Macron fends off criticism over Jewish ceremony at Elysee Palace

Europe  AP - Michel Euler
DEC 8, 2023 LISTEN
© AP - Michel Euler

French President Emmanuel Macron was forced to defend his decision to allow  a Jewish ritual at the Elysee palace after critics accused him of failing to respect France's secular traditions.

Macron was handed a prize for his stance against anti-Semitism at a ceremony in the Elysee Palace in Paris on Thursday evening.

France's Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia lit the first candle of a menorah – a ceremony that opens the week-long Jewish festival of Hanukkah – as Macron looked on.

Religion and state are separated by law in France, and opposition parties were quick to criticise the president after a video of the event went viral on social media.

Far-left heavyweight Manuel Bompard said on X, formerly Twitter, that Macron had made "an unforgivable political mistake".

Green party deputy Sandrine Rousseau, also on X, said "it would have been possible to support France's Jewish community without allowing a religious ceremony into the Elysee".

Socialist MP Carole Delga said there could be no compromise with secularism.

"The Élysée is not a place of worship," she said.
Guillaume Lacroix, president of the radical left party agreed.

"The Elysée is neither a church, nor a mosque, nor a temple, nor a synagogue," he said.

An 'error'

But the most impactful reaction came from one of France's foremost Jewish representatives.

Yonathan Arfi, president of the representative council of Jewish institutions in France (CRIF), said it had been "an error" to kick off Hanukkah in the presidential palace.

"It's in the DNA of the republic to stay away from anything religious," he told the Sud Radio broadcaster, adding that he had been "surprised" at the incident.

"Jews in France have always considered secularism as a law of protection and a law of freedom," he said. "Anything that weakens secularism weakens the Jews of France."

Asked about the criticism during a visit to the Notre-Dame cathedral Friday, Macron said he had no regrets "at all" and had allowed the celebration "in the spirit of the Republic and of harmony".

He had not himself participated in any religious ritual or ceremony that, he acknowledged, would have been "disrespectful of secularism".

But "that's not what happened", he said.

Signal of support

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne came to Macron's defence, saying the president had wanted to send "a signal of support" to the Jewish community at a time of "rising anti-Semitism".

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin added that the president "respects all religions".

France has reported over 1,500 anti-Semitic acts and comments since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.

Law enforcement officials have equally noted "an increase" in anti-Muslim acts in France, Darmanin. In mid-November, the Ministry of the Interior recorded "more than 140 acts since the start of the year", although associations say this figure is far too low.

Macron has stirred controversy in religious matters before. In September he attended a Catholic mass celebrated by Pope Francis in Marseille, southern France, at a time when the government was also pushing to ban in schools the abaya garment worn by some Muslim women.

Last month, Macron declined to participate in a major march against anti-Semitism, saying the event was being "exploited" by some politicians for their own ends. His absence was much criticised across the political spectrum and by Jewish representatives.

(with AFP)