Exploring France’s Evolving Sympathy for Israel and its Jewish Population: An Analysis
In contrast to previous military conflicts, when French public opinion leaned toward supporting the Palestinians, a remarkable shift has emerged in recent days. This shift reflects a surge in sympathy in France toward Israel and its Jewish community, driven by a complex interplay of factors connected to evolving dynamics in the Middle East and mounting concerns about the growing threat of Islamic extremism. While this newfound affinity is worth describing, its long-term sustainability remains uncertain, given the various potential factors that could shape public sentiment moving forward.
A. Underpinnings of the Current Sympathy
1. Perceived threat to French way of life: A prominent catalyst for France’s burgeoning sympathy toward Israel lies in the prevailing perception among many French citizens that their cherished way of life is under siege from the encroaching influence of Islam. The Israeli conflicts come to symbolize this perceived threat.[i] This past Friday, in the wake of a teacher’s stabbing to death by a former Islamic radicalized student in Arras, 7,000 soldiers were mobilized.
- Parallels with the 2015 Paris attacks: The Israeli tragedy resonates with the methods and ideological motivations witnessed in the coordinated November 2015 ISIS attacks in Paris, which claimed 130 lives. Since this pivotal moment, the impact of attacks originating from the Levant has extended beyond the Jewish community to encompass French society writ large, engendering a sense of collective vulnerability.
- Temporarily altered power dynamics: A noteworthy transformation in the prevailing power dynamics between weaker and stronger parties has emerged, temporarily shifting the narrative of victimization associated with Palestinian communities in French suburbs. The rhetoric that “The Palestinian is the Jew of the 21st century” has lost its former persuasive force.
- Antisemitism is perceived as a national security issue: Security has been increased around Jewish sites due to past experiences. The French government banned anti-Israel demonstrations to prevent anti-Jewish violence and used water cannons to disperse illegal protests. Since October 7, there have been 1,000 incidents of antisemitic nature, with 50 of them escalating to violent assaults. The security concerns of the Jewish community in France have become increasingly visible. “Le Point,” a prominent French weekly, featured a front-page headline that reads: “Jews Face Attacks in Israel and Threats in France.”
- Political responses and polarization: The unequivocal denunciation of Hamas by the French government and mainstream political parties, coupled with their vocal support for Israel’s right to exist and defend itself, has been significantly influenced by apprehensions about the potential spread of Middle East conflicts into sensitive urban areas in France. Former President François Hollande underscored this alignment by framing the Hamas aggression as a component of a non-democratic coalition alongside China, Russia, and Iran, working to destabilize the democratic world and menace Europe. In his declaration, he emphasized the inseparability of Israel’s struggle from the broader fight for a free world that stands against barbarism. This alignment has triggered political polarization, with extreme left-wing groups, such as La France Insoumise (LFI), perceiving Hamas as a legitimate political entity, while the broader public regards them as terrorists. Conversely, the far-right party, Rassemblement National (RN), has positioned itself as the “protector of the Jews” and ardently defends Israel. In their assertive rhetoric, far-right politicians caution the French populace about the imperative of addressing the issue of Islamic migration, underscoring that failure to do so may result in the challenges observed in Israel materializing in France.
- Shifting public opinion: Notably, recent surveys suggest that the far-right is viewed as a more suitable leadership option by 44% of the French population compared to the existing governing party’s 42%.[ii]
- Contrasting Belgian public opinion: It is essential to note that the pro-Israel shift observed in France is not mirrored in neighboring Belgium. In Belgium, politicians and public opinion have remained largely unchanged, and Hamas hasn’t been universally condemned.
B. Factors Influencing the Durability of Sympathy:
1. Impact of Gaza casualties: The resurgence of anti-Israel sentiment may occur if distressing images of Gaza casualties, especially children, garner significant public attention.
2. Potential for mass protests: The occurrence of mass protests in support of a still-hypothetical third Intifada has the potential to substantially alter the prevailing sentiment, providing opportunities for extremist individuals or groups.
3. Role of artists, journalists, and sports figures: These influential societal luminaries may harbor reservations about the evolving situation, even if they refrain from wide public expression, which could result in a subtle but discernible undercurrent of criticism.
4. Persistence of antisemitism: Antisemitism, originating from Muslim communities, far-left circles, or supremacist ideologies, remains a persistent and deep-seated concern within French society. This sentiment is particularly pronounced in heavily Islamized suburbs, comprising 4.5 million inhabitants, as well as in academic institutions comprising another 3 million individuals. Moreover, there are a million members of the Muslim Brotherhood and 1,700 identified dangerous far-right supremacist activists, as reported by Territorial Intelligence.
The evolving favorable sentiment in France toward Israel and its Jewish population is complex and multifactorial, shaped by both domestic and international events. Its future trajectory remains uncertain and is contingent upon the nuanced dynamics of several elements. An astute understanding of these factors is crucial for an in-depth comprehension of the evolving French perspective.
[i] 68% of French citizens believe that the conflict in the Middle East “poses a risk of tensions in France” (Elabe/BFM survey, October 12, 2023).
[ii] According to the “Fractures françaises” survey by the Jean-Jaurès Foundation-CEVIPOF-Institut Montaigne-SOFRES in October 2023, 44% of the French population believes that the National Rally (RN) is more capable of governing the country than the ruling party (42%), with a significant lead over La France Insoumise (LFI) at 28%. Notably, 39% of professionals (cadres) consider the RN to be in alignment with their concerns, as opposed to 21% in 2021. Furthermore, 46% of professionals, 47% of employees, 58% of manual laborers, and 39% of retirees, despite traditionally favoring Emmanuel Macron, believe that the party represented by Marine Le Pen in the last presidential election is “capable of governing the country.”