A pedestrian walks past campaign posters for French presidential candidates Eric Zemmour, left, and Marine Le Pen ahead of the first round of the French presidential election in Paris, April 7, 2022. (Photo/JTA-Emmanuel Dunand-AFP via Getty Images)
A pedestrian walks past campaign posters for French presidential candidates Eric Zemmour, left, and Marine Le Pen ahead of the first round of the French presidential election in Paris, April 7, 2022. (Photo/JTA-Emmanuel Dunand-AFP via Getty Images)

Days before election, Éric Zemmour made a Jewish man’s death a national issue. Jewish voters are still split.

It’s been six months since Éric Zemmour quit his job as a journalist to run as a far-right candidate in France’s presidential elections. But this week Zemmour, who is Jewish, landed likely the biggest scoop of his career.

On Tuesday, just days before Sunday’s first round in the presidential race, the right-wing Zemmour broke on social and mainstream media the story of Jérémie Cohen, a 31-year-old disabled Jewish man whose death in February police now suspect may have the indirect result of violence, which some believe was antisemitic.

Zemmour, a 63-year-old former television pundit whose chances of becoming president are slim, has helped focus national attention on the incident in the midst of a campaign in which antisemitic violence, the rule of law and politicized Islam are central themes.

Asked on TF1, France’s most popular domestic television network, what his first act as president would be, Zemmour replied on Wednesday: “To visit the family of a young man whose name was Jérémie Cohen. The French public doesn’t know about him yet, that’s normal. I will tell the story.”

Zemmour, who is trailing three to four other candidates in recent polls, recounted how Cohen’s death was treated as a vehicle accident for nearly two months, until the man’s father, Gerald, shared with Zemmour the results of the family’s private investigation — including a video in which Cohen is seen running away from men who assaulted him and getting fatally hit by a tram.

The video attracted the attention of incumbent President Emmanuel Macron and other candidates vying for the presidency. The exposure prompted Paris prosecutors this week to announce for the first time that they are opening a criminal investigation into the affair.

For the firebrand Zemmour and his supporters — including many Jews — the incident captures the heart of what is wrong in French society, including the proliferation of antisemitic violence and the media’s treatment of it.

For Zemmour’s many critics, including leaders of French Jewry, the incident underlines what they regard as his and the broader far-right’s unscrupulous use of France’s social and political issues to foment fear and win votes.

“I condemn this use of the suffering of this family, the use of this young man as a martyr,” the chief rabbi of France, Haim Korsia, said on Tuesday in an interview with the RCJ Jewish radio station.

Korsia has called Zemmour, whose wife and lover are Jewish and who sometimes goes to synagogue, an “antisemite.”

If Zemmour is using Cohen’s death to boost his campaign, it isn’t going as planned. Occupying the fourth or fifth slot according to the polls, he is projected to drop out of the race after Sunday’s first round. A second round will feature Sunday’s top two vote-getters; projections point to Presidential Emmanuel Macron, a centrist, and Marine Le Pen, the daughter of a Holocaust denier who has sought to reform the image of her far-right National Rally party.

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech on combating radical Islam in Mulhouse, France, Feb. 18, 2020. (Photo/JTA-Jean Francois Badias-Pool-AFP)
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech on combating radical Islam in Mulhouse, France, Feb. 18, 2020. (Photo/JTA-Jean Francois Badias-Pool-AFP)

In Neuilly-sur-Seine, an affluent suburb of Paris with many Jewish residents, multiple congregants told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that they don’t view the Cohen case through the prism of the local elections.

“I heard about it on social media. It makes me scared,” said Pierre Allouche, a 60-year-old father of two teenage girls, one of whom wants to leave for Israel on a Jewish volunteer program. “But it’s not going to affect my vote because it’s just the latest of many incidents of this sort, which have already shaped the way I and many other French Jews vote.”

Like many if not most French Jews — including Zemmour’s parents — Allouche has roots in the Maghreb. His parents were born in Algeria, he told JTA on a rainy afternoon in Neuilly’s synagogue, a striking Bauhaus-style building encircled with fences for security reasons.

Zemmour, who has been convicted of hate speech for saying that most drug dealers in France are Arabs or Africans, struck a chord with Allouche through passionate speeches about lawlessness and the perceived growth of political Islam at the expense of the rule of law. But that hasn’t earned Allouche’s vote — in fact, Zemmour “scares me,” he said.

“I agree with Zemmour on many points, but I wouldn’t vote for him. Out of the question,” he said. “Look at his defense of Vichy, his bizarre remarks on Dreyfus.”

Allouche named two of the issues that have received little attention nationally but have pushed many Jewish voters away from supporting Zemmour: His controversial claim that the Nazi-collaborating Vichy government sacrificed foreign Jews to save French ones from the Holocaust, and that Alfred Dreyfus, a French-Jewish army captain who was convicted for treason in a trial critics said was antisemitic, was targeted not because he was of Jewish descent, but due to his German roots.

“I’m a patriot. I agree with his call for patriotism, but it’s as if Zemmour reaches the point where I could agree with him, and then goes far too far. It’s like he’s overcompensating for being a Jew, and decides to be more French than the French,” Allouche added.

Allouche was going to vote for Valerie Pecresse, another hard-right candidate polling around Zemmour’s tier, but has been let down by her “weak performance” in debates and speeches. “I might just vote for Macron, who’s actually quite tough on radical Islam,” Allouche said.

Cnaan Liphshiz, Netherlands-based Europe Correspondent for JTA
Cnaan Liphshiz

JTA Europe correspondent

JTA

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