November 14, 2023 - 10:45am


Watching members of a political party steeped in Holocaust denial and Third Reich nostalgia marching against antisemitism was hard to stomach for Rémy.

The 22-year-old student swore loudly and tried to challenge Marine Le Pen, of the Rassemblement National (RN), who was surrounded by giant bodyguards at Les Invalides in Paris. 

“I’d like to tell her to go home, and to stop pretending she’s a friend of the Jews,” Rémy, who was among a group of demonstrators involved in brief scuffles with the police at Sunday’s Great March Against Antisemitism, told me. 

The show of solidarity was organised to support a community suffering escalating abuse during the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict. Some 1,159 antisemitic acts were recorded in France following the 7 October attacks on Israel — triple the figure for the whole of 2022, according to Interior Ministry figures.

The march attracted more than 100,000 people, though French President Emmanuel Macron wasn’t one of them. His absence provoked anger, with even Yaël Perl-Ruiz — the great-granddaughter of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish soldier whose conviction for high treason under false pretences in 1894 exposed rampant antisemitism in France — criticising him.

Like many others, Perl-Ruiz was concerned by Macron’s increasing criticism of Israel, as it continues a war that has already claimed thousands of civilian lives. Last Friday, the President told the BBC: “These babies, these ladies, these old people are bombed and killed. There is no reason for that and no legitimacy. We urge Israel to stop.”

All this adds up to an intensely complicated situation, and indeed a conflicted one, for France’s estimated 500,000 Jews — the largest community of its kind outside Israel and the US.

Their march followed another one in Paris on Saturday, when mainly pro-Palestinians rallied, saying they would not attend the Great March. Such dissenters included Muslims, Christians, Jews, and those of no faith who were mainly from France’s far-Left — supporters of the France Unbowed movement (La France Insoumise, or LFI). 

They refused to walk with the RN because of its antisemitic antecedents: Waffen SS veterans were among its hierarchy when it was founded as the Front National in 1972. Its founder and longest-serving leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is a convicted antisemite who has contested Nazi crimes against humanity, including the gassing of Jews, on numerous occasions.

In turn commentators including Éric Zemmour, the 2022 presidential election candidate who also has criminal convictions for racial hate speech, claim that LFI has formed a cynical Islamo-gauchistes (Islam-Leftist) union which sees the Left looking after Muslim interests in return for votes at election time. It is suggested that this alliance is by definition antisemitic, because of its overwhelming support for Palestine. 

Attacks on Jews certainly intensified in the 1970s and 1980s, when so-called “super terrorists” such as Carlos the Jackal and Abu Nidal claimed to be fighting for Palestinian freedom. As now, the fear was that Middle East horrors were being imported into France. 

Toulouse-born murderer Mohammed Merah cited the killing “of our brothers and sisters in Palestine” as a motive for slaughtering Jews in 2012, when he also targeted Muslim soldiers for fighting with the French Army in Afghanistan.

Many French Muslims have backgrounds in former colonies such as Algeria, where the experience of conquest and war was every bit as bloody as what is going on in the Middle East today. In this sense they naturally share an affinity with Palestinian Arab Muslims, but to suggest that Muslims are responsible for a new wave of antisemitism in France is far too simplistic. Such a theory relies heavily on the deep prejudices of polemicists such as Zemmour, who believes that Islam is incompatible with modern France. 

In fact, mass Muslim immigration to France started at the end of World War II, when a workforce was needed to rebuild the country’s shattered infrastructure. Many of these labourers from North Africa ended up on public housing estates, living alongside working-class Jews. Both communities share similar problems to this day, including widespread discrimination and intolerance of traditional religious expression in a fiercely secular republic. 

As a result, Jews and Muslims became hugely fearful of parties such as the RN and the manner in which they have now become mainstream. Le Pen was runner-up to Macron in the last two presidential elections, and certainly considers herself respectable enough to finally move into the Élysée Palace.

As Élisabeth Borne, Macron’s Prime Minister and the daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, put it: “I have never heard Marine Le Pen denounce the historical positions of her party, and I think that a change of name does not change the ideas, the roots.”

Le Pen may think that her appearance at the Great March against antisemitism will help with the RN’s ongoing rehabilitation, but it is not only French Jews who think otherwise.

Peter Allen is a journalist and author based in Paris.