Emmanuel Macron Emmanuel Macron at at the Annual Meeting 2016 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 22, 2016. Photo: Flickr/World Economic Forum.

The French President’s conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism should be seen in the context of the Yellow Vest movement, the crisis of Macronism, and pervasive, state-facilitated Islamophobia, argues Susan Ram

On February 20, 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron used a high-visibility occasion to restate his belief that “anti-Zionism is one of the modern forms of antisemitism.” 

Addressing the annual meeting of CRIF (Conseil Représentatif des Institutions juives de France), the country’s largest Jewish organisation, Macron pledged to institutionalise this conflation across the board, just short of criminalising any criticism of Israel. The French state, he said, would embrace the IHRA definition of antisemitism in its entirety. This would then act as a guide for police forces, magistrates and teachers, alerting them to the antisemitism ‘intrinsic’ to claims (for example) that the state of Israel is a racist endeavour. “Behind the negation of Israel’s existence, what is hiding is the hatred of Jews,” Macron intoned, promising  that his party, La République en Marche (LREM), would shortly introduce a bill in parliament directing social media to crack down on the posting of ‘hate speech’ and use all available means to identify perpetrators “as quickly as possible.”  

At one level, there’s a familiar ring to all this. Back in July, 2017, soon after his inauguration, Macron surprised a visiting Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu with a fulsome rendition of this theme. With ‘Bibi’ installed (controversially) as guest of honour at the ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the round-up of over 13,000 French Jews by the wartime Vichy regime in 1942, Macron was in Churchillian mode. “We will not surrender to anti-Zionism,” he declared. “It is a reincarnation of antisemitism.”

The circumstances in which Macron made this equation, twenty long months ago, differ in important respects from his current situation. Newly arrived in power, to the rapture of neoliberals everywhere, the cocky novice head of state quickly was seeking to project himself as a statesman on the world’s stage, uniquely placed to inject bold, fresh and telegenic energy into the resolution of global conflict. Shortly before Netanyahu’s visit, Donald Trump had come calling, invited to Paris by Macron as guest of honour at France’s supreme public holiday: July 14, the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in 1789. In such a context, ingratiating himself to Netanyahu was of a piece with Macron’s grandiose vision of himself and his mission.

The context for Macron’s latest equation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism — a cardinal tenet of what has become known as the ‘new’ anti-semitism — is very different. Beleaguered on every front, dismally placed in the polls, and confronting the longest running street-centred campaign of resistance and revolt in recent French history, Macron is up against the ‘enemy within’: those very substantial sections of French society that simply refuse to buckle to his agenda. 

What does Macron seek to gain by restating this conflation? 

Firstly, by presenting himself as a fierce defender of the state of Israel, Macron hopes to cement his standing among France’s half million-strong Jewish population, the third largest in the world. Despite the horrors French Jews suffered at the hands of the Vichy state, and the more than 40 years in which the French state refused to acknowledge its crimes, this population seems well integrated and, for the most part, resistant to regular appeals (whether from Netanyahu or his predecessors) to up sticks and resettle in Israel.  

Macron also hopes to tap into widespread outrage at the recent resurgence of antisemitic incidents across the country. A particularly egregious example was the desecration, during the night of February 18-19, of a Jewish cemetery in a village near Strasbourg, in Alsace, during which 96 headstones were spray-painted with swastikas. In Paris, domestic letter boxes decorated with the image of Simone Veil, a much respected former minister and Holocaust survivor who died in 2017, were similarly defaced. A tree planted in honour of Ilan Halimi, a young man of Jewish-Moroccan descent who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by an antisemitic gang in 2006, was hacked down in January, shortly before the anniversary of his death.

The perpetrators of most such outrages almost certainly come from the far right, on the rise in France as elsewhere in Europe. One tombstone in the desecrated Alsace graveyard was daubed with the name “Elsassisches Schwarzen Wolfe” (Black Alsation Wolves), a separatist group with links to neo-Nazis of the 1970s. The timing of the outrage was also significant: the night before mass rallies against antisemitism were held across France, following the release of figures by the Interior Ministry pointing to a 74 per cent rise in acts targeting Jewish people, symbols and buildings in 2018.  

Macron and his ministers have made much of this increase, and its apparent contemporaneousness with the rise of the Yellow Vest movement. Laying the blame for rising antisemitism at the feet of the Gilets Jaunes, or making insinuations to this effect, seems a key element of Macron’s instrumentalisation of the issue. To this end, an incident on the fringes of Act XIV in Paris in which a Yellow Vest berated Alain Finkielkraut, a media-favoured intellectual and stalwart supporter of Israel, as an ‘espèce de sioniste de merde’ (‘a piece of Zionist shit’) who didn’t belong in France swiftly became a new weapon to throw at the movement. The outrage of the French political class knew no bounds; Twitter was aflame with affronted fury. Aided by the media, the episode was expertly manipulated into a crime of movement-wide significance. “Antisemitism is a negation of the Republic, in the same way that attacking elected representatives and institutions is a negation of the Republic,” declared Macron, transforming insinuation into state-decreed ‘fact’. 

Equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism serves a further purpose for the crisis-ridden Macron project: it delegitimises anti-Zionism as a political movement at a time when BDS mobilisation and support for Palestine is on the rise in France. On the left, defending Palestinian rights and calling out the racist character of the Israeli state have attracted swift retribution. In March 2018, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of La France Insoumise, was blocked by organisers from joining a march in homage to Mireille Knoll, a Jewish woman in her eighties who had just been brutally murdered in her Paris apartment. 

Meanwhile, events run their habitual course in what historian Jim Wolfreys has termed the ‘Republic of Islamophobia’. In France, Wolfreys argues, the widening gulf between the mass of voters opposed to neoliberal ‘reform’ and a political mainstream committed to its embrace is sought to be tackled through the weaponisation of social issues such as immigration, religion and national identity. Drawing on still-potent tropes originating in France’s colonial past, a spiral has developed with Islamophobia at its core. 

Viewed in this context, Macron’s conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism represents a further turn of the screw. A dangerous game indeed; Marine le Pen and her allies on the fascist right will be watching carefully.

Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.