What does the rise of Mélenchon mean for French Jews?

The far-left politician has been accused of antisemitism, and now leads the largest party in the French National Assembly


France Unbowed leader Jean-Luc Melenchon speaking to journalists in Paris last week

In a result almost no one anticipated, France has rejected the far-right in favour of the far-left alliance the New Popular Front (NPF), put together over the past week to fight Sunday’s second round of assembly elections.

Led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has a long history of accusations of antisemitism and is said to be pro-Putin, the NPF’s surprise victory has understandably concerned French Jews.

Rabbi Moshe Sebbag, from the Grand Synagogue of Paris, went as far as to tell the Times of Israel that “it seems France has no future for Jews,” and advised young Jews to leave for Israel.

Mélenchon, who leads the far-left party La France Insoumise (LFI), has been accused of underplaying antisemitism, dog whistling, and playing into antisemitic stereotypes, over his long career in politics – all of which he denies.

A spokesperson from the European Jewish Congress (EJC) told the JC that LFI’s success “is a serious cause for concern due to Mélenchon’s repeated antisemitic statements and targeting of French Jewish organisations”. They continued: “The decision of other left-wing parties to align with the LFI in these elections represents an abandonment of French Jews at a time when they are increasingly threatened by the far-left in the public sphere”.

The socialist politician has repeatedly underplayed antisemitism in both his party and across France. In June 2020, Mélenchon dismissed reports of chants of “Dirty Jews” at a left-wing demonstration in Paris. He alleged the reports were fabricated by police, who he accused of “peddling gossip about antisemitism”.

As antisemitic incidents surged post-October 7 – with four times as many reports of antisemitism in 2023 compared to the year before – Mélenchon continued to deny there was a problem. In a blog post published last month, he asserted that antisemitism was “absent” from anti-Israel rallies in France.

Since October 7, the far-left leader has repeatedly refused to condemn Hamas. LFI’s initial statement on the terror attacks called them an “armed offensive by Palestinian forces” that came “in the context of the intensification by Israel of the policy of occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem”. Mélenchon doubled down in response to a backlash, failing to condemn his deputy Daniele Obono, who called Hamas a “resistance movement”.

The left under Mélenchon has focused on the Palestinian cause. In his concluding speech in the first round of elections, the leader stood next to Rima Hassan, a prominent figure in LFI. A French-Palestinian lawyer, Hassan has called the October 7 attacks a “legitimate action”.

Mélenchon has also been accused of playing into antisemitic stereotypes. In an interview on a French news channel in 2020, he accused Jews of being responsible for the death of Jesus. During a discussion about protests in France, Melechon said the police needed to “stay put like Jesus on the cross without reacting.” He added: “I don’t know if Jesus was on a cross, but he was apparently put there by his own people”.

The Wiesenthal Centre director for International Relations, Dr. Shimon Samuels, condemned this at the time, saying ““the repeated accusation of deicide – throughout the Middle Ages – resulted in pogroms, torture and execution of Jewish communities. Its imagery fuelled violence across Europe, culminating in the Nazi Holocaust.” He called on Mélechon to withdraw his comments and apologise, which he did not do.

Mélenchon has also repeatedly criticised the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF), accusing them in 2017 of using antisemitism as a “stun weapon”. In 2014, he described CRIF, an umbrella group for national Jewish organisations, as one of “those aggressive communities that lecture the country,” playing into antisemitic stereotypes.

Mélenchon also targeted CRIF following Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral defeat in 2019. Mélenchon said that the Chief Rabbi in the UK and “pro-Likud networks” had orchestrated a campaign against Corbyn, who he accused of “showing weakness”. “Unlike Corbyn,” the politician said, he would not give in to Jewish groups, especially “the arrogant and sectarian dictates of CRIF”.

In 2021, Mélenchon was criticised for “sinking into antisemitism” once again, after he said Judaism was a tradition that did not evolve. Discussing the politics of the far-right politician Eric Zemmour, who is Jewish, Mélenchon connected Jewish identity with right-wing politics. “Mr. Zemmour cannot be antisemitic because he reproduces many cultural themes: ‘We do not change tradition, we do not evolve, creolization, my god, what a horror,'” Mélenchon said.

In the second round of the French elections yesterday, the French public were asked to choose between the far-right National Rally, the left-allied NPF, and Macron’s centrist party, Ensemble.

With Ensemble stepping down in seats across the country, many French Jews felt caught between two extremes, both of which have been accused of antisemitism.

Some Jews felt that, facing a choice between the National Rally and the New Popular Front, Le Pen’s far-right party would even be the better option. Most notably, Serge Klarsfeld, a Holocaust survivor, Nazi hunter and political activist, encouraged Jews to vote for the NR. “I would have no hesitation,” he said on French radio. “I would vote for the National Rally”.

Many Jews, though, felt the National Rally was still toxic. The party’s founders include Jean-Marie Le Pen – who has been convicted multiple times of hate speech and Holocaust denial – and Pierre Bousequet, who served in the Waffen-SS under the Nazis. Candidates this election have also been accused of antisemitism.

As it stands, no single party – the New Popular Front, the National Rally, nor Ensemble – can form a majority. The NPF, with 182 seats, is still short of the 289 needed for a majority.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive