PARIS For a gathering Sunday night to watch the results of France's presidential election come in, the Shalom radio station and a Jewish weekly organized a cocktail party in Paris’ historical Jewish quarter.
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When centrist Emmanuel Macron’s picture appeared on the screen a handful of people cheered in relief, but when it turned out that Marine Le Pen was closed behind, some booed, even if few in the room were surprised she had qualified for the next round on May 7.
“We’ve avoided the worst,” said Jean-Michel Rosenfeld, a longtime socialist official now in his 80s. “We could have had a Le Pen-Mélenchon confrontation,” he told Haaretz, referring to far-leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. “To avert that outcome I voted for Emmanuel Macron. It’s the first time in 50 years I didn’t vote for a socialist, but it had to be done.”
Many other traditionally socialist voters made the same choice in order to stymie Le Pen.
“Obviously I’m sad she has qualified for the runoff because it shows her ideas are now widely accepted in French society,” said a woman named Céline who declined to give her last name. “The National Front just keeps progressing. When Marine Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie won in 2002 it was considered an accident, but this is no accident. I voted for Macron to block her.”
Still, Céline said she was worried about the future. “Macron has no real party and to give him a majority in parliament do I need to vote for people I don’t even know from a party that doesn’t really exist yet?” she asked. “People on the left are completely lost.”
Jewish-community officials tried to remain optimistic while urging people to vote in the runoff.
“My initial reaction is satisfaction because a republican candidate came in first in this race, but I’m deeply disappointed to see the National Front reach almost 22 percent,” said Francis Kalifat, the head of Jewish umbrella organization Crif.
“Marine Le Pen got an even bigger result than her father. I’m truly worried to see the far right continue to make progress,” he said, adding: “What we need now is to keep people mobilized for the runoff. Le Pen can’t just lose, we need to make her result the lowest possible.”
For years Le Pen has tried to soften her party’s image, but in her campaign she made controversial statements such as vowing to ban the wearing of kippot skullcaps and veils in public places. She has said the French authorities weren’t responsible for their arrests and detentions of Jews during World War II.
Many felt that even if Le Pen loses in the second round, a big showing from the National Front meant the party could now have a greater influence.
“The National Front is now a major political force because it has crossed the 20 percent threshold,” said journalist Ivan Levai. “It’s the first time this has happened, and with this result they’re here to stay. This result will also influence the future of Europe since France is a major political power.”
Many in the Jewish community said they felt the media’s coverage of the campaign was biased.
“They hammered conservative François Fillon with these so-called scandals while letting the other candidates run unscathed,” said Evelyne Gougenheim. “The people in power and the media did everything to put Macron in power. But governing won’t be easy for Macron because about one out of every two voters chose extremist parties, either Le Pen or Mélenchon. ”
Catherine Garson, who moved to Israel amid a wave of anti-Semitic attacks in France, said Fillion “lost but it wasn’t a fair fight.”
“They kept going on and on with these so-called scandals and never really talked about the candidates’ programs,” Garson said. “Nobody talked about how to restore security.”
As she put it, “I’m struck that half the voters chose candidates who want to leave the EU. I think they voted for those extremists because they want change.”
Of course, the big question was whether French voters would now opt for Le Pen because they want to protest or usher in change.
“I believe she has a chance of winning, especially if voters who don’t support Macron don’t turn out and vote,” said Alain Leskawiec.
“This stinks!” said 10-year-old Abigail. “Le Pen has a chance of winning.”
“I hope Macron wins in the runoff,” said her brother Adam.
“Are you afraid of Le Pen?” asked their father.
“No!” the children replied.
“You want to fight her?”
“I don’t like Le Pen but I’d like her to win,” said an 8-year-old girl.
“Why is that? You just said you don’t like her.”
“Because Le Pen wants to ban kippot from all public places,” she said. “And since bad people attack Jews who wear kippot, maybe banning them is the way to stop the violence.”