When President Emmanuel Macron called for a new election in the National Assembly—a first round June 30 and a second and final round July 7—no one thought that anti-Semitism would become a central subject of political debate. In principle, what is at stake is the reconstitution, or not, of a parliamentary majority with which Macron might govern. But in fact nothing is happening the way the president expected. Instead of two traditionally opposed camps, one for the president and the other against, we have seen the emergence, in the first round, of three blocs, each somewhat heterogeneous. On the far right, the Rassemblement national (National Rally), led by eternal presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, is now allied with a center-right party, formerly Gaullist. Le Pen advances a conservative program, but one quite distinct from the flamboyantly xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant appeals characteristic of past campaigns of her father and founder of the party, Jean Marie Le Pen. On the left, an alliance of convenience, hastily composed, has come together that includes Communists, Trotskyites, ecologists, and social democrats, under the name New Popular Front, evoking the anti-fascist Left of the 1930s. In the center is a collection of conservative, liberal, and moderate candidates that could form the core of a new presidential majority for Macron. The second round will decide it: probably none of these three blocs will be able to rule alone, compelling Macron to build case-by-case alliances in order to manage domestic and international affairs. All parties agree to support NATO, the European Union, and Ukraine: some are more enthusiastic than others.

On top of all this, however, we find a surprising intruder: a resurgent anti-Semitism. It is true that for a number of years concern has been rising about the return of anti-Semitic language and violence, which we thought had been left behind since 1945. But this new, post-Holocaust anti-Semitism is not the traditional sort. It emanates much more from Arab-Muslim immigrant populations and from leftist intellectuals. Not unlike in the United States, the debate over Palestine has moved into the troubled French suburbs, where it is now aggravated by the fighting in Gaza.

In the present electoral campaign, each political bloc accuses the other of being anti-Semitic, which, in principle, would disqualify a candidate from majority support—or at least strip him or her of all republican legitimacy and legality: French law forbids anti-Semitic public expression. So who is in fact anti-Semitic, and who is not? From the Left’s point of view, anti-Semitism remains, as in the past, a characteristic of the nationalist Right. Le Pen, as seen from the left, is accused of hypocrisy, covering her party under a republican veneer, whereas a number of the party’s candidates have in the past expressed traditionally anti-Semitic views. It is important to remember that this traditional anti-Semitism, originally anchored in the Christian tradition, was revived more than a century ago by conspiratorial accusations, as seen in the Dreyfus affair: French Jews were held to be not quite French, but participants in what was called a “double belonging”—at once Jewish and, secondarily, French. According to this old fashioned anti-Semitism of the Right, the Jews, who made up less than 1 percent of the population, supposedly controlled the media, banking, and who knows what else.

Today, however, we find Le Pen firmly condemning this kind of discourse and showing fervent support for Israel and the French Jewish community, which she believes is under attack from the left. And in fact some on the left, especially its extremes, have adopted explicitly anti-Semitic language as part of an argument both old and new. The old argument, found already in Marx (himself a Jew), is that Judaism is equivalent to capitalism, the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. The extreme Left perpetuates this archaic ideology but adds a new, Palestinian dimension: the Palestinians are the new proletarians, Israelis the new colonialists. This metamorphosis of the Palestinian conflict into a historical epic, superimposed on the French immigrant suburbs, has proved a winning argument with young Arab-Muslims, ready to see themselves as fighters in the battle for decolonization against the Israelis/Jews, colonialists, capitalists—and, we might add, Americans.

The extreme Left insists on a distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. (A few anti-Zionist Jews don’t actually belong on the left but nonetheless contest the existence of the secular Israeli state from the standpoint of their religious fundamentalism.) It would be significant if this distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism were authentic, but the accusations and vocabulary of the “anti-Zionists” match exactly those of the anti-Semites.

As a nonreligious person of Jewish origin, I had never imagined such a return of anti-Semitism in France, whether on the left or the right. It seemed to me that the memory of the Holocaust had immunized public opinion. I was mistaken, having forgotten that two generations had passed, and that the Holocaust was effectively ancient history. Its memory no longer serves as a vaccine against conspiracy theories, now ardently trafficked on social media.

One factor in anti-Semitism’s return are the strange arguments made in the opinion pages of the French press, which try to make a distinction between good and bad anti-Semitism. The bad kind is supposed to be that of the Right, the traditional brand of anti-Semitism, overtly racist. The good kind is supposed to be that of the Left, which demands that Jews become more integrated into the French national community and show less sympathy toward Israel. The only persons not consulted in these controversies are the 500,000 French Jews who feel both French and Jewish—and first of all French, especially because, like the majority of French citizens, they are secular. While they support Israel—not as the Jewish state but as a democracy—they also favor the creation of a Palestinian state. But who listens to Jews concerning the Jewish question?

This eternal Jewish question, while marginal to the larger preoccupations of the French, may play a role in the final result on July 7. Various polls show that many French voters, Jews and non-Jews, will not vote for the anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist candidates of the extreme Left. Some prominent Jewish public intellectuals have declared that in a contest between a non-anti-Semitic far-right candidate and a leftist anti-Zionist challenger, they will cast their vote for the far-right candidate in spite of the National Rally’s dark past. The extreme Left is thus playing with fire in search of votes among the French of Arab-Muslim origin, but this effort will probably end any hope the broader Left has of regaining power. Le Pen has done a much better job of clearing out the old racist and anti-Semitic dross in her party. She will benefit from this clean-up and from her support of Israel, in which the great majority of the French join her. She may not be sincere, but in politics what you say is what you are.

I would have preferred never to have written this column. I thought that being a Jew in France was no longer noteworthy, and that the question of anti-Semitism was no longer relevant. This was my illusion.

Photo by MAGALI COHEN/Hans Lucas/AFP via Getty Images


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