On Saturday, French Jews of New York City voted in their homeland’s presidential election — mostly against Marine Le Pen, the far-right nationalist candidate.
On Sunday, they and the great majority of France’s 500,000 Jews expressed a measure of relief as the centrist candidate, political novice Emmanuel Macron, came in first in the initial round of the national vote. But the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen finished second, forcing a run-off election on May 7, since neither candidate reached the 50 percent threshold.
The National Front has a long association with anti-Semitism and xenophobia, beginning with its founder, LePen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. She has tried to distance herself from that aura, even banishing her father from the party he launched in 1972. But her recent comment, denying the French role in the most infamous round-up of French Jews during World War II — 13,000 men, women and children were arrested by the police during two days in July 1942 — renewed worries that she remains her father’s daughter.
French Jews say they are confident Le Pen will lose, given that politicians from the moderate left and right are rallying around Macron. But there is real concern for the future of French Jewry, no matter who becomes the country’s next president. Together, the extremist parties accounted for about 40 percent of the vote, and anti-Semitism remains a serious issue.
“We have a small sigh of relief — we don’t have the extremists in the final round” of voting, said Simone Rodan Benzaquen, Paris-based director of the American Jewish Committee’s European division.
While Le Pen is leader of a nationalistic party, “she’s certainly not her father, she’s certainly not the party her father founded,” Benzaquen said in a telephone interview, referring to Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Francis Kalifat, president of France’s umbrella CRIF Jewish organization, said most French Jews felt both “satisfaction and concern” after Sunday’s results.
Kalifat, who has called Le Pen a “candidate of hate,” said he was “worried to see National Front making it to the main event of French democracy.”
Le Pen, who succeeded her father as leader of the party in 2011, has run on a platform of slashing immigration, closing “extremist” mosques, imposing limitations on religious freedoms, banning halal and some forms of ritual slaughter, reducing free trade and pulling out of the European Union. She took a leave of absence this week from leadership of the party – it was not clear if her action was temporary or permanent – in an apparent move to disassociate herself from some of National Front’s more strident actions.
French Jews here and in France said in interviews this week that the growing support for Le Pen, who received 21 percent of the vote this week, and the electoral showing of candidates from far-right and far-left parties, casts doubts on the viability of France’s Jewish community. It has been the victim in recent decades of a series of attacks by France’s growing number of Muslims with roots in northern Africa.
The political strength of extremist candidates in France “reflects trends in French society that are disturbing,” said Rabbi Eitan Bendavid, spiritual leader of the West Side Sephardic Synagogue, a congregation where many of the estimated several hundred French Jewish families in New York City are members.
Macron, Rabbi Bendavid said, is viewed by the French Jewish community as “friendly towards Israel and the Jews.”
Macron’s win brought “a combination of relief and anxiety,” said Ari Afilalo, a native of Paris who moved to the United States three decades ago. An associate law professor at Rutgers University, he returns frequently to France to visit relatives there. “We don’t have to pack our bags and leave.”
But French Jews are “frightened … we’re being squeezed” by nationalists and Islamists, both of whom would restrict Jewish rights and endanger Jewish safety, Afilalo said.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin denounced Le Pen this week and urged Israel to avoid “unholy alliances” with parties like hers. Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar has called on French Jews to leave the country if Le Pen becomes president. Afilalo said many are considering that possibility even if Le Pen loses. Some, he said, may move to Canada and Brazil, in addition to Israel and the U.S., where the majority of French Jewish expatriates have settled.
“It’s the No. 1 topic of conversation — all over the place, all the time,” Benzaquen said. People ask each other, “What are you going to do if she wins? Are we going to have to go?”
A mass exodus is unlikely, she said, though aliyah has increased in recent years. The French government has made a concerted effort to protect Jews and combat anti-Semitism. “We’re not so alone anymore.”
Afilalo said he was among several French Jews who walked more than two miles on Saturday to cast absentee ballots at an East Side polling site set up by the French Consulate; the Consulate arranged for Sabbath-observant Jews to vote without writing or violating other Shabbat restrictions.
While some French Jews find appeal in Le Pen’s pledge to reduce Muslim immigration — and likely reduce the source of much anti-Semitism in France — they are uncomfortable with much of her background, Afilalo said. Le Pen has promised to bar religious citizens from wearing head coverings like kippot or hijabs, and to stop French Jews from holding dual-citizenship Israeli passports.
The feeling of many French Jews is that, “It starts with the Muslims — it will end with us,” Afilalo said.
Most French Jews with whom he has spoken told him they voted for candidates other than Le Pen, and will not vote for her in the run-off. A minority, citing Le Pen’s promise to keep Muslims out of France, said they support her, Afilalo said. “Most people who like Trump like her,” he said, noting the appeal of anti-establishment candidates.
While Macron, a former banker who was current President Francois Hollande’s economy minister and formed his own political party a year ago, is considered likely to beat Le Pen on May 7, many French citizens point to Trump’s unpredicted victory over Hillary Clinton last year.
“Nothing is yet certain,” said Benzaquen.