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OPINION: Hamas attacks have exposed dangerous faultlines in France

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: Hamas attacks have exposed dangerous faultlines in France
Members of the French National Assembly stand for a moment of silence in tribute to the victims of the Hamas attacks in Israel. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

The reaction of France's politicians to the attacks by Hamas in Israel has again exposed dangerous faultlines within French politics and French society as a whole, explains John Lichfield.


France has the biggest Jewish community in Europe. It also has the largest Muslim population in Europe.

Conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians are not foreign news in France. They are national news. They have ignited blind violence in the past. They can do so again. 

It is 11 years and seven months since Mohamed Merah murdered four people, including three small children, outside a Jewish school in Toulouse. It is eight years and nine months since Amedy Coulibaly murdered four Jewish shoppers in a kosher supermarket in Paris, the day after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

The pitiless attack by Hamas on Israeli civilians near Gaza last weekend - 1,200 people butchered, including babies, children and old people - has produced a wave of revulsion amongst all mainstream, French political parties.

Except one.


Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s hard-left La France Insoumise has tied itself in relativist, semantic knots, refusing to describe the Hamas attackers as “terrorists” and suggesting that the blame lay mostly with Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right Israeli government.

The LFI, in its first statement at the weekend, described the Hamas attack as an “armed offensive by Palestinian forces” - implying that Hamas was the sole representative of the Palestinian people and that this was a normal military operation.

The full horror of the attacks, almost entirely targeting civilians, was not clear at the time. The LFI has somewhat changed its tone in recent days but still refuses to use the word “terrorist” or condemn the assault.

The nature of Hamas is well-known. It is a fanatical, extremist, Islamist organisation, which wants to destroy the state of Israel. It adopts a maximalist interpretation of Islam and cares little for the well-being of the people of Gaza.

Mélenchon’s LFI is supposed to be a socialist, secular movement, dedicated to the humanist values of the French Republic. It has become increasingly captive to the views - or to the presumed views - of its large constituency among the Muslim population in the multi-racial, inner-suburbs of French cities.

It also shares the logic of the anti-capitalist Left in France and elsewhere which argues that capitalism, the United States and the state of Israel are part of a single, global continuum of evil.

Many Muslims in the French banlieues, especially the younger ones, support the “Palestinian cause”, without making much distinction between its violent and would-be peaceful elements. There is not one single “Palestinian cause” -  any more than the appalling Netanyahu represents all the people of Israel.

The people and government of the West Bank - more the victims of the aggression of successive Netanyahu governments than Gaza - were not involved in the weekend’s attacks.

To support Hamas, as the LFI has done, to call them the “Palestinian armed forces” is a dangerous simplification of a dangerously confused situation. It implies that violence against civilians, especially Jews, is justified. It could encourage similar attacks against Jewish targets in France.

Other figures and parties on the French Left have angrily dissociated themselves from the LFI line. One of them stands out from the rest because he is a leading figure in LFI itself and is seen as possible successor to Mélenchon as a candidate in the 2027 Presidential election.


The journalist-turned-politician François Ruffin, LFI deputy for Amiens in the Somme, gave an interview to Le Monde on Tuesday.

“What is clear should be clearly stated,” he said. “Hamas committed abominable acts on Saturday. We must use strong words to describe horrible events, or our position becomes discredited, mocked, bogged down in bizarre justifications…”

Bravo, Monsieur Ruffin. He is one of the few figures on the harder wing of the French left to try to speak from the viewpoint of the popular classes as a whole and not sink, like Mélenchon and his closest followers, into the quicksands of clientelism.

Mélenchon’s opinions are electorally calculated; Ruffin words are likely to weaken, not strengthen his already tenuous position within the LFI.

He also went on - rightly - to attack Marine Le Pen. She is the de facto leader of a Far Right party with an anti-Semitic past and partially concealed anti-Semitic present. Since the weekend, she has jumped aboard not just a pro-Israeli bandwagon but a pro-Netanyahu bandwagon.


At a meeting of parliamentary leaders, she shouted at the Jewish president of the National Assembly, Yael Braun-Pivet, because she had refused to allow deputies to parade outside the assembly in support of Israel wearing their tricolore sashes. There was a  minute’s silence for the victims in the chamber instead - depriving the Rassemblement National of a photo opportunity.

Ruffin told Le Monde that Le Pen had no interest in peace or in Israel; she wanted to make the Palestine-Israeli conflict the emblem of a “shock of civilisations” between the Muslim world and the west.

Le Pen may have already profited electorally from the suburban riots in France three months ago. A spillover into France of the Palestinian conflict in the coming days cannot be excluded - and not just in the multi-racial banlieues.

There has already been an upsurge of anti-Semitic feeling and incidents on university campuses. The government has banned several proposed pro-Palestinian marches in Lyon and Paris.

It knows that they would attract the Black Blocs and other movements on the ultra-Left who believe - like Mélenchon and friends - that the anti-capitalist and Palestinian causes are part of the same “struggle”. If - or rather when - the Israeli government launches its attack on Gaza, the danger of violence, even terrorist attacks, in France will increase.

Mélenchon and the LFI will not be wholly responsible, but their reaction to the weekend’s terrible events has been wholly irresponsible.



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