French Election: Jews, Muslims and Protestants Rally Against Le Pen - but Catholics Stay Put

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French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron on the campaign trail in southern France, May 7, 2017.
French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron on the campaign trail in southern France, May 7, 2017.Credit: Christophe Ena/AP

PARIS – Israel's Independence Day was celebrated later than usual here this year, due to Sunday’s French presidential election. As members of the French Jewish community and Israelis gathered at the Royal Pavilion on Thursday night, everyone had an opinion about the runoff between far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron – including the imam who greeted community leaders as they arrived at the party organized by the Israeli Embassy.

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Imam Hassen Chalghoumi, who knows most active Jewish community members after years of campaigning for closer ties between Muslims and Jews, told Haaretz he's launched a joint initiative with Jewish leaders to “stop the hatred.”

“We’re trying to persuade people to vote for Macron or not vote at all. Each one of us addresses his congregation,” Chalghoumi said, admitting that he's worried about what will happen after the election.

“There could be some sort of revenge against Muslims from far-right groups angered by radicalism and all the terror attacks France has faced. For me, the best way to fight this trend is for all of us to remain united,” Chalghoumi said.

Macron is expected to win Sunday’s election, with recent polls suggesting he could receive some 60 percent of the vote. But Jewish community leaders are refusing to take anything for granted.

“You can never be certain of an election’s result until the last ballot is taken into account,” said Francis Kalifat, the head of Crif – the umbrella organization for Jewish groups in France. “According to the polls, Le Pen is unlikely to win. But if she does, it would be the end of Jewish life in Europe as we know it. Jews won’t be able to wear skullcaps or have ritual slaughterhouses,” he added.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen campaigning in Ennemain, France, May 4, 2017.Credit: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg
Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron talking with supporters as he campaigns in southern France, May 5, 2017.Credit: Christophe Ena/AP

Cautiously optimistic after the first round of voting in April when independent candidate Macron finished first, French minorities have grown increasingly concerned as they have seen Le Pen slowly close the gap (although it still remains at about 20 percentage points).

Kalifat warned against complacency, urging people to cast ballots lest voter apathy let Le Pen in through the back door. And with the French parliamentary election following in June, he also cautioned against Le Pen becoming “the leader of the opposition.”

For the first time ever, Muslim, Protestant and Jewish leaders jointly endorsed a presidential candidate on Thursday, stating that they “openly are calling for a vote in favor of Emmanuel Macron.”

The endorsement was signed by Anouar Kbibech, the head of France’s CFCM Muslim umbrella group, along with Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia and Pastor François Clavairoly, president of the Protestant Federation of France.

But the Catholic Church chose not to join them, with only a few Catholic church officials delivering personal messages against Le Pen instead.

Louis-Marie Coudray, who’s in charge of the Catholic Church’s relations with Jews, defended his community's stance. “First of all, the church cannot tell people who to vote for. That’s what it did in the 20th century – and we were criticized for that at the time,” he said.

However, he admitted there were other, more calculated reasons behind the church’s refusal to join the so-called Republican front against Le Pen. “It’s also true that we don’t want to tear apart Catholic communities already divided over this election. Some protested against Macron when the government he belonged to legalized gay marriage, and some are supporting Le Pen now,” he said.

Up to 88 percent of the French population is Catholic (although that figure includes many lapsed Catholics), and an increasing number have been sliding toward the far right. “They feel abandoned. They don’t trust anyone,” explained Coudray, adding, “They feel their identity has been neglected.”

Even the Jewish community (about 1 percent of the French population) is divided over Sunday’s vote, with many planning to abstain and some even set to vote for Le Pen.

“Some have illusions about what she can achieve, and some think she’ll never apply her program,” said Rabbi Moché Lewin, referring to her proposal to ban all religious symbols. And while most of her fire has been directed toward the Muslim community, in March she said Jewish people “should not wear skullcaps in public.”

Many of those attending the Independence Day cocktail party were sure Macron will be elected Sunday, regardless of whether they personally support him.

“I’m against both of these candidates,” said one attendee, Jackie Chiarcosso. “Macron is shallow and Le Pen has a terrible program. I think we should only vote for candidates we believe in, and I don’t like or trust these people.

“His economic plans will only worsen unemployment. We’ll all be on our knees in no time,” she added.

Some in the Jewish community were angered by Macron’s campaign in the past two weeks, accusing him of cynically using Holocaust commemorations to tackle Le Pen.

“He went to at least three memorials in a week. It’s clearly his way of attacking Le Pen’s far-right profile,” said Chiarcosso, calling him a hypocrite.

Influential Jewish lawyer (and former Crif member) Gilles-William Goldnadel criticized Macron’s campaign in an op-ed this week in French daily Le Figaro (“Mr. Macron, the Holocaust is Not an Electoral Theme”), triggering a controversy.

Some community figures were quick to express their disappointment with Goldnadel’s stance. “Criticism is allowed, naturally, but the timing here – just before the second round of the election – is clearly off,” said Michel Zerbib, news director at French Jewish station Radio J. “This can push people to abstain when we want Macron to beat Le Pen.”

Crif leader Kalifat added that “Gilles-William Goldnadel’s position is anti-Republican. He doesn’t represent anyone but himself.”

“I try to convince my friends to vote for Macron, but it isn’t easy,” said party attendee Gladys Tibi, who divides her time between Paris and Ra’anana.

“People are lost,” she continued. “Some even say they’re tempted to vote for Le Pen to get more security. I think it’s because they’re angry. I tell them, ‘You can’t do that, because you’re Jewish. If you weren’t Jewish, it would be a whole other story.

“I sense the authorities are already changing their attitude toward dual nationals,” she noted. “The other day at the airport, French customs asked us if we had dual citizenship and searched us on the side. I asked them, ‘Has Marine been elected already?’”

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