As French Presidency Race Heats Up, the Country Grapples with New Anti-Semitic Attack - The Jewish Voice
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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

As French Presidency Race Heats Up, the Country Grapples with New Anti-Semitic Attack

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Edited by: Fern Sidman

In the midst of a presidential campaign France finds itself grappling with the issues of anti-Semitism and racism as the nation negotiates a an already close race.

The AP reported that France’s presidential race involves one frontrunner, centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron, and eleven challengers from the far left to the far right. The two top candidates in Sunday’s first round qualify for the April 24 runoff.

Besides Macron, 44, who is the centrist incumbent and head of the Republic on the Move party, his challengers include Marine Le Pen 53, far-right head of the National Rally party, Jean-Luc Melenchon, 70, a far-left candidate, Eric Zemmour, 63, a far-right former TV pundit who has been repeatedly convicted of hate speech, and Valerie Pecresse, 54, a candidate of the conservative Republicans party.

In February, it was reported that a Jewish man living in a northern suburb of Paris named Jeremy Cohen, 31 died after being hit by a tram, however, the New York Times has reported that a video has surfaced on social media showing Cohen running away from a group of young men who were beating him when he crossed the tram tracks and ultimately was killed.

The Times report indicates that Cohen was identified by prosecutors and suspicions were raised that the attack on Cohen may have been motivated by anti-Semitism. France has always been thought of as a country with deep seated hatred of Jews as was manifested in several gruesome and deadly attacks over the last number of years.

Prior to Macron’s election in 2017, a 65-year old Jewish woman, Sarah Halimi was thrown out of her window by a man who illegally entered her apartment and was under the influence of cannabis. The Times reported that it took until 2021 for France’s highest court to rule that the man couldn’t stand trial for her death because “it determined he was in a state of acute mental delirium brought on by his drug consumption, prompting widespread outrage.” The Times also reported that Macron himself had called for a trial in the case, which is emblematic of the Jewish community’s frustration with France’s legal system.

In February of 2019, the AP reported that among the anti-Semitic attacks and vandalisms reported in France included the portraits of a Holocaust survivor that were stained with swastikas, the vandalization of a memorial in honor of a Jewish man named Ilan Halimi who was tortured and murdered, the spray painting of the German word “Juden” on the front window of a bagel shop

France is home to the world’s largest Jewish population outside Israel and the United States.

The AP also reported in 2019 that according to French authorities, registered incidents of anti-Semitism rose to 541 in that year from 311 in 2017, an increase of 74 percent.

Speaking to the AP at the time was France’s Interior Minister Christophe Castaner who said, “Anti-Semitism is spreading like a poison, like a venom.” He made this remark  while attending a ceremony at the memorial of Ilan Halimi who was murdered in 2006.

He added that, “It’s rotting minds, it’s killing.”

In the case of Jeremy Cohen, the Times reported that French prosecutors have initiated an assault and involuntary manslaughter investigation. They claim that thus far there is no evidence of an anti-Semitic motive for the attack but have not ruled it out. The Times also reported that no arrests have been made in the case and the authorities have not yet established why Cohen was attacked.

Those candidates on the far-right of the political spectrum in France have weighed in on the case, the report indicated. Chief among them is Eric Zemmour who has been described as an anti-immigrant pundit. He has been attempting to revive his campaign for the French presidency and as such held a rally at the end of March, The Times reported that he depicted France as a country ridden with crime and vowed that if elected, his first symbolic gesture as president would be to visit with Cohen’s family.

The Jewish community in France have for many years voiced frustration that incidents of clear-cut anti-Semitism and physical assaults on Jews are either ignored or mishandled by France’s legal authorities as well as the media, as was reported by the Times.

In January of 2015, a gunman, Amedy Coulibaly stormed a kosher supermarket in Paris and killed four Jews and took dozens hostage. Coulibaly, 32, a claimed to be acting in the name of the Islamic State (IS) group.

Concerning the Cohen case, Francis Kalifat, the president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France said on Twitter, “I expect the justice system to shed all of the light on his death and to explore all leads, including widening the legal proceedings to include antisemitism, “ as was reported by the Times.

On Monday, Cohen’s father, Gerald told BFMTV that he had contacted Zemmour to assist in expediting the investigation of his son’s death and publicizing it.  Zemmour, who is Jewish was the first to bring national attention to the Cohen case in several Twitter posts on Monday, according to the Times report. He followed up with a scathing opinion article in Valeurs Actuelles, a conservative publication, calling Cohen’s death a “horrendous symptom of the tragedy that our country is experiencing.”

On Tuesday, French President Macron addressed reporters in western France while on a campaign stop about the Cohen case. The Times reported that Macron stated that he sought “full clarity” concerning the death of Cohen but also warned of possible “political manipulations.”

The Times also reported that Macron’s office said that he had asked the justice minister to closely monitor the Cohen case and to keep him “personally informed” about it.

Also weighing in on the case is Marine Le Pen, who had run against Macron in a previous race for the presidency.

She wrote on Twitter that “what was presented as an accident could be an antisemitic murder.” The Times reported that Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate in the presidential election, expressed support for Cohen’s family and asked for “truth and justice.”

That footage of the February 16th assault was filmed at a distance, seemingly by an onlooker in a nearby building. It shows about a dozen young men surrounding Cohen in front of a building entrance on a busy street in Bobigny, a northern suburb of Paris, at around 8 p.m. Several of them appear to push, shove or hit Cohen, who falls to the ground, the Times reported.

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