The alleged rape last weekend of a 12-year-old Jewish girl by boys who hurled antisemitic abuse at her has ignited simmering tensions in France over attitudes toward the largest Jewish community in Western Europe.

President Emmanuel Macron, a centrist whose decision to call snap elections this month shocked even his closest allies, responded by denouncing the “scourge of antisemitism” in French schools. The prime minister, Gabriel Attal, urged politicians to “refuse the banalization” of hatred toward Jews, a thinly veiled attack on Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the ardently pro-Palestinian leader of the left who on June 2 called antisemitism in France “residual.”

There were more than 360 antisemitic episodes in France in the first three months of this year, or an average of four a day, an increase of 300 percent over the same period last year, the government said. In the most recent one that shocked the country, the three boys are said to have dragged the girl into an abandoned building where she was repeatedly raped and insulted.

The three boys, ages 12 and 13, one of them previously known to the girl, are being investigated for rape, death threats and insults “aggravated by their link to the victim’s religion,” a prosecutor’s statement on Wednesday said. Two of them have been placed in pretrial detention, it added.

The place of Jews in French society has emerged as a prominent theme in the election because the once-antisemitic National Rally party of Marine Le Pen, whose anti-immigrant position lies at the core of its fast-growing popularity, has been one of the most emphatic supporters of Israel and French Jews since the Hamas-led terrorist attack of Oct. 7 on Israel.

Mr. Mélenchon’s France Unbowed, by contrast, has been vehement in its denunciation of Israel’s military operation in Gaza as “genocide.”

This denunciation has often appeared to stray into outright antisemitism, as when Mr. Mélenchon accused Yaël Braun-Pivet, the Jewish president of the National Assembly, of “camping out in Tel Aviv to encourage the massacre,” and described Élisabeth Borne, the former French prime minister and daughter of a Holocaust survivor, as expressing “a foreign point of view.”

Mr. Mélenchon said on Wednesday he was “horrified by this rape in Courbevoie,” the northwestern Paris suburb where the prosecutor said it took place.

The confrontation of an abruptly pro-Israeli National Rally, whose antisemitic founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, described the Holocaust as “a detail” of history, with a far left that Mr. Macron described last week as “guilty of antisemitism” has confronted French Jews and others with an agonizing choice.

Can they really bring themselves to vote for Ms. Le Pen’s party, given its history of antisemitism and its xenophobic determination to seek a ban on the public use of the Muslim head scarf if elected, out of loathing for Mr. Mélenchon’s France Unbowed?

In many constituencies, the standoff in the second round of voting on July 7 will most likely be between the two extreme parties. A lot of previously centrist voters are tired of Mr. Macron and do not want to vote for him again.

Serge Klarsfeld, the renowned Nazi hunter and a prominent French Jew, said this week he had made up his mind if he were forced to choose between the two. “The National Rally supports the Jews, supports the State of Israel, and it’s quite normal given the activity I’ve had over the past 60 years, that between an antisemitic party and a pro-Jewish party, I’ll vote for the pro-Jewish one,” he told LCI television in an interview.

Others did not find this “normal.” In 2022, Mr. Klarsfeld co-signed an article in the Libération newspaper headlined “No to Le Pen, daughter of racism and antisemitism.” This is one measure of the distance traveled by the National Rally in two years, as the party stands on the brink of a possible victory that could hand it the prime minister’s position.

An article in the daily Le Monde on Thursday by Michèle Cohen-Halimi, an academic; Francis Cohen, an author; and Leopold von Verschuer, a movie director, was headlined: “Serge Klarsfeld short-circuits history to turn it upside-down.” It called his “unexpected legitimization of the National Rally” a betrayal of the victims of the Nazis, whose terrible fates his research had brought to light.

Alain Finkielkraut, one of France’s most prominent public intellectuals and a member of the august Académie Française, wrote in the weekly Le Point of his own personal “nightmare,” faced by a near-impossible choice.

He argued that the campaign of France Unbowed had been based on “hatred of Israel” and cited Aymeric Caron, a lawmaker who is a member of the New Popular Front coalition that left-wing parties have formed, as suggesting Jews were inhuman.

On May 27, Mr. Caron said on the social platform X, “It is evident that Gaza has shown that, no, we do not belong to the same human species.” He was referring to supporters of the Israeli military campaign in Gaza.

Voting for the National Rally to form a bulwark against antisemitism had long been unimaginable to him, Mr. Finkielkraut wrote. “I am not there yet, but perhaps I will be obliged to at some point if there is no alternative. This would be a nightmare. The current situation is a heartbreak for French Jews.”

The National Rally participated in a large demonstration against antisemitism in Paris in November. Mr. Macron did not. Nor did Mr. Mélenchon, who said of it that “the friends of unconditional support of the massacre have their rendezvous.”

The erosion of the center in French politics, represented by Mr. Macron, whose Renaissance party was trounced by the National Rally in the European Parliament election on June 9, is advanced. It seems entirely plausible that the National Rally and the New Popular Front will emerge as the two largest forces in Parliament on July 7.

Major French Jewish organizations, representing many of the estimated 450,000 Jews in France, have declined to embrace the abrupt pro-Jewish sentiment of Ms. Le Pen and her young protégé, Jordan Bardella.

“There are alternatives to this opposition between an antisemitic left and a nationalist, populist far right,” Yonathan Arfi, the president of CRIF, an umbrella organization representing French Jews, told France Inter radio on Thursday.

“We know from Jewish history what populism can cost; we know that it has never been a bulwark against antisemitism, whatever the leaders of the National Rally say today,” Mr. Arfi added.

Raphaël Glucksmann, the moderate socialist who led a successful campaign in the European Parliament election and then joined the New Popular Front, angering many of his supporters who detest Mr. Mélenchon, said of the recent attack that “the expression of stupor, compassion and disgust are not enough.”

He added that “the explosion of antisemitic words, acts and violence since Oct. 7 must be a collective wake-up call.”

The National Rally’s purging of its antisemitism appears to be a work in progress. The party this week had to withdraw its support for Joseph Martin, previously its candidate in a constituency in Brittany, France, after Libération revealed that he had made a statement on social media in 2018 that said, “Gas did justice to the victims of the Holocaust.”

Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting.



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