Opinion

The Choice for France's Jewish Voters Is Between Bad and Worst

For most French Jews, Marine Le Pen is unthinkable as president. But the arch-conservative alternative, Francois Fillon, accuses Jews of putting their community and religion above the French nation.

Marine Le Pen and Francois Fillon.
Michel Spingler / AP, Joel Saget / AFP

Even considering the momentum with which he went into the race, Francois Fillon’s landslide victory over Alain Juppé in the second round of the French right’s presidential primary was astonishing. Save for Juppé’s home turf around Bordeaux and a handful of French overseas territories, Fillon brushed his rival aside, winning 66.5 percent of the vote.

What we know of Fillon’s ideology is enough to place him firmly on the right of French politics. He believes in the power of the free market and the need to cut taxes on business, deregulate the labor market, and shrink the size of the public sector. He is a Gaullist who envisages distance from Washington and détente with Moscow – music to Vladimir Putin’s ears. He has reactionary Catholic views on social issues including abortion, same-sex marriage, adoption rights for gay couples, and multiculturalism.

Fillon as president doesn’t exactly portend good things for French Jews, either. In 2012 he said religious slaughter like shechita was outdated and out of line with "republican traditions." During the recent primary campaign Fillon remarked, "We fought the desire of Jews to live in a community that did not respect all the laws of the French Republic,” essentially accusing Jews of putting their community or religion above the French nation. It was for the rightly chagrined French Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia to remind Fillon that not for lack of will did French Jews struggle with integration, for the anti-Semitic Christian majority weren’t exactly keen on having them around.

Fillon’s victory sets up a tte à tte with the Front National’s Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election in May, for the left is in utter disarray. The Socialist Party is divided between the fantastically unpopular President François Hollande and controversial Prime Minister Manuel Valls. To their right is former Finance Minister Emmanuel Macron, who has broken away to form his own movement, En Marche! To their left is Jean-Luc Mélenchon in alliance with the Communist Party, other factions of the unreconstructed far-left, and the Greens. It’s 2002 redux –right versus far right, with the left on the scrapheap.

People hold up signs during a rally in Jerusalem to show support for the French nation and the Jewish community in France in 2015.
Ronen Zvulun, Reuters

That Fillon won and not Juppé or Nicolas Sarkozy – whose bling-bling presidency and myriad legal battles turned off not only the left but much of the right, too – is, for anti-fascists, supposed to bring comfort rather than concern. Initial polling indicates Fillon has a two-to-one advantage over Le Pen. Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian's Paris correspondent, has argued that “the Front National has reason to fear Fillon” as his policies “all overlap with some of Le Pen’s key ideas.” Denis MacShane, former UK Labour Europe minister under Tony Blair, writes, “There is no doubt that he can beat Marine Le Pen,” whom MacShane believes voters will view to her detriment as a French Donald Trump.

Perhaps, but what if the alternative is true? While they might share similar outlooks on cultural and foreign affairs – hardly cause for celebration in liberal Europe – it is entirely possible for Le Pen to run to Fillon’s left on socio-economic policy and his right on Europe and national security. “It is the worst program of social destruction to have ever existed,” Le Pen said of Fillon’s agenda. Before it was labeled alt-right, this pincer movement used to be called national socialism – a potent brew that history would indicate is popular in dark times.

A supporter holds up a sign during an election campaign meeting for France's presidential candidate Francois Fillon.
Marlene Awaad, Bloomberg

There are other warning signs. Fillon has some unusual traits for a presidential candidate: he didn’t go to one of France’s grandes écoles; his wife is Welsh; and, he’s something of an Anglophile with an affinity for tea and classic cars. The idea, however, that he constitutes an outsider, as he has tried to portray himself, is ludicrous. Someone who served as prime minister under Sarkozy, held multiple cabinet posts during the 1990s and 2000s, and has been a member of the National Assembly on and off since 1981 cannot be anti-establishment. He is the establishment.

Any candidate who runs against Le Pen has to be something of a national unity figure, and Fillon’s ideological foundations hardly make him best placed to be that man. Good luck mobilizing the French left to vote en masse for a candidate who favors the abolition of the 35-hour working week and slashing half a million jobs from the public sector. Even if they turn out for him on the basis that the alternative would be worse – likely the consideration French Jews will make, in the end – once Fillon pursues his economic agenda, one can expect a winter of chaos and discontent as students and the trades unions raise hell. His hardline rhetoric on Islam and immigration hardly appeals to France’s minorities, either.

We shouldn’t breathe a sigh of relief, therefore, for Fillon’s sweeping win. It may bring Le Pen closer to her goal of winning the French presidency. And if Fillon does win, France will still have elected a free market buccaneer and Putinist Catholic reactionary to one of the most powerful posts in Europe. There’s not much to cheer here at all.

Liam Hoare is a writer on politics and literature published in The Forward, The Atlantic, and The Jewish Chronicle.  Follow him on Twitter: @lahoare.