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How a march against antisemitism became a headache for Macron

How a march against antisemitism became a headache for Macron

by host

PARIS — The march against antisemitism planned for Sunday in the French capital was meant to mark unity in the face of a surge of antisemitic offenses in France. But instead it has spotlighted political divisions and turned into a quandary for President Emmanuel Macron.

After several days of hesitation, Macron said on Saturday that he would not be joining the rally but would be there “in heart and in spirit.”

“I’ve never been to a protest on any topic,” Macron said on the sidelines of Remembrance Day commemorations. “My role … is to take decisions, say the right words when needed and act.”

The French president had been under pressure to join the cross-party demonstration against antisemitism, and press reports indicated he was considering attending. But for Macron, that would have meant walking in the same crowd as far-right leader Marine Le Pen and National Rally President Jordan Bardella, both of whom have confirmed they would attend Sunday’s march.

The demonstration was initiated by the speakers of the two chambers of the French parliament, Yaël Braun-Pivet and Gérald Larcher, as a way to show support for the French Republic and to condemn antisemitism.

Macron’s decision not to attend has drawn criticism from opposition figures and rights groups. At Saturday’s commemorations, the great-grand-daughter of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer who was wrongly accused of spying in a notorious case that tore the country apart in the 1890s, told Macron she was “a bit disappointed” he wasn’t showing up.

France is home to the largest Jewish community and one of the largest Muslim communities in Europe and French authorities have been at pains to prevent Israel’s war against Hamas from stoking divisions at home. The French interior ministry has recorded over 1,100 antisemitic offenses in the past month, more than double the number recorded over the past year.

Figures from across the political spectrum, such as Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, the head of the conservative Les Républicains Eric Ciotti, as well as former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, will be putting in an appearance on Sunday.

The march has become a logistical nightmare, with the government spokesperson Olivier Véran saying on Wednesday that the National Rally “had no place in the rally” on Sunday, and left-wing parties calling for a “cordon républicain,” a symbolic barrier separating them from far-right groups.

Antisemitism litmus test

Initially, calling for a march against antisemitism looked like a good move, and a unified way of showing support for France’s anxious Jewish community.

“Fear is gripping us and risks becoming normal if we don’t react,” Larcher and Braun-Pivet wrote in a joint appeal this week. “A wake-up call is needed to clearly show that France doesn’t accept antisemitism and that [France] will never resign itself to the inevitability of hatreds.”

Tactically, the call also puts the far-left France Unbowed party on the spot just as it faces accusations of complacency toward antisemitism after it refused to condemn the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel. Far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon showed no qualms in slamming the march and labeling it the reunion of “the friends of unconditional support of massacres” with reference to Palestinian civilian deaths in Israel’s retaliation against Hamas.

But the move inadvertently put pressure on the French president. Parallels were drawn in the press between Macron and former President François Mitterrand who joined a street rally against antisemitism after a Jewish cemetery was desecrated by neo-Nazis in 1990.

Participating in Sunday’s rally also would have meant Macron would be walking in the same crowd as MPs from the National Rally, at a time when Marine Le Pen is desperately seeking to make her party more mainstream. Macron has also worked hard to appear above the fray of daily politics, in his self-styled “Jupiterian” fashion. Taking part in a street protest doesn’t quite fit that picture.

Luckily for Macron’s Renaissance party, the march has also turned into headache for the far right. With the focus on the threat of antisemitism, the media attention has pivoted to the National Rally’s past, formerly the National Front. Far-right MPs have been grilled repeatedly on whether the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was antisemitic.

After initially denying Jean-Marie Le Pen — who infamously said World War II gas chambers were “a detail” of history — was antisemitic, the National Rally’s Bardella rowed back this week and said Le Pen “was ensnared in a [type of] antisemitism.”

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