France will return to the polls on May 7 in an election that has the potential to upend European integration as we know it. Voters will choose between the globalist center-left candidate Emmanuel Macron, head of splinter party En Marche, and the extreme right Marine Le Pen of the Front Nationale. The results following the first round of voting have sidelined France’s two establishment parties, the Republicans sitting in the center-right and the Socialist party sitting in the center-left. These two parties have alternated governing France for the past five decades, and fundamentally agree on the essential underpinning of France’s guiding principles. France must now decide what global outlook it wishes to espouse, what kind of political regime it will embrace, and what type of economic models to adopt.
While the candidate’s stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or even Middle East policy at large, were not on the ballot this week, the outcome of May 7 may well have profound effects on the future of France’s involvement and support for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
French Jewish Voter Trends
France’s Jews have historically backed the Socialist party, support that stems from the Jewish rejection of an authoritarian right-wing nationalism that relied heavily on anti-Semitism. The Dreyfus affair publicized this reality, and subsequent 20th century France was populated with numerous staunchly left French Jewish leaders. Bernard Lazare, a left-libertarian who penned the words J’accuse, (which Emile Zola would later make famous), and Leon Blum, a Dreyfusard, who became the Socialist Party’s main theoretician and served three stints as Prime Minister, are but two examples of the prominence of left leaning Jews in French history.
World War II exposed deeper fault lines between France and her Jewish population. Recognized as one of the darkest episodes in modern French history is the 1942 police roundup of over 13,000 Parisian Jews to an indoor cycling stadium in Paris known as Vel d’Hiv. After languishing for days, the families were sent to the transit camp Drancy, and from there to Auschwitz. Marine Le Pen made headlines last week making an alarming claim that France doesn’t bear any responsibility for the episode. This contrasts with socialist leaders’ Jacques Chirac and Francoise Hollande’s public apologies for collaboration between the Nazis and the Vichy regime.
France finds itself in a precarious environment, hosting the largest European populations of both Jews and Muslims—these demographics making it vulnerable to the pressures of inter-ethnic tensions worldwide. The Israeli-Arab conflict succeeded in permeating the borders of France, altering the political landscape for Jewish voters. Throughout the past two decades, France’s Jews have undergone a marked rightward shift, which may be due to the perception that the new locus of anti-Semitism stems not from the right-wing parties, but from France’s large Muslim population, predominately second-generation North-Africans. Following the onset of the second intifada in 2000, anti-Semitic attacks reached their nadir, with 82 percent of racist threats and attacks in France that year being linked to anti-Semitism. Many Israeli and French leaders decried that France’s century-old fight against anti-Semitism was again rearing its ugly head, this time hiding behind the façade of anti-Zionism and anti-Israel sentiment. These clashes pushed France’s Jews to the right, as they saw a friend in former President Nicolas Sarkozy, a center-right politician who gained 45 percent of the Jewish vote when he ran in 2007.
In Sunday’s election, Israelis with dual French citizenship voted predominantly for the right wing candidate Francois Fillon, of the Republicans party. The traditional right is now seen as friendlier to Israel—they understand that radical Islam is a problem, and distance themselves from their opponents on the left who are seen to ‘court’ Muslim voters with promises of multiculturalism. It would be a gross misrepresentation, however, to claim that French Jews let a candidate’s policy towards Israel decide their ballot. While some Jews feel that hostility towards Israel and Jews is actually how many Muslims of North African descent define themselves amidst French society, the Jews of France voted as Frenchmen, with France’s future in mind.
France’s History in the Peace Process:
Despite the voters’ primarily domestic-centered focus, France has a long history of support for Israel, and involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli-French relations began shortly after 1948, when France provided Israel with strategic weaponry, and its first serious combat aircraft, the Mirage III. France looked to Israel as an ally in the fight against Arab nationalism, as France was battling revolutionaries in Algeria, and the two joined forces in 1956 to fight against Egypt in the Suez crisis. The relationship cooled following the 1967 war, when France imposed a temporary arms embargo on Israel, choosing a strategic alliance with the Arabs states over Israel.
In the early 1990s, when in the wake of the 1991 Madrid Conference, French President Francoise Mitterand of the Socialist party hosted Middle Eastern actors in an attempt to shore up support for a regional economic development plan, a strategy that he believed was a crucial component in achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace. Mitterand combined strident support for Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people with a staunch anti-colonialist outlook, believing that the territories conquered in 1967 must be returned to the Palestinians. The Paris Conference ultimately proved futile, yet set the stage for the upcoming success of the Oslo accords.
Mitterand pressed upon the Israelis the importance of engaging in direct negotiations with the PLO, and it is no coincidence that the final leg before the signing of Oslo I accords, , the mutual recognition agreement, was negotiated in Paris. In addition, the Paris Protocol, signed in 1994 and incorporated into the Oslo II agreements, forms the backbone of the prevailing de facto customs union between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Successive French governments have made attempts to reignite the process—in the vacuum left by the 2014 Kerry initiative, France has taken up the mantle, organizing a failed peace conference in January 2017,and repeatedly threatening to recognize a Palestinian state if no progress is made.
Le Pen, Front National
The political lifespan of ideologies can often be determined by those parties who manage to unite disparate groups under one common umbrella; despite the myriad of opposing views, they often share a common enemy. Marine Le Pen’s Front National is a good example, as her supporters consist of an amalgam of groups who on most issues have incompatible views, yet on immigration, the Muslim issue, and terrorism, remain united. This includes anti-European and anti-American Gaullists, working-class whites who live in in the same banlieues as poorer Muslims, conservative Catholics, and extremists, such as Jewish writer Eric Zemmour who proposed deporting all Muslims from France as a justifiable solution to the nation’s woes.
Marine Le Pen has exerted considerable energy to distance herself from the legacy of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded and led the party for forty years before being kicked out in 2011. Notorious for his Holocaust denial and incitement to violence, Marine has made several entreaties to France’s Jews, positioning the party as the only force capable of protecting them from the real enemy, Islamic fundamentalism. While she succeeded in persuading a small niche of Jewish voters, others fear the implications of the National Front’s rhetoric and policy proposals, as she has promised to ban the kippah and other religious symbols from public spaces, as well as forcing dual French-Israeli citizens to choose between their identities.
While the odds seem increasingly stacked against a Front National victory, if elected, it is unlikely that Marine Le Pen will take up the mantle of advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace. Her France-centric rhetoric mirrors that of Trump’s ‘America First’, and the Israeli government has unofficially boycotted the party. During a visit to Israel in January, despite conducting no official visits with government representatives, the secretary general for the Front National Nicolas Bay said in an interview to Haaretz, “we want friendly ties with all countries, and Israel is one of them. If we win, it would be only natural to think that Israel would change its policy toward us.” When asked about prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace, Bay replied that he disapproved of the recent Paris Peace Conference, and that negotiations based on the 1967 lines should take into account the settlements, as a return to the original borders is highly unlikely.
Emmanuel Macron, En Marche
While Israeli leaders approach Le Pen and the Front National with caution, the same does not apply to Emmanuel Macron, who was greeted warmly during his September 2015 as economy minister. Two weeks ago, Macron volunteered his view that unilateral recognition of Palestine would not serve France’s interests, and would only bring instability. He has committed that the key is to recognize two states in the area, with diplomatic work focused on building peace. Despite this levelheaded approach, Macron is unlikely to invest serious political capital so soon after this summer’s failed Paris Peace Summit, which Netanyahu was quick to denounce, claiming the summit was rigged and inherently anti-Israel.
Yet, Macron’s policy marks a shift from the traditional Socialist party platform. Former foreign minister Laurent Fabius issued stark warnings that France would automatically recognize Palestine should Israel not accept the PA demands. The latest foreign minister backtracked significantly on the threat, claiming that France’s only commitment was to resuming the negotiation process. However, support for recognition of a Palestinian state remains a strong desire amongst many parliamentarians in the national assembly, last month 150 co-authored a final plea for President Hollande to officially recognize a Palestinian state: “Mr. President, show yourself up to the challenge and do not miss this rendezvous with history, recognizing the State of Palestine now.”
One of the reasons neither candidate is likely to take any drastic action on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that they will be busy playing coalition politics. The internal fragmentation of France’s political landscape has important implications for the upcoming second round of elections, which promises to pose problems for either candidate elected president. The third round of elections on June 7, where votes for the national assembly are cast, will determine the president’s governing power. Despite both the Republicans and Socialist candidates backing Macron, this support does not ensure that they will stick with this vote in the legislative elections, complicating his chances to receive the needed 289 seats for a governing majority. The same scenario threatens Le Pen and the Front National. It would be the first time in the Fifth Republic’s history that the president would need to form a broad-based coalition.
What this ultimately means is that the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations instigated by a French push is increasingly unlikely in the coming years. If a negotiated peace deal is to be brokered by an outside party, the responsibility will likely fall back onto the shoulders of the U.S. in its traditional role rather than falling upon a distracted and politically fragmented France.