Home inFocus Europe: Past and Present Collide (Summer 2018) French Jews and the Macron Experiment

French Jews and the Macron Experiment

Michel Gurfinkiel Summer 2018
French anti-terrorist forces confronting radical Islamists involved in the terrorist attacks on Paris in November 2015. (Photo: Frederic Legrand)

On the face of it, France is a happy exception in a collapsing European Union. Last year, Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old centrist and Europhile reformer with little political experience or backing, was unexpectedly elected president. Moreover, he secured one month later an even more stunning victory: La République en Marche (LREM), his hastily improvised political party, garnered 314 seats out of 577 at the National Assembly. Under French constitutional provisions, this is a recipe for a stable and all-powerful “republican monarchy.” Quite a contrast, apparently, with the chaotic politics that bedeviled many other European countries – from Britain to Germany, and from Spain to Italy – in 2016, 2017, and 2018.

But just how real was Macron’s victory? In many respects, he merely won by default. In the presidential election’s first ballot, on April 23, 2017, he received 24 percent of the vote. While this was certainly an achievement for a complete newcomer, three other candidates (the far right’s Marine Le Pen, the conservative François Fillon, and the hard left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon) reached almost similar levels, a bit over or under 20 percent. What helped Macron in the second and decisive ballot on May 7, in which he got 66 percent, was that he faced Marine Le Pen, a person about whom most French citizens feel uneasy. A Macron-Fillon duel or a Macron-Mélenchon duel might have led to a different outcome.

Likewise, the main factor in LREM’s parliamentary victory was a 51 percent rate of abstention in the first ballot on June 11, 2017, and a 57 percent rate in the second ballot on June 18. All told, the first presidential ballot’s returns, and the fact that at least 40 percent of the voters supported right-wing or left-wing radicals then, may provide a better clue of long term French political tendencies than the three ensuing electoral returns.

Macron scored some successes during his first year as president. First and foremost, he restored some gravitas to the presidential office – whereas his predecessor, François Hollande, was reviled for his shabbiness. Second, he managed to set up a rather effective cabinet, drawn both from the moderate left and the moderate right, but with a slight advantage to the right (his minister of education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, openly advocates a return to very traditional educational practices and a restoration of the teachers’ authority). Third, he started many long-awaited social and fiscal reforms that run against entrenched privilege, including unions and bureaucratic privilege. Fourth, he quickly established himself as a world leader, or at least, due to Angela Merkel’s eclipse, as the last authoritative spokesman for the European Union.

For the time being, such successes have allowed Macron to consolidate his grip on French politics. The social and economic elites have resolved to give him a chance, rather than to bet again on the classic political class. As a result, both the formerly dominant conservative and socialist parties are withering

The dark side is that true opposition to Macron and LREM now stems from the radicals. France Insoumise (“Indomitable France”), Mélenchon’s hard left party, has engaged in a relentless fight against Macron’s reforms, along with most unions and fringe Trotskyite or anarchist groups: repeated strikes, demonstrations, street violence. While these tactics may not be enough to derail the reforms, they are likely to have an electoral impact in the longer term. As for the far right, it reeled from Marine Le Pen’s defeat in 2017, but then realized that those classic conservative politicians or voters who did not defect to Macron may be interested in a broader New Right coalition. Marine Le Pen may be outflanked in this respect by her very young and very shrewd niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen.

Rising Radical Power

Why are leftwing and rightwing radicals getting so powerful in contemporary France? Essentially, they tackle an issue that the classic political class prefers to ignore: the demographic upheaval known as “Great Replacement,” an expression coined some years ago by a talented if controversial writer, Renaud Camus. Immigration from non-European and non-Judeo-Christian countries, and especially from Muslim countries, has reached such proportions that the gradual replacement of the native populace and culture by a new population and a new culture seems entirely plausible. Leftwing radicals tend to welcome it as a change for the better. Rightwing radicals see it as a cosmic disaster – except for some of them who are ready to strike an alliance with radical Islam in order to topple “plutocratic” and “Jewish” Western democracy.

In the 635-page confession he co-authored in 2016 with journalists Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme, Un président ne devrait pas dire ça (Things A President Should Not Say), former president Hollande admitted, “the French have a problem with Islam, it’s a fact,” and that it might lead to a “partition” of the country.

The French Muslim community is the largest and the fastest growing in Europe. In 50 years, from the late 1960’s to the late 2010’s, the population of the Republic of France (including the overseas territories which are as French as Hawaii and Alaska are American) grew from 50 million to 67 million: a 34 percent increase.  In the meantime, the Muslim population seems to have grown, either naturally or as a result of migration trends, from 1 million or so to 5-6 million at least: that is to say a 500-600 percent increase. As for the ratio of Muslims against the national population, it grew from 2 percent to 7-9 percent.

Muslim Immigration

The real impact of Muslim immigration is even bigger in generational terms: the younger the population, the higher the proportion of Muslims. While less than one-tenth of French citizens were Muslims in the 2010s, proportions were one-fifth regarding French citizens or residents under 24, nationwide, and even higher in some places. A 2015 Ipsos investigation in the greater Marseille area in southern France found that 25.5 percent of the local youths in their mid-teens identified as Muslim. Similar figures were to be found in all other big cities in France, where most of the population lives.

According to a Fondapol survey released in 2014, the proportion of “strictly religious” French Muslims rose from 27 percent in 1994 to 42 percent in 2014. To again quote the survey on Marseilles, 83 percent of the young Muslims describe religion as “something important or very important,” against only 40 percent of the non-Muslims (and 22 percent of the Catholics). Another Ifop survey released in 2016 suggests that 29 percent of French Muslims hold Sharia – Islamic religious law – as more important than the law of the land, and 65 percent condone the Islamic rules of female “modesty” in the public sphere, including hijab or burka, Islamic garb, and burkini, the Edwardian-style all-body bathing suit.

Have these views and attitudes fostered “no go zones” or de facto enclaves in many parts of the country – or terrorism? For years, vigilante Muslim groups have set up illegal “street mosques” or enforced Ramadan observance or female modesty in Muslim-populated neighborhoods. Other militant groups have even made inroads in non-Muslim neighborhoods. Systematic harassment of “immodest” women, either Muslim or non-Muslim, has become commonplace. During the 2018 month of Ramadan (from mid-May to mid-June), dozens of Muslim BDS (boycott, divest and sanction) militants raided supermarkets all over France to impose the removal of Israeli products; there were also instances where similar gangs assaulted shops and supermarkets in order to break bottles of wine or liquor.

Regarding terrorism, it should be stressed that more than 2,000 French Muslims joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in its 2013-2016 heyday, and that French-born jihadists or jihad-inspired thugs killed about 200 people and wounded or maimed 300 people in successive terrorist attacks on French soil: from the murder of soldiers and Jewish teachers and pupils in southern France in March 2012 to the murder of cartoonists and Jewish shoppers in Paris in January 2015; from the killing spree in Paris in November 2015 and Nice in July 2016 to the murder of a 86-years-old Catholic priest during mass a few days later; and from the brutal murder of Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old retired Jewish doctor, in April 2017, to the no less brutal murder of an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, Mireille Knoll, in March 2018.

No wonder that right-wing columnist Eric Zemmour, whose essay “Le Suicide français” (The Suicide of France) sold more than 200,000 copies in 2014, steadily warns of a “coming civil war.” Or that one of France’s premier writers, Michel Houellebecq, sold 350,000 copies of Soumission (Submission), a 2015 novel about the election of a “moderate Islamist” as president of France in the 2020’s. Macron’s explicit gamble is to solve the demographic question and prevent the “war of culture” through a rapid “modernization” of the country. He may also have an agenda within the agenda: rebuilding the government’s authority step-by-step and reestablishing traditional French and Judeo-Christian culture as fully normative.

France’s Jewish Community

French Jews do not feel more comfortable within this context than other European Jews. It may even be argued that they feel less comfortable since, through the second half of the 20th century, they had enjoyed a stunning revival both in demographic and cultural-religious terms.

There were about 300,000 Jews in France in 1945, right after the Holocaust, including some 100,000 thoroughly assimilated or even converted “ex-Jews” who had been rebranded as Jewish by the Nazis and the collaborationist Vichy regime and were desperately trying to make sense of all that. Seventy-five thousand Jews, both French-born and foreign-born, had been rounded up and murdered in Auschwitz from 1942 to 1944. Some 30,000 additional Jews may have perished in various other ways.

In the late 1940’s, tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe came to France, most of them as refugees applying for immigration to Palestine or the United States. Many stayed. More refugees came from the Islamic countries in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, in the wake of civil disturbance, war, independence or revolution: first from Turkey and Egypt, then from Morocco and Tunisia, then from Algeria, and finally from Iran. In 1962, the Jewish population of France had doubled to 600,000, including many who had abandoned their Jewish identity through assimilation or intermarriage. By the mid-1970’s, it was said to reach a peak of 700,000.

Such a critical mass allowed for a sudden burgeoning of Jewish religious and cultural identity: synagogues, kosher food, Jewish day schools, Jewish media, Jewish literature (domestic or translated), community centers. France’s geographical proximity with Israel stimulated family tourism, Zionist tours, an eagerness to learn Hebrew. By the mid-1980’s, there was a general revival of Orthodox Judaism in the country, soon to be followed by a growth of Reform and Masorti (Conservative) Judaism. “Marginal” Jews, who in previous generations tended to intermarry and vanish, were suddenly more likely to “return” to Orthodoxy or to join non-Orthodox congregations. The only shadow in this otherwise rosy landscape was, from 1967 on, the French government’s anti-Israel and pro-Arab policies.

Reborn French Jewry was however on a collision course with the rapidly growing and increasingly assertive Muslim community, whatever the good relations that might exist between individual Jews and Muslims or between the religious or intellectual Jewish and Muslim establishments. Moreover, the unreconstructed anti-Semitism prevalent among many French Muslims helped a hitherto repressed classic non-Muslim anti-Semitism, right and left, to come back with a vengeance. By 2000, news from the so-called Second Intifada ushered widespread anti-Jewish violence. There were similar outbursts after the Lebanon war of 2006 and the Gaza war of 2014. Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, a French-Cameroonian humorist and anti-Semitic agitator, became a popular idol. And most French Jews felt that the government or the news media were more often than not resorting to denial, or even attempting to turn anti-Jewish violence into “inter-communal clashes.”

So much so that the Wandering Jew hit the road again. Thousands left neighborhoods overwhelmed by Muslim radicals or townships ruled by radical left-wing municipalities for predominantly Christian and conservative places, seen as much safer: all in all, 50,000 Jews are said to have moved from some parts of greater Paris to other parts. Then, there was emigration to Israel – Aliyah – another 50,000 at least or more according to some estimations, in only one decade. Finally, many Jews moved to Britain, North America and Australia.

The common factor between these migrations is a lack of trust in the future of France – shared, as a matter of fact, by many Christian or secular French. Another incentive is that once you were raised as a proud and happy Jew, you find it difficult to relapse into a near-Marrano status.

Michel Gurfinkiel is the Founder and President of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, a Shillman/Ginsburg Fellow at Middle East Forum, and editor emeritus of Valeurs Actuelles.