PARIS (JTA) – French Jews may have voted en masse for Emmanuel Macron in the final round of France’s presidential elections, but that doesn’t make him their dream president.
Like many other supporters of the 39-year-old former investment banker, who on Sunday became the youngest French president in recent history, Jews voted for Macron mainly to block his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen. The centrist won with 65 per cent of the vote to 34 per cent for Le Pen.
Leaders of French Jewry said they were relieved and even “happy” to see Macron elected – but the honeymoon may be short lived.
A self-declared progressive with a foreign policy rooted in human rights, Macron even during the campaign demonstrated that like his Socialist predecessor, François Hollande, he is willing to clash over Israel and Islamism with the conservative and pro-Israel mainstream of French Jewry.
To be sure, the youthful-looking Macron has charmed many voters, Jews and otherwise, on his own merits. He is known for an energetic oratory style, a profound understanding of finance and a passion for inter-European co-operation, and he promises to heal France’s deeply divided society by building a post-partisan consensus based on tolerance.
His good looks, coupled with his apparent devotion to his wife – his former high school teacher, who is 24 years his senior – have endeared him to women especially, according to Elle.
Yet in a town hall meeting on March 22 with hundreds of Jewish voters Macron, an independent politician who had served for two years as Hollande’s industry minister, showed why he and the Jewish mainstream may be on a collision course over Israel and Muslim extremism.
For the first 90 minutes of the meeting, sponsored by the the CRIF Jewish federation, Macron discussed his economic vision lucidly and in great detail. Juggling data and well-chosen anecdotes, he was clearly in his element as he explained his support for free-market labor reforms, greater co-operation with Germany and no new taxes on corporations’ revenue-producing capital.
But then he turned to foreign policy – a weaker subject for the wunderkind who became the first candidate in decades to win a presidential election in France without the support of its main political parties.
“My policy is to continue the current line of French diplomacy,” Macron told the crowd of 700.
To his evident surprise, the promise of continuity did not sit well with his listeners, whose hisses and booing forced him to pause.
“Oh, no?” he mumbled in surprise when the booing started. “Perhaps it’s not your policy, but it is mine,” he said in the unapologetic style that helped him through debates with more seasoned speakers, including former prime minister François Fillon of The Republicans and the fiery far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Macron’s attempts to appease the audience by proclaiming his attachment to Israel’s security “as well as to the two-state solution” did not seem to have a particularly mollifying effect.
Apparently unwittingly, he touched one of the raw nerves of French Jewry under Hollande, who has led a firm line – and according to some critics at times even a hostile one – on Israel.
Leaders of French Jewry were especially angry when France voted last year in favor of at least two resolutions by UNESCO, the cultural body of the United Nations, which ignored Judaism’s attachment to Jerusalem. Unusually, the country’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Haim Korsia, issued a written condemnation of the votes.
CRIF condemned France’s failed bid earlier this year to stage a Middle East peace conference in Paris without Israel’s support. Hollande said France was organizing the conference out of a commitment to peace and as a “friend of Israel,” but CRIF President Francis Kalifat clearly had his doubts.
“Some pretend to be Israel’s friend, but there is no such thing as friendship: There are proofs of friendship,” Kalifat said at a protest rally in January against the summit in front of Israel’s embassy in Paris.
Israel’s refusal to attend the conference ultimately led the Palestinians to pull out. CRIF called the ensuing summit a “grotesque” event in light of international inaction on the wholesale slaughter of civilians in Syria.
French Jewry’s mainstream also objected to France’s leading role within the European Union in singling out Israeli West Bank settlements and their products, and to Socialist Party lawmakers who supported a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood.
During the town hall meeting, Macron said that like Hollande, he would recognize a Palestinian state only after a negotiated settlement agreed upon by Israel and the Palestinians.
Then there are fears that Macron’s tolerance-driven agenda is too accommodating to Muslim fundamentalists. Many French Jews perceive Islamism as the main threat facing their communities following a string of deadly jihadist attacks on Jewish and non-Jewish targets.
In Macron’s official platform, he speaks of “fighting with determination against all radical streams that distort the values” of Islam. But whereas Le Pen and the right-of-centre Fillon proposed concrete punitive steps, including revoking the French nationality of radicals and deporting them, Macron has remained vague, proposing to conduct the fight by “helping French Muslims to achieve the [restructuring] of their institutions.”
Sensing he was losing the audience’s affection, Macron told the CRIF crowd, “Hang on, I can return to the UNESCO vote, which is a different matter.” He added: “It’s a mistake and I condemn it.” But Macron also insisted that the UNESCO vote was a technical glitch, provoking more dismissive boos and laughter from dozens of listeners and an intervention by Kalifat.
“Yes, but there were two votes, Mr. Macron,” Kalifat said. “They were definitely not unintentional.”
Macron also infuriated prominent members of the French Jewish community when he visited a Holocaust monument during the last stretch of the campaign. Although the visit was meant to draw a contrast with the Holocaust denial roots of Le Pen’s party, the prominent French-Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut said Macron’s actions turned the genocide into a “campaign argument.”
Regardless of their differences, Macron is nonetheless someone French Jews can respect, according to Philippe Karsenty, a French Jewish politician and pro-Israel activist who supported Fillon in the first round but switched to Macron against Le Pen.
“I disagree with him on many issue – Israel, his vision of French history,” Karsenty told JTA. “I think he’s too naive, like former U.S. president Barack Obama or Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But his background is in banking, in business. He’s accomplished. And he understands the power of compromise.”