this form of writing, you just sidestep comparisons. The author doesn’t ever bother giving these numbers……US, France, Germany….etc…..easy enough to find.
500 000 in a 66 millions country is a very small demographic…….you most probably have far more than 500 000 French citizens with Italian or polish ancestry. Unlike the US and thank God, they are just french and no one gives a hoot where they were coming from. That wasn’t the case for the first generation and integration did its work and it wasn’t easy for them.
For the Jews however…….they have been Jews since the middle age before being labelled french, no matter how loyally they have served the country or how many generations have lived in the country.

Jane Davis
Jane Davis
4 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

Does shazia Mirza’s joke about just getting her pilot’s licence count or is it too ironic?

Samuel Ross
SR
Samuel Ross
5 months ago

‘Far leftists’ seem a rare breed. I see the term ‘far right’ used far more often. And yet, by definition, far from what? The right is far from the left and vice versa. Therefore, there must be equal numbers, or the Overton window will move to the right. Therefore, the ‘far left’ exists, perhaps in much larger numbers than indicated. It is not spoken of. Why? Because those who use the term ‘far right’ are themselves ‘far left’. Only from their perspective on the scale does the ‘far-right’ seem so.

David Yetter
DY
David Yetter
5 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

There are two reasons for that: First, the far-left (Maoists, Stalinists, Trotskyites and the like) is in disrepute because since the collapse of the Soviet Union it is evident to nearly everyone that Hayek and vonMises were right — Communism is an unworkable economic system — and thus the totalitarian impulse is now expressed as fascism (in Mussolini’s sense, the union of corporate and state power, not in the sense of the contentless pejorative applied to anyone someone regards as objectionable and to his or her right politically) even when those practicing it call themselves “Communists”. Second, the term “far-right” is applied on the Continent anyone who has noticed that every fiqh of Islamic jurisprudence is deeply illiberal and concluded that Europe should have far less (or perhaps even no) immigration from the Muslim world.

Catherine Conroy
CC
Catherine Conroy
5 months ago

Marine Le Pen has spent the last 8 years actively distancing her party from the stain of antisemitism, I think she ought to be respected for this.
Islamophobia is alive and well in France and why should it not be? The events listed in the article are reason enough. Je suis toujours Charlie!
The historical section of the article is interesting but I’m not sure how much of it is relevant to the past 60 years. Currently living in Bulgaria, I found that while the country was aligned to the Axis powers, the government and ordinary citizens protected their Jewish population (although not in Bulgarian occupied Macedonia) and got away with not deporting any Jews after 1941. However, the rhetoric these days is not in favour of Israel and there is a strong strand of antisemitism among ordinary Bulgarians.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
5 months ago

I agree with everything you’ve written but the last sentence. I am Bulgarian and, frankly, I have never noticed any anti-Israel, let alone anti-Semitic sentiments in Bulgaria. Clearly, we both rely on anecdotal evidence and there will hardly ever be any statistics on that matter, but for me it is striking that our impressions differ so much.

Jonathan Nash
JN
Jonathan Nash
5 months ago

The history of wealthy Jews in France, and their strange insider/outsider status, is fascinating. “The Hare with amber eyes” is a personal memoir of the Ephrussi family; and of course there is Swann.

Peter Lee
Peter Lee
5 months ago

Islam wants to rule the world,

Carl Valentine
Carl Valentine
5 months ago
Reply to  Peter Lee

Like America does?

Rafi Stern
RS
Rafi Stern
5 months ago

Although a lot of new populist right leaders are very pro-Israel I am always wary of Jewish activists embracing the likes of Tommy Robinson, Marine Le-Pen or Geert Wilders.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
5 months ago

France has a long and difficult history of anti-semitism and the article has done well to bring in a balanced view. Anti-semitism has been used as a political tool to allow unscrupulous people to get votes and Drumont, he of the popular book, was one of them. This idea of using the idea for cheap votes will continue.
One thing missing is the power of the Catholic Church. All the way up to the beginning of WW2, the Church in Rome fanned the flames, even up to Pius X1, going into the war years – Pius XII, who was the war pope often gets blamed but it was too late for him to do anything. Between the wars, the Church was upset that the world was getting too liberal and looked for somebody to blame. The popes tried to make their language more acceptable by using two terms, anti-Judaism and antisemitism, the one being good and the other not good but the papal newspaper Civiltà Cattolica, attacked the Jews in almost every issue and every article was okayed by the pope’s personal secretary before publication.
Today we have a similar game of playing with names – we have antisemitism and anti-zionism and today we have political parties using these terms to get votes. I can at least see and understand the attitude of muslims in France – why shouldn’t they have the right to a view on the situation?
I read the latest issue of Civiltà Cattolica and it carried a very neutral article about the ‘war’ over in Israel, very neutral – almost too neutral.

Shrunken Genepool
SG
Shrunken Genepool
5 months ago

‘Why shouldn’t they have a right to a view?’ Surely the point is the vantage point. They shouldn’t have a right to such a view within any Western society.

Gorka Sillero
GS
Gorka Sillero
5 months ago

“the attitude of muslims in France – why shouldn’t they have the right to a view on the situation?”

it’d be grand if that view didn’t almost always consist in murdering Jews or blowing up places

David McKee
DM
David McKee
5 months ago

Excellent point, Caradog. Thank you.