Macron defends Jewish ritual at Elysee palace

Macron defends Jewish ritual at Elysee palace

President Emmanuel Macron said he allowed a rabbi to light a menorah
President Emmanuel Macron said he allowed a rabbi to light a menorah "in the spirit of the republic and of harmony". (Photo: AFP)

PARIS - French President Emmanuel Macron felt compelled Friday to justify allowing a Jewish ritual at the Elysee palace after critics accused him of failing to respect France's secular traditions.

During an award ceremony on Thursday — at which Macron was handed a prize for his stance against anti-Semitism — 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", while 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".

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.

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.

In Germany meanwhile, Olaf Scholz on Thursday became the first chancellor to light Berlin's central Hanukkah menorah, also in a sign of "solidarity" with Jews amid a surge of anti-Semitism during the Israel-Hamas war.

Wearing a kippa, Scholz urged the "immediate" release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas as he addressed a crowd gathered at the Brandenburg Gate for the start of the Jewish festival of lights.

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