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The Jewish Question in French Politics

Former Prime Minister Manuel Valls and rising parliamentary star Benjamin Haddad sit down with Tablet to talk Islamic separatism, anti-Jewish hatred, rebuilding a Republican left, and whether the center can hold

Jeremy Stern
June 02, 2024
This article is part of Tablet in Paris.
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In the first act of Prayer for the French Republic, Joshua Harmon’s 2024 play about a French Jewish family struggling to decide whether to remain in France, the son, Daniel—who wears a kippah in public, despite his mother’s pleading—comes home with his head and face bloodied. “Who did this to him?” his mother cries. “Who do you think?” responds the father.

The audience understands that the assailants are French Muslims or Muslim migrants, though the fact remains unspoken. By the third act, the family decides to leave France for Israel. But in the end, the biggest factor in their painful decision is not the real threat of Islamist violence that began the drama. It is the belabored but entirely hypothetical threat of Marine Le Pen and her right-wing National Rally party winning the next election. The Benhamou family is therefore spurred to question their future in France because of the danger posed by the country’s Muslim immigrant population—and ultimately leaves because the political party that promises to reduce Muslim immigration to France might win. Harmon tips his hand in an unintentionally funny scene, when the family refuses to consider migrating to the United States not because they are French, but because of the still more severe threat to Jewish safety posed by Donald Trump.

No one could mistake Prayer for a French play, given the distinctively American confusion that pervades it. But in the pains it takes to avoid appearing Islamophobic at all costs, seeking refuge instead in the more comfortable threat of right-wing Jew-hatred (remember the Nazis!), it does reflect an intellectual trap that has ensnared the left in France as much as its counterpart in the United States. Which is why when I saw the play on Broadway in January, I thought—as I often have since Oct. 7—of Manuel Valls.

France’s Socialist prime minister from March of 2014 until December 2016, Valls has a legitimate claim to be the man who did more than any other to hold France together during its greatest crisis in half a century. During a spate of anti-Jewish terror incidents in 2014, and the even more deadly equal-opportunity terror wave that followed in 2015-16—including the killings at Charlie Hebdo and the Hypercacher kosher market in Paris, the Bataclan massacre, and the mass murder in Nice on Bastille Day—France was riven by debates over the sources and meaning of Muslim terror, not to mention the basic ability of the state to protect its citizens. Did the conservative Muslim and Islamist networks in France have decisive influence over the killers, or were they all “lone wolves”? Was it a coincidence that the Bataclan was owned by two Jewish brothers, and that Charlie Hebdo was seen as being “Zionist-controlled”? To what extent could Israel’s military actions in Gaza at the time be blamed for the bloodshed in France?

Valls, a member of the Socialist Party since 1980, would have none of it. He not only led a flurry of legislation to expand counterterrorism surveillance and intelligence capabilities, travel restrictions, monitoring, and detention, and emergency measures like house arrests, searches and seizures, and augmented security for Jewish schools, businesses, and synagogues. As cries of Juif, la France n’est pas a toi (“Jew, France is not yours”), “Jews, out of France,” and “the story of the gas chambers is bullshit,” were heard throughout a “Day of Rage” march in Paris, featuring a witch’s ball of tens of thousands of far-right, anti-abortion activists, royalists, and Salafis performing the “quenelle” (a reverse Nazi salute popularized by the antisemitic Iran-backed comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala), Valls also gave a series of sober, nondemagogic, at times Churchillian speeches and interviews tying the security of French Jewry to the survival of the Fifth Republic itself.

“Antisemitism, this old European disease,” Valls said in a speech after the Day of Rage, “has taken a new form. It spreads on the internet, in our popular neighborhoods, with a youth that has lost its points of reference, has no conscience of history, and who hides itself behind a fake anti-Zionism.” “It is legitimate to criticize the policies of Israel. This criticism exists in Israel itself,” Valls elaborated in a later interview. “But this is not what we are talking about in France. This is radical criticism of the very existence of Israel, which is antisemitic. There is an incontestable link between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Behind anti-Zionism is antisemitism.”

“The choice was made by the French Revolution in 1789 to recognize Jews as full citizens,” an impassioned Valls explained. “To understand what the idea of the republic is about, you have to understand the central role played by the emancipation of the Jews. It is a founding principle.”

The former prime minister, who was born in Barcelona, said of the steep rise in the departure of French Jews for Israel during the terror wave that, “If 100,000 French people of Spanish origin were to leave, I would never say that France is not France anymore. But if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.”

After he praised Jacques Chirac for being the first president to officially acknowledge France’s complicity in the Holocaust in 1995 (“He had the courage to free us from ourselves”), Valls was savaged by the National Front (now rebranded “National Rally”) party for what they called his “hatred of France.” His willingness to stand accused of such nonsense—including the charge, made by an ex-minister of foreign affairs, that he was under the control of his Jewish wife—contrasted sharply with then-President and fellow Socialist François Hollande, who sought to avoid the impression of “taking sides” by supporting French Jews too much against their attackers.

After eventually supporting and then falling out with Emmanuel Macron, Valls—a lifelong member of the political left, whose cabinet as prime minister included members of the Radical Party of the Left—has since declared the Socialist Party to be “dead,” and has wandered the political wilderness, including his strange decision in 2019 to stand for mayor of Barcelona in order to prevent the election of a Catalonian separatist. Of late, he’s written a book, Le courage guidait leurs pas (“Courage Guided Their Steps”), about Clemenceau, Louise Michel, Camus, Malraux, Charb (the assassinated caricaturist of Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoons), and others, and occasionally airs his opinions in the outlets whose audiences enjoy hearing from him nowadays—namely, those on the right.

The “I didn’t leave the left, the left left me” man or woman is by now a tired and annoying archetype in America, and often unconvincing. Valls came by his political journey more honestly, in the face of much steeper professional stakes, and in circumstances when the costs of his conviction-laden style of leadership were much higher. Which is why I thought of him, and what he must be thinking, in the days after Oct. 7, when “pro-Palestinian demonstrators” chanted “gas the Jews!” in Sydney, “fuck the Jews!” in London, gave Nazi salutes in Paris, and as American city streets and university campuses erupted in a frenzy of Jew hatred—with the institutional backing of the country’s left, of course.

I spoke with Valls in a suite at the Pavillon de la Reine, a hotel in the fashionable Marais district of Paris formerly known as the Pletzl, where Yiddish-speaking immigrants from the East settled between 1880 and the 1930s. As it turns out, Valls grew up in this neighborhood in a Spanish family with no particular relationship to Judaism or Jews. He arrives in modified former statesman dress: glasses, blue cardigan, and tie. Our translator, Tablet’s critic-at-large and ambivalent Francophile Marco Roth, tells me that Valls speaks in the splendid cadences of the French state.

“My father, who was a painter, was friends with Vladimir Yankelevich, who was a great literary critic and theorist,” he says. “Yankelevich was very perceptive, even in the ’60s, of the link between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. He wrote an important book in ’67 [Le Pardon], which I read when I was young, about how the sort of high-minded anti-Zionism was actually antisemitism. And after I was president of the Young Socialists in France after 1982, I visited Israel many times, and had relationships in the Labor Party and also Mapai. I had a classical understanding of Israeli politics … I deplored the assassination of Rabin and mourned the loss of Shimon Peres to Netanyahu. It was a very typical, socialist Israeli profile.”

Valls, holding the latest edition of ‘Charlie Hebdo,’ leaves the Élysée Palace, Jan. 14, 2015
Valls, holding the latest edition of ‘Charlie Hebdo,’ leaves the Élysée Palace, Jan. 14, 2015

Patrick Kovarik/AFP via Getty Images

Valls’ understanding changed in the 2000s, first with the Second Intifada and then the infamous Durban conference. At the time, Valls was mayor of Évry, a town 30 kilometers south of Paris. “I saw firsthand these antisemitic acts committed by young people who were the children of North African immigrants,” he says. “Broken shop windows, breaking into synagogues and attacks on Shabbat, that sort of thing. And you understood that there was an antisemitic tendency that was starting to emerge from Muslim immigration. And little by little a part of the left, not the whole left, but a part of the left, began to align itself with this tendency.”

His experience in Évry, he says, has influenced his understanding over the last quarter-century of anti-Zionism as a socially sanctioned but poorly veiled form of an ancient hatred. “I decided I would always state this clearly in whatever political role I was in—and with the awareness that should the Jews leave France, this would be a trauma and a profound change for the idea of French civilization … There is a civilizational link between and dependence between Israel and France. These are thoroughly linked, the civilizational idea of France and the civilizational idea of Israel.”

When I ask if he believes there are implications for the peace and security of France if Hamas is not defeated in Gaza, Valls explains that “there are two front lines in Europe. Ukraine is one. And then there is the struggle against Islamism, which is a front that runs through Europe and the world, including of course in the Muslim world. Islamism, Salafism, the Muslim Brotherhood, political Islam, Iran—which are at the same time different from each other but also complementary in that they are all at war with us. They are in a civilizational war with the target of changing the Muslim community in Europe.”

“If we give into Hamas,” he says, now looking past me, “if we fail to bring our support to Israel in this difficult moment, there would be a big breach in Europe. It would be seen as a sign of weakness. This is why the best way of fighting against all kinds of antisemitism is to support Israel. But we must support Israel in its struggle against Islamism, which is the same struggle in a different form that we are waging here. The French were astonished by the resemblance between what happened in the Negev and what happened here at Bataclan.”

“I’ve sadly become fashionable again since October 7th,” he says, “because I’ve always been saying the same things over and over again on Islamism and antisemitism. But by the way, I don’t really like ‘antisemitism’ as a word now, because Jew-hating and Israel-hating are the same thing.”

I mention that the night before, when my Tablet colleagues and I had dinner with Bernard-Henri Lévy and his friends at the Quayside landmark Lapérouse, Salman Rushdie, who happened to be dining in the room next door, popped in to say hello to his comrade Bernard (and to congratulate the rest of us on what looked to him like a large amount of wine that had been drunk). Rushdie, of course, has had a fair amount to say about the uses of the term “Islamophobia.”

“The battle of words, or language, is important,” says Valls. “I am thinking, for example, of what people are trying to impose on us in our understanding of Gaza in order to discredit Israel. ‘The Nazification of Israel.’ ‘Apartheid.’ ‘Colonization,’ a word that comes from the white West and its humiliation of the colonized. And now, of course, ‘genocide,’ which is the word being used to discredit Israel and to put its existence into question. And ‘Islamophobia’ is part of this war of language. I’ve always found Salman Rushdie’s explications of this subject to be enlightening. Including in his most recent book, Knife, which I tore through.”

Valls recounts Rushdie’s explanation of how the term Islamophobia was invented mainly by the Iranian regime to deflect criticism of Islamism and to discredit people like himself, for instance, who are opposed to any kind of totalitarian ideology. He chafes at “the political left that has shown no support for Rushdie or Charlie Hebdo,” which he says is particularly inexcusable on the part of the French—owing to their experience, within living memory, of the Algerian Civil War of the 1980s, when Algerian artists and the country’s intelligentsia were exterminated.

If we give into Hamas, if we fail to bring our support to Israel in this difficult moment, there would be a big breach in Europe.

“France’s good luck is that there are still many intellectuals, both on the right and the left, who refuse to accept this conceptualization and will support Rushdie. People like Bernard-Henri Lévy, [Pascal] Bruckner, Caroline Fourest, politicians like me, and academics here who are fighting against this alliance that we see also in the States between Islamism and wokeism.”

Does Valls, who was the Socialist head of government less than eight years ago, still consider himself a man of the left?

“Yes,” he says solemnly, now looking down at his shoes. “To twist a beautiful phrase from Albert Camus: I will die on the left despite itself, and despite me.” He says there are times that he despairs of the left because of what he sees as its incomprehension of an evolving world. He acknowledges that journalistic outlets on the right are now the only “safe space” where politicians and intellectuals like him can express themselves and defend their ideas, and that “this is a problem.”

Valls believes that after the 2008 financial crisis overturned the social democratic consensus in France, and pushed the diminishing middle class into the arms of populists, a significant portion of the country’s left went looking for a substitute base of support. “The French working class is gone,” he explains, “and there’s a new proletariat. It is composed of minority Muslim and African immigrants.” And of course,” he is now speaking in invisible air quotes, “they’re in this position because of capitalism, and therefore they’ve been put there by the Jews. They’ve been oppressed by the white Occidental world and colonized by them—therefore, Israel. So we are all guilty. And one must try to understand this proletariat, including their acts of resistance, of which Hamas is a part.”

“This is obviously a grotesque reading, but it seems to be working. Especially among the young, and especially on university campuses.”

So what kind of leftist is he? “My left is—I’m a universalist of equality between men and women. Freedom of conscience and of religion, but in its place in the private sphere. You must defend democracy, defend Salman Rushdie and Charlie Hebdo, and all of the teachers who were killed here in France. Universalism and secularism, that’s my left. I define myself first and foremost as a French Republican, and so I’m frightened by the vicissitudes and the craziness of the left.”

Valls says there were two clear moments in the last several months. One was Oct. 7. The other was Nov. 12, when 100,000 people demonstrated in Paris against antisemitism. “Emmanuel Macron made a real mistake by not participating, saying he did not want to appear divisive,” says Valls. “Muslim organizations also did not participate, apart from some personalities here and there. But the most important thing is that, for the first time since the Dreyfus affair, the right-wing populists—who are really no longer the extreme right of the past, it must be said—participated in a demonstration against antisemitism, whereas a part of the left didn’t participate. It wasn’t just [Jean-Luc] Mélenchon, but also unions and activists, and all of these people chose not to participate because they believed that a demonstration against antisemitism was in fact a demonstration in support of Israel. This is an amazing, astonishing anthropological or political or sociological fact or event.”

When I ask if there is a political left in the Western world that Valls admires or identifies with, he responds, without hesitating, “No.” “Social democracy is in crisis,” he explains, “because it won. It thought that with the fall of the Soviet bloc, history was over, and Europe was social democracy. But it hadn’t quite understood the essential thing, which is that there was also an identity crisis … People need to have a culture and an identity. They can’t be dispossessed of it. Whereas globalization does, in fact, deprive people of this sense of cultural belonging.”

I am under the impression, I tell him, that unlike the Anglosphere, France has been more or less immune to wokeism. “It is true that in France there’s a profusion of books against wokeism and its culture,” he says. “And I think we have the best specialist on Islamism, Gilles Kepel, who you know, and also Hugo Micheron. But we also of course have had famous intellectuals who often were complicit in Stalinism, and those who were seduced at the moment of the Iranian Revolution by the Ayatollah Khomeini and what he represented. Especially Foucault, who’s of course had a huge influence on your country. Really, it is the whole political and intellectual left that’s in a state of crisis.”

Meanwhile, there is no question that what passes for the hard right in Europe is rising. In the European Parliament elections, which will be held this weekend, Marine Le Pen’s party is polling in first at 33%, ahead of Macron’s Ensemble alliance at 15%, the Socialists, led by Raphaël Glucksmann, at 14%, and France Unbowed, led by the Jew-baiting Jean-Luc Mélenchon, at 7%. (Of Glucksmann, Valls told me, “He’s very clear on Ukraine and the criticism of Putin. But on Israel, he’s holding a slightly less courageous position, less than his father. But the other day he was chased out of a demonstration by extreme left militants wearing kaffiyehs. So he’s being put back into his Jewish identity in any case.”)

At the same time, European elections are often less a harbinger of national election results than a way for voters to blow off steam. Nor does Marine Le Pen’s version of the right appear to pose any particular threat to French Jews. The political figure to Le Pen’s right, the former presidential candidate and political pundit Eric Zemmour, who is also running for a seat in the European Parliament, is himself Jewish, and has a significant following among French Jews. So for better or worse, the battles of greatest concern to French Jews will be fought on the left, where Valls has made his lonely stand.

As we said goodbye, I thought of the Synagogue des Tournelles, where my Tablet colleagues and I attended a Yom HaShoah service a few nights before. Originally built for Jews from Alsace-Lorraine, the Roman-Byzantine style building has since become a home for predominantly North African Jews, although the clergy remains mostly Ashkenaz. In his sermon, the rabbi made a point of placing the massacre of Oct. 7 on a continuum with the Shoah and with the expulsion of Jews from the Arab world from 1948 until the early 1970s. For France’s dwindling numbers of Ashkenazi Jews, the 1940s remains the great catastrophe in the lives of their families, whereas for the Algerian, Tunisian, and Moroccan Jews of France, it is the 1960s. Oct. 7, as Valls understood, is the through line for all of them.

Intrigued by Valls’ suggestion of a movement left capable of governing with the right, I sought out Benjamin Haddad, member of the National Assembly for the 16th arrondissement of Paris and chief spokesman of Macron’s Renaissance party. A member of the foreign affairs and European affairs committees, Haddad—a Tablet contributor—is a ubiquitous presence in French media, especially on matters of foreign policy. [Full disclosure: In 2020 Haddad appointed me as an unpaid, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, where he was then director of its Europe Center.]

I met the 38-year-old rising political star on a Monday morning at the Palais Bourbon, where he has a prominent seat three rows from the floor, on the center-right. Over lunch at the Brasserie Le Bourbon, kitty-corner from the National Assembly, we discuss The Lost Territories of the Republic, a 2006 book written by French teachers on the difficulties they faced providing an education in Republican values in neighborhoods gripped by antisemitism, sexism, and Islamic separatism. “It was controversial at the time, it came right after the Second Intifada, but now basically everyone agrees with it,” says Haddad. “They wrote about how it’s become really hard to teach the Holocaust, to teach biology in certain neighborhoods. At the time it sparked a massive debate. But now everyone knows it’s true … The question is how not to lose entire neighborhoods, lose territory, to separatism. And so, we’ve really reinforced legislation on cutting foreign funding, being able to close [foreign-funded Salafi] mosques, associations that were suspected of ties with radicalism, expelling imams. And we’ve done so quickly.”

Benjamin Haddad speaks during a session at the French National Assembly in Paris, Feb. 27, 2024
Benjamin Haddad speaks during a session at the French National Assembly in Paris, Feb. 27, 2024

Stephane De Sakutin/AFP via Getty Images

Haddad first came to the attention of Macron in 2015, when France’s current president was minister of economics in Valls’ cabinet. They stayed in touch after Macron’s 2017 victory, when Haddad was still in Washington, where he started a committee in support of Macron’s reform agenda. “I also think he appreciated the fact that I was very vocal about defending our French laïcité model in U.S. media when it was under attack, because he was very troubled by this,” Haddad says. “After the murder of Samuel Paty [a teacher beheaded by a Chechnyan Islamist for showing his students a Charlie Hebdo cartoon of Muhammad], there was 48 hours of solidarity, but then it turned into something like, ‘Well, you caused it, France. It’s your fault. Your laïcité is Islamophobic, it’s radicalizing.’”

“It’s complete bullshit,” he says. “I mean, there was even a piece, it was completely debunked, but at the time it was very successful, written by Brookings Institution scholars making the case that there was an overrepresentation of jihadists coming from France—which first is not true, there was no scientific methodology to it—but they said that it had to be because of our secularism. And then The Washington Post claimed that we had specific ID cards for young Muslims. It was completely out of control … I think that when The Washington Post was writing about Islamophobia and France, it was actually writing about America, and they didn’t really care about how accurate it was about us. So I spent a lot of time trying to debunk this crap in U.S. media.”

Another reason Macron may have appreciated Haddad’s role in Washington is that he made a perfect spokesman for race-obsessed Americans. His father was born in Tunisia and moved with his sister and parents in 1961 to Bordeaux, where the grandparents changed their names from Isaac and Nasria to Jacques and Roseline. They assimilated quickly. “The only time I ever heard my grandfather speak Arabic was in his later years when he had Alzheimer’s and reverted back to his childhood language. My father was the only one [of five children] who understands Tunisian dialect, because they still spoke it a little when he was a kid. But otherwise, they remained very attached to Judaism, but became fully French, Republican patriots, very attached to the fact that they were welcomed here and made their lives here.” Haddad’s mother, a math teacher, comes from a middle-class Catholic family from the French Basque country which “participated at different levels in the Resistance.” But “I don’t come from Gaullists,” he says, “more of a liberal center-right family.”

When he was 5 years old, Haddad’s family moved to Boston for a year for his father’s work. “I had the full American experience,” he says, “the yellow bus, the baseball field. I remember it being a very lovely time.”

Haddad was class president in high school, which he graduated shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and then studied international relations at Sciences Po—the training ground for France’s political elite. “The first thing I did when I got there was take my card with the UMP [Union for a Popular Movement], the center-right party at the time. And basically spent my student years as an activist. I was always on the left of the right. Pro-European, not so pro-conservative.” A formative experience, he says, was traveling to Kyiv in 2014 to witness and support the Maidan Revolution. Now in the National Assembly, he has been a leading figure in the fight to extend support for Ukraine.

Haddad says he would find it suffocating to have to vote in the United States. “I think on economic issues, I’m closer to moderate Democrats. But I’m very worried about the woke identity politics discourse that I’ve seen developing. And I remember when I lived in Washington, seeing it first happen on campuses and people were dismissing it, saying, ‘Oh, they’re just kids.’ But then these kids joined cultural institutions, The New York Times, CNN, think tanks. It starts having an impact on how you’re allowed to speak, on what you’re allowed to say, and also an obsession with race and identity that maybe has always been more central to how Americans perceive politics. I think race and identity have become an obsession in the United States and is very alien to how we conceive things here.”

France’s universalist tendency, he explains, was founded on freedom from religion, in contrast to America’s founding on freedom of religion. Which is why, he says, it’s nonsense to claim that laïcité is a feint used to suppress Muslim communities. “Our Republican principles and our universalism predates even the presence of Islam in France. The question is how you have a social mobility that works, an integration that works, but at the same time stay true to our principles.”

At this point in our conversation, as if through the operation of the unseen hand of a deity with a familial, Old World sense of humor, our table is graced by the imposing figure of Meyer Habib, Haddad’s fellow assemblyman. Also from a Tunisian Jewish family, Habib represents French citizens overseas in the National Assembly and acts as Benjamin Netanyahu’s unofficial representative in Paris. In 2014, when he went on TV to oppose a resolution calling for “official acknowledgement” of a Palestinian state by France, Habib was criticized by a former Socialist minister for his “disturbing intensity.” It was a demeaning criticism, to be sure, but as he catches up with Haddad, I do get a sense of what the former minister was talking about. “He’s fun,” confirms Haddad, “very over the top.” When I ask what their short interaction was about, Haddad says he was ribbing Habib for tweeting a meme the day before showing Hitler in a kaffiyeh with the words “Mein Campus.”

After Habib leaves, Haddad is picked up by a blond Frenchwoman in a blue suit who informs him that a group of schoolchildren are waiting outside to take a picture with him—a scene that I would have suspected was orchestrated in advance by the media-savvy young politician except for the fact that I chose the cafe. Haddad happily obliges, and tells me that the questions he gets most often from kids are, “Have you met Macron, have you met Le Pen, and how much is your salary?” He does an impression of the frightened gasp kids make when he tells them that, yes, he’s met Marine Le Pen.

I think race and identity have become an obsession in the United States and is very alien to how we conceive things here.

When he returns, we discuss his constituency—one of the wealthiest districts in the country—which he won in 2022 with 53% of the vote. It includes a strong Jewish community and, unusually, an observant Catholic community. His parents and sister also live there.“If you look at the electoral sociology,” he says, “what’s really fascinating is that the Macron base shifted. So in 2017, he’s a former Socialist and most of his base were moderate center-left people. And then there were some on the right, like myself, who were quite intrigued with the guy. And he basically brought these people together, mostly people who had two things in common: a natural attachment to Europe and a desire to reform the country. Labor laws, tax reduction, but not in a fiscally conservative way. More in the sense of, we’re going to liberate entrepreneurship, help kids from poorer backgrounds come into jobs. And the results are good. I mean, we have the lowest unemployment in 40 years, 7.5%. When I was a kid, we were doomed to 10% ... And so Macron’s base began more center-left and shifted more to the right in the last few years.”

Haddad says that by tackling difficult but necessary issues like pension reform, Macron demonstrated that he was willing to alienate a part of the left. “I think that there’s also been a sort of mugged-by-reality moment when it comes to Islamism and crime and the necessity to bring order … But the Islamists are testing the limits. When they put women in abayas, they know exactly what they’re doing. They’re trying to see if they can circumvent the law [banning the burqa] this way.” The issue of separatism wasn’t central to Macron’s 2017 election, Haddad explains, but now it’s become a core issue for him.

At the same time, Haddad, like other observers we talk to in Paris, is gloomy about the upcoming European elections, in which Macron is being outflanked by Le Pen. “One obstacle is the two-term [limit on the] presidency,” Haddad explains. “Le Pen has been very apt at trying to de-demonize the [National Rally] party, expel people who’ve been racist or antisemitic, make it much more respectable, but to the point where they don’t say anything substantive anymore. In the European elections we have, I really don’t know what they even stand for. They say they used to be for Frexit but not anymore. They say they used to be for leaving the euro but not anymore. They say they used to be for leaving NATO, but they backed away from this saying, ‘Well, we’re in the middle of a war, so let’s not leave NATO.’ To be clear they’re still for all these things, the substance is the same, but they’re advancing in a hidden way.”

Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, was an authentic antisemite whose gratuitous comments diminishing the Holocaust forced his daughter to expel him from the party he founded in 2015, after he ran for the presidency, and lost, five times. The smart people I know seem to think that Marine has in fact succeeded in purging antisemitism from the party and rebuilt it with a new cadre of local and national politicians who appeal to mainstream voters and industries. But they still object to the National Rally as a less extreme version of the AfD in Germany: incompetent, incoherent, and aimless. (On May 21, the National Rally announced a break with the AfD, refusing to sit with it in the same group in the European Parliament, owing to the German party’s repeated scandals.)

“My sense is that if you want to fight them, you have to respect the voters but fight the party, and you have to do two things,” Haddad explains. “You have to tackle head on, with no denial, the issues that they thrive upon. So be very clear-headed on crime, on immigration, on Islamism. But you also have to be very tough on them. And the fact that they offer no reasonable solutions and that their platform, especially on economics and diplomacy, would isolate us and be a disaster for the country. They’re in favor of going back to a pension age of 60. I mean, it’s completely demagogic. It would explode public spending. So their platform is actually very much to the left on economic issues.”

Haddad says he learned from his experience of being in Washington during the election of Donald Trump the importance of getting out of Paris as often as possible. “I recently met with sheep farmers in the southwest and local mayors of towns of only 800 people or so … It tells you more about the country and what we can do. But also you see the anger rising about certain things. People who feel that they work hard and that people who don’t work as much are making almost as much money through social aid and welfare. Feeling that you’re crushed by norms and bureaucracy is something you hear everywhere.” At the same time, after Macron took on pension reform, Haddad says he started receiving emails from people saying, “‘Fucking asshole, I’m going to have to work more now. I was supposed to retire in September and now I can’t retire until December.’ When I receive something like this, I can’t just brush it aside. I have to understand where this is coming from, because it means that people don’t find meaning in their work.”

Mirroring Valls, Haddad laments the search for lost meaning he sees in the lives of many people. “France resisted the demographic decline longer than other countries in Europe, but now we’re down too. So you don’t find meaning in work, you don’t have kids or many kids. You get less and less engaged in politics, associations, churches, unions. So what is it? Netflix gives you pleasure and entertainment, but not meaning. There’s a little bit of a collective depression that’s not particular to France, but I think very specific to Europe. I don’t think it’s only about politics.’”

“At the same time,” he concludes, “The Fifth Republic is not perfect, but it’s a very good synthesis of our history. It synthesizes the old regime with what came out of the Revolution. Because de Gaulle had such a cultural depth about our country, our history, our literature, our spirit, he drew on that in a very effective way. And I think you can still reform, as we do on a regular basis. But I think it would be hard to find something better.”

This article is part of Tablet in Paris.
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Jeremy Stern is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine.

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