Massacre in Gaza takes center stage in French European election discourse 

LUCIEN LUNG/ RIVA-PRESS POUR « M LE MAGAZINE DU MONDE »

By Mattis Debaque and Noa Birien 

Tensions escalate as the election approaches.

On March 6, 2024, the French radical left-wing political party La France Insoumise offered its list for the European elections to its supporters for the vote. Surprise: the 7th name is not a politician, and has never shown any link with this party, it is Rima Hassan. A Franco-Palestinian international lawyer, an activist for Palestinian rights for many years, president of the association Action Palestine in France, this appointment will upset the political agenda of these European elections in France. When this list was published, reactions were not long in coming. For the head of the list of France Insoumise Manon Aubry, it was an “Immense pride that Rima Hassan has agreed to join our list for the European elections. Her voice for an end to the ongoing slaughter in Gaza and her fight for the dignity of Palestinians are essential. We will continue to demand respect for international law unrelentingly.” Conversely, the head of the list of the far-right National Rally party, Jordan Bardella, tweeted on March 7: “To obtain communitarian votes, Manon Aubry is ready to bring the supporters of terrorism into the European Parliament. The presence of the pro-Hamas activist Rima Hassan on the LFI list says a lot about a left ready for all compromises and extremism.” The tone was set, the presence of Rima Hassan on this list led to heated debates, and the Palestinian question was then placed at the centre of these elections. This subject is put forward by the party, despite other themes that are close to their hearts such as the fight against global warming and the collapse of biodiversity, social inequalities, lobbies in the European Parliament.

With respect to the importance of the subject, a reaction from the other lists for the European elections

Faced with this emphasis on the massacre in Gaza by France Insoumise, the other parties are forced to take a position. Let’s take the main parties from left to right. For Green MEP David Cormoran, “They (the “rebels”) want at all costs to make it an irreconcilable fracture of the left, and in this, it is a form of instrumentalization of Gaza. On the substance, the only “divergence [is] when the rebellious initially refused to qualify the October 7.” The head of the Socialist Party list, Raphaël Glucksmann, insisted on the terrorist nature of the October 7 attacks, while condemning Israel’s response. However, he has been more measured in his support for the student movement for peace in Gaza. Overall, the left-wing parties are in favour of a ceasefire, as well as recognition of Palestine. As for President Emmanuel Macron’s party and its head of list Valérie Hayer, the response has been delayed. They first showed their support for Israel, and then today with the current situation in Palestine and the state of public debate in France, they still affirm the importance of the release of the hostages, but call for humanitarian aid, potential European sanctions and recognize that Israel’s response is disproportionate. On the right, the Republicans party, through their president Eric Ciotti, says that the priority must be the release of the hostages, before a ceasefire. On May 7, the head of the Republican list, François Xavier Bellamy, went to the Sciences Po Paris school to confront the student demonstrators, and an altercation took place with a deputy from La France Insoumise. The two men accused each other of making political recuperation for the elections, and of supporting the worst horrors. Finally, there are the National Rally and Reconquête, two far-right parties. For Jordan Bardella, head of the RN list, Israel’s response is legitimate, and we should denounce “Islamist terrorism” which is also a threat to France and Europe according to him. Nevertheless, for several months now, he has been watering down his position by boasting that he has voted for resolutions in the European Parliament for a “humanitarian pause”. However, they are extremely critical of peace activists, accusing them of anti-Semitism (their party having been created by Nazis…) or of “Islamo-leftist scum”. 

It is understandable that the appointment of Rima Hassan and her promotion within the campaign have put the subject of Gaza at the very centre of the European elections, forcing the other lists to take sides, to answer questions on the sets and in the debates.

A constant and violent media harassment 

In such a context, the European elections on 9 June were therefore marked by high tension, and the media obviously didn’t intend to miss this opportunity. The observation is quick: the point of view of Rima Hassan, candidate in the elections, was simply intolerable for the French platforms. If for years the media treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in France has been biased and the threat of being publicly accused of anti-Semitism hangs over anyone who dares to denounce the policies of Israeli President Netanyahu (in other words, the left), the media relentlessness has rarely been as intense as in the run-up to the elections. This media trial and criminalization of opposition by the government in place has gone so far that it has been accompanied by judicial harassment; indeed, Rima Hassan and other figures of France Insoumise were summoned to the police station for “apology of terrorism”. Although these summonses did not have dramatic consequences for the people concerned, the act in itself was serious and the state’s strategy was clear: to stifle the voice of the opponent, and all the more so in the run-up to the European elections. Words that are constantly instrumentalized, excerpts taken out of context, unbearable interviews in which the opponent cannot speak without being cut off: this is the sad reality that most of the French left is facing today. Moreover, this harness is not limited to television sets or radio shows. It has indeed moved into the public, political and academic spheres, to such an extent that many conferences that were to be held by Rima Hassan or Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a major figure of France Insoumise, candidate in the last presidential election and 79th on the list of the European elections, have been arbitrarily cancelled. Thus, in the country of human rights and freedom of expression, it seems normal today to take the floor away from a candidate seventh on the list in the European elections. And if the question of Palestine occupied a central media place, it was not the subject that worries the French the most: the economy, immigration and the environment were the three priority issues in the context of the European elections for the majority of those interviewed, with 49%, 44% and 38% respectively. Many people say they were “disappointed” by the strategy of France Insoumise to place Gaza at the heart of the campaign and to forget about issues such as purchasing power or the environment, but it seems that they were attacking the wrong target. It is impossible today to deny the instrumentalization and criminalization of which the radical left is a victim in France, and even if many LFI MEPs, including the head of the list Manon Aubry, take up this kind of subject, their words have become inaudible, a direct consequence of this biased media treatment.

A successful election strategy?

“Islamo-leftism”, “clientelism”, “radicalisation”, the criticisms directed at Mélenchon’s strategy are rife. But what are the real consequences of this strategy in the run-up to the elections?

It is first of all a question of going back on the objectives stated by the party. Far from confirming the accusations of clientelism, because the defense of the Palestinian cause has been addressed for decades by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, it is nevertheless a question of admitting that behind all this agitation lies a clear objective. If the Insoumise hoped to reap the benefits of this strategy at the ballot box, they intended to seduce first and foremost young voters and working-class neighborhoods, the electorate most inclined to abstain from voting. Matthias Tavel, the director of the LFI campaign, said: “We are betting that people will come to vote if, through their ballot, they can express anger, dignity, to be respected.” And surprise: the pro-Palestinian mobilization of students had never been as strong in France as in those weeks. Many universities were blocked by students, including the prestigious Sciences Po Paris school, and the repercussions were severe. On May 7, police entered the Sorbonne University in Paris to evacuate 86 students gathered in support of Gaza from an amphitheater. These students were taken into custody, and many protests followed to denounce these arrests. From an electoral point of view, a poll conducted by the Jean-Jaurès Foundation from October 2023 to March 2024 showed that 12% of young people surveyed said they were ready to vote LFI in the next elections, a figure that was far ahead of the other left-wing parties and the party in power.

However, if the strategy of France Insoumise has worked rather well among young people, it has also displeased many people and risks turning away part of the Insoumise electorate. Indeed, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party has not managed to exceed the 8% mark and remains well below Renaissance (Emmanuel Macron’s party) and the far-right Rassemblement National party, according to the latest polls. It should be noted, however, that France Insoumise was largely underestimated in the polls for the last presidential election. It is difficult to predict the result on 9 June. Thus, with less than a month to go before the European elections, France is more divided than ever, and a return to the past seems difficult to imagine.