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It's almost sure to be Fillon v Le Pen: an agonising choice for French Jews

    Party with history of Jew-hate: Le Pen
    Party with history of Jew-hate: Le Pen

    French jews face the prospect of an agonising choice in the final round of the presidential election in May - between a de-odorised far right and a mainstream conservative candidate who has made several ambivalent remarks about Jews.

    Voters of the centre-left are also confronting the unpalatable near-certainty of a second round run-off on May 7 between Marine Le Pen and a man who promises to take a Thatcherist axe to the French state.

    In both cases, voters will choose what they see as the lesser of two misfortunes. Even in these pundit-defying political times, it appears highly likely that the next president of France will be François Fillon, 62, who rode a wave of anti-state and bourgeois Catholic anger to a sweeping victory in the centre-right primary last Sunday.

    With President François Hollande's centre-left desperately unpopular and scattered, Mr Fillon seems almost certain to claim the "golden ticket"of a second-round face-off with the Front National leader Ms Le Pen next spring. Those who predict, or fear, that the Trump-Brexit populist wave might sweep Ms Le Pen to power have omitted to consider the odd dynamics of the two-round French voting system.

    If Donald Trump had been running a two-horse race against a mainstream conservative instead of Hillary Clinton, who would have won? Many Democrats would have reached for their clothes pegs and voted anti-Trump. That is the choice which is likely to face centre-left - and Jewish - voters in France next May.

    Claimed that in history, Jews did not obey French law: Fillon
    Claimed that in history, Jews did not obey French law: Fillon

    Many French Jews are wary of Mr Fillon. It would be absurd to portray him as an outright antisemite in the Le Pen pére or Vichy tradition. He appears, however, to share - or be willing to pander to - the "soft" antisemitism of many on the French Catholic, bourgeois centre-right.

    In the days before the second round of a primary that he already seemed certain to win, Mr Fillon enraged mainstream Jewish opinion in France by comparing the aims of radical Islam with the alleged separatism of French Jews in times gone by.

    "In the past, I recall, we had to fight against a form of Catholic fundamentalism and the determination of Jews to live in a community which did not obey all the rules of the French Republic," Mr Fillon said in a radio interview.

    The Chief Rabbi, Haïm Korsia, rang Mr Fillon to protest. Many other French Jews pointed out that this was a calumny - and one frequently heard in the misty ground between the Catholic bourgeois hard right and the Vichy-nostalgic strand of Le Pennism.

    If Jews once lived apart in France, they said, it was because they were deliberately fenced out of many aspects of French society.

    Mr Fillon apologised and said that he had been "misunderstood". He has, however, also made ambivalent remarks in recent months criticising religious festival exemptions for exams given to Jewish and Muslim pupils and describing kosher and sharia food laws as "archaic".

    Some prominent Jews, such as the centrist member of parliament, Meyer Habib, are more concerned about Mr Fillon's pro-Russianism and its apparent influence on his attitudes to the Middle East. Mr Habib has asked Mr Fillon to explain exactly what he meant when he said that France should support the inclusion of Iran and Hizbollah in a pro-Assad and anti-Daesh coalition in Syria.

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