(November 22, 2017 / JNS) By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
It has been a long time since I’ve heard anyone say anything positive about the French Socialist Party (PS), once the giant of that country’s post-war politics, but trounced into fifth place in this year’s presidential election, with just 6 percent of the vote going to its candidate.
But I’m nonetheless going to throw caution to the wind, and offer my modest congratulations to the PS for its Nov. 21 decision to expel Gérard Filoche, the party grandee at the center of a row over a dismally transparent anti-Semitic tweet from his account, for violating its “core values.”
Filoche, who began his career as a Trotskyist, is—or was—a leader of the left wing of the PS, and like most European far left politicians, never endeared himself to the local Jewish community. During the war in Gaza in August 2014, at a time when one of many pro-Palestinian demonstrations evolved into a riot outside a Paris synagogue, Filoche was issuing wringing denunciations of Israel’s very legitimacy, declaring that the Jewish state was founded upon “terrorism and colonization.”
As several academic surveys during the last decade or so have demonstrated, individuals who hold these sorts of views about Israel are far more likely to be anti-Semitic, and Filoche is no exception. On Nov. 17, he described French President Emmanuel Macron on Twitter as a “sale type” (“dirty guy.”) Accompanying that remark was a photomontage that showed Macron wearing a Nazi armband, with the swastika exchanged for a dollar sign. Immediately behind Macron, towering over him from the shadows, were images of three of France’s most influential Jews—economist Jacques Attali, investor Patrick Drahi and banker Jacob Rothschild—who were themselves flanked by the American and Israeli flags. Not very subtle, then.
As it turned out, that image had been grabbed from the website of Alain Soral, a far-right white French activist who is closely associated with Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, a French-Cameroonian propagandist who imagines himself a comedian. Filoche eventually deleted the tweet, blaming the error on a junior PS official who “noticed only the references to Macron and money,” and thereby presenting himself as the victim of a political witch hunt that exploited an honest mistake in order to launch itself on the world.
Pushing a junior PS staffer under the bus was not Filoche’s only response to the controversy. He repeated until he was virtually hoarse the line that as a founder of anti-racist group SOS Racisme, he couldn’t possibly be an anti-Semite, and that in any case, the only source of anti-Semitism is capitalism, which after all “elected Hitler.” At no point did he condemn the content of the tweet, nor reflect on why he or his team, as committed socialists, would be instantly attracted to antisemitic memes that brought to mind—as the French Jewish organization CRIF observed—the Vichy regime in Nazi-occupied France.
To its credit, the PS did not demur on any of this. Barely five days after Filoche issued his tweet, the party’s national bureau—of which he had been a member—voted unanimously to expel him. One of Filoche’s former colleagues, who had defended him in previous controversies, said that this time, the matter at hand was no longer political, but ethical— “and on ethics,” he said, “there can be no compromise.”
Even as I applaud the PS, I honestly wonder whether the party is out of step with the times. During the last three years especially, racist and anti-Semitic imagery has become a staple feature on the extremes of left and right, more often than not amplified by those who enable extremists while claiming not to share their views. Perhaps the PS’s British sister party, Labour, has grasped something the PS has not? What kind of calculation lies behind Labour’s refusal to kick out Filoche’s equivalent, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, for his comment that Hitler was a supporter of Zionism? Would clamping down on the Israel-inflected anti-Semitism that advocates firmly believe belongs in a progressive movement alienate the activist base? One could easily ask President Donald Trump and those among his supporters who have shared anti-Semitic images, and flirted with anti-Semitic and racist language, whether similar political calculations underlie those deeds.
Some will argue, as they always do, that Filoche has the right to free speech. But when one is an elected official, or an official of a political party or labor union or similar entity, one’s first responsibility is to the electors, the taxpayers and the entire community one serves. Free speech considerations, frankly, hardly rank as a priority for someone who has made a career in democratic politics.
That is why the punishment for such offenders is often harsher than it is for private individuals, and why it is therefore right that the PS has booted Filoche from its ranks. Different parties and leaders in other countries dealing with instances of anti-Semitism should feel free to copy its example.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.