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The Jewish Vote And The French Election
by Nicholas Simon
The Jerusalem Report April 2, 2007
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France's Jews jokingly divide their country's politicians into two categories: former ministers who are friends of Israel, and serving ministers who are former friends of Israel.

When it comes to candidates for office, however, they all try their best to be included in the first category. And France's Jews realize very well that the politicians cozy up for their votes - but then quickly forget their campaign promises and conduct the usual pro-Arab policy when reaching office. This time, they hope, however, that whoever reaches office will not forget the earlier campaign pledges to institute a more evenhanded French policy toward the Jewish state.

Although Jewish issues and Israel are not a main topic in the campaign now furiously under way for the successor to President Jacques Chirac, and although Jews hardly make up 1 percent of the 42 million voters, the mythical 'Jewish vote' is far from forgotten.

If as expected, no one wins an outright majority in the first-round vote on April 22, there will be a run-off on May 6 between the two candidates who scored highest two weeks before, and according to opinion polls, these are likely to be conservative Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy, who is leading the field with around 30 percent and Socialist Segolene Royal with around 26 percent. Centrist Francois Bayrou is credited with about 18 percent and ultra-rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen with 12 percent. The rest is divided among half a dozen other politicians, none of whom is credited with more than a few points each. But a surprise was always possible, and centrist Francois Bayrou, a longtime friend of the French Jewish Community, suddenly surged in the polls in early March, coming very close to Royal.

The polls indicated Sarkozy would trounce Royal by about 54-46 percent if they face each other in the runoff. Sarkozy has assiduously courted the Jewish vote for years and Royal made efforts to attract Jews at the start of the campaign. But as electioneering heated up in March, both major candidates stood on their records and avoided ultra-controversial topics like Arab immigration and the Middle East conflict in an effort not to alienate any potential voters.

'Mathematically, the Jewish vote should really not count,' says Meir Waintrater, editor-in-chief of the respected Jewish monthly magazine L'Arche. 'But I punched the words 'Jewish vote' on Google in French and got 21,700 results. There are nearly twice as many Protestants in France as there are Jews, and yet, there were only 106 references in texts to a 'Protestant vote.' And only 56 about Armenian votes, although France has Western Europe's biggest Armenian population with 350,000 people,' (more than half of the number of Jews).

Does that mean Jews count 200 times more in France than Protestants, and 400 times more than Armenians? 'Apparently so in many minds, though unfortunately, one suspects that fantasies about 'Jewish power' are the reason,' says Waintrater.

'Nonetheless,' he adds, 'there are plenty of other groups in France with specific interests. Amateur hunters and fishermen are far more numerous than Jews when it comes to numbers of votes. And they are far easier to satisfy by extending the hunting season than by fiddling with foreign policy to please the Jews.'

However, Waintrater says, many politicians believe individual Jews often occupy positions in French society, which afford them influence over segments of the general public. 'When immensely popular personalities like singer Enrico Macias (stage name of Gaston Ghrenassia) and actor Roger Hanin (stage name of Roger Levy) say they are going to vote for Nicolas Sarkozy, that counts enormously, even if their votes are not necessarily motivated by factors connected to their Jewish origins,' says Waintrater.

He points to a cover story in the highbrow left-wing weekly Le Nouvel Observateur last month, reporting a rightward swing by some of France's top intellectuals. The word 'Jew' was not mentioned, but, of five leading philosophers shown on the magazine's cover, Bernard-Henri Levy, Alain Finkielkraut and Andre Glucksman are Jewish.

'Well, multiply that, for example, by thousands of Jewish doctors and pharmacists who speak to multitudes of people each day. What they have to say is certainly of importance to politicians,' says Waintrater.

One pharmacist, who has no qualms telling his clients who he is going to vote for, is Casablanca-born Andre Elbaz, 45, a well-known, much-liked figure in the middle class Paris suburb of Antony. 'Like me, the vast majority of people here are going to vote for Sarkozy,' says Elbaz, an athletically built, good-looking man with a winning smile. People come from throughout the neighborhood to consult him on their aches and pains, swap jokes and ask who he is going to vote for because they respect his opinion.

'Most of my clients are non-Jews so Israel is not really a subject they're interested in,' says Elbaz, who owns a holiday apartment in the Israeli seaside city of Ashdod. 'What they are interested in, and which is of top concern to many French people, and also obviously to French Jews, is the lawlessness of young Arabs in French streets.

Everyone certainly hopes Sarkozy will crack down and restore order.'

Although a middle-class area like Antony was not directly hit by the late-2005 riots which swept through immigrant ghettos across France, leaving 10,000 cars burned in three weeks, the memory of the upheaval, together with continued soaring delinquency rates among young Arabs and blacks, draws many voters to Sarkozy.

The media 'guesstimates' that 80 percent of Jews will vote for Sarkozy, but the Representative Council of French Jews (CRIF), the roof organization for French Jewry, says it is not taking sides in the election, except to remind Jews not to vote for ultra-rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen, to whom polls are currently giving between 12 and 14 percent of the vote. This follows accusations by Royal supporters that the CRIF's attitude toward Sarkozy was openly supportive.

Parliamentarian Julien Dray, a Jew and a main Royal adviser, was widely reported to have publicly shouted at a CRIF official: 'You'll have to come crawling on hands and knees if you want to see her when she is elected.'

Conversely, no major French politician has devoted as much effort over the years to endear himself to France's 600,000-strong Jewish community, the world's third-largest after those of Israel and the United States, as the 52-year-old Sarkozy.

Royal has built her career around domestic issues like health, welfare and education. Her grasp of Middle East affairs is shaky, as was demonstrated by a string of verbal gaffes she made during her first-ever visit to the region, including Israel, last December.

During a stopover in Beirut, she met members of the Lebanese parliament, including Hizballah MP Ali Ammar, who launched into a violent anti-American and anti-Israeli diatribe in Arabic. Royal replied that she 'shared part of his analysis concerning President Bush's policies,' which instantly drew condemnation from conservatives in France and later apparently caused Hilary Clinton to call off a scheduled meeting with Royal in the U.S. But the next day, Royal said she had belatedly learned Ammar also compared Israel to Nazi Germany and this had not been translated for her. She said she would have left the room had she known this was said. Accompanying journalists were sceptical about the explanation, believing her belated reaction was prompted by aides contemplating possible damage control. She also flipflopped on Israeli reconnaissance flights over Lebanon, saying while in Lebanon that they should cease and later saying in Israel that she understood why they were needed. Earlier she made statements indicating she mixed up Iranian civilian and military nuclear efforts.

Royal's main presumed Jewish connection is Francois Hollande, the secretary general of the French Socialist Party, who is her partner (they are not married) and the father of their four children. But Hollande has no community ties and keeps his presumed Jewish origins so secret that Jewish friends of the couple say he always evades questions on the subject.

Close to three-quarters of French Jews are Sephardi, often with close family ties in Israel. They or their parents fled France's former North African Arab territories of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia when they became independent between 1956-1962. Jews consequently maintain a deep grudge against France's 6 million Muslims, who in turn, brought with them to France anti-Jewish prejudices harbored in their home countries. Hostility between the two groups has increased in recent years as young French Muslims regularly harass or attack Jews to 'avenge' Palestinian brethren. The death a year ago of telephone salesman Ilan Halimi, 23, after three weeks of agonizing torture at the hands of a gang of mostly Muslim hoodlums, who kidnapped him for ransom, has caused outright hatred.

French Jewish solidarity with Israel is near unanimous, unfettered and highly emotional. Sarkozy knows this from multiple appearances at Jewish events. His first trip abroad, after taking over the neo-Gaullist UMP party in 2004 in order to turn it into a machine to propel him to the Elysee presidential palace, was to Israel. After the obligatory photo at the Western Wall, he was received by a beaming Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who told him: 'We know you fully realize we see you as one of our friends.'

Sarkozy's actions as Interior Minister, assigning police and funds to protect Jewish premises against anti-Semitic attacks, has been rewarded with prizes from the Simon Wiesenthal Center and B'nai B'rith.

Patrick Gaubert, a prominent French Jewish figure and president of the influential International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA) describes Sarkozy as 'the real star for French Jews.'

Minister for Regional Development Christian Estrosi, a key Sarkozy aide and a non-Jew, sums it up when he says, 'Nicolas Sarkozy is the natural candidate of French Jewry.'

When Sarkozy made a lengthy and emotional speech on January 14 to launch his campaign before tens of thousands of enthusiastic backers, he conjured up a dozen figures of French history, from Joan of Arc to Emile Zola and Charles de Gaulle. Saying they had inspired him to seek the presidency, he included Georges Mandel, a Jewish predecessor as French Interior Minister who was murdered by French Nazi collaborators in 1944. Sarkozy, who wrote a biography of Mandel in 1994, also said that his own life was marked by a visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem where he stood amid multiple small lights twinkling in memory of a million Jewish children killed during the Shoah.

Some members of the French Jewish community are even convinced that 'Sarko' is Jewish. He is not, but he does have a powerful Jewish family tie, his maternal grandfather who raised him in the absence of his unconventional father, Paul Sarkozy de Nagy-Bosca, a non-Jewish minor Hungarian aristocrat who came to France after World War II to escape Soviet rule in his home country.

A tall, seductive man who dabbled in art, advertising and bankruptcy, he married Andree Mallah, a Paris law student and daughter of a well-to-do doctor. They had three children, all boys, of whom Nicolas was the second. In 1959, when Nicolas was four, Paul walked out on his family. Relations between father and son have been poor ever since, including several years when a teenage Nicolas refused all contact.

Sarkozy's mother, left without financial support, resumed her law studies and moved back to her parents' three-story townhouse in an elegant Paris neighborhood. She later became a successful lawyer.

When she came back to the family home, her father had been a widower for three years and was delighted to have his daughter and three young grandsons live with him.

The adored grandfather who became the main male influence in the life of the young Nicholas was Benedict ('Benico') Mallah, born into the once-powerful Jewish community of Salonika, the eastern Mediterranean port city long dubbed 'The Jerusalem of the Balkans.' Sephardi Jews settled in Salonika after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. They prospered for centuries under Ottoman rule and made up a majority of the city's population at the start of the 20th century.

In 1904, 'Benico' Mallah's wealthy jeweller parents, Mordechai and Reina, sent their 14-year-old son to boarding school in Paris. He was later admitted to Paris University medical school but did not return to Salonika because the situation deteriorated for Jews after the city came under Greek rule in 1912. Those who remained were later wiped out by the Nazis.

Benedict Mallah served as a doctor in the French army during World War I when he met his future wife Adele Bouvier, then a nurse and young war widow. Her parents baulked at the idea that their daughter would marry a non-Catholic so he converted to please them. He is not known to have set foot again in a church after his wedding, but neither is he known to have gone back to synagogue, fitting into, and prospering, in France's highly secularized society.

Dr. Mallah's Jewish origins came back to haunt him during World War II when he and his family hid for two years in a rural French village, fearing discovery by the Nazis for whom a Jew was a Jew, converted to Catholicism or not. Nicolas was baptized, married in church, but, as he grew up, he was always considered 'not entirely French' by some schoolmates and neighbors. He now describes himself as 'an immigrant's son with mixed blood' and, if elected, would be modern France's first-ever national leader with such powerful foreign antecedents.

Sarkozy's former fashion-model wife Cecilia, who made the cover of Paris-Match in 2005, when she left him for the French-Jewish advertising executive Richard Attias, has even fewer French connections and some possible tenuous Jewish ones as well. Her mother was Spanish and her wealthy furrier father, Andrei Ciganer, was born in Odessa, Russia. French Jews believe he was Jewish and point out that one of Cecilia's middle names is Sara and that her eldest daughter by an earlier marriage is called Judith. The Sarkozys, who have a 10-year-old son, have reunited.

Sarkozy has further foreign connections since a step-sister and a step-brother, children of his father by one of his other marriages, reside in the United States and are U.S. citizens.

It is a weightier issue concerning the United States, which has been prominent in the news in France in recent months. Sarkozy has long been one of the most pro-American politicians on the French scene.

Speaking to the American Jewish Committee in Washington in 2004, he boasted that French journalists called him 'Sarkozy the American' and he said he took that as a compliment. The nickname was not, however, meant to be laudatory and there was a row last September when a Socialist party report described Sarkozy as 'an American neo-conservative with a French passport.'

This followed Sarkozy's calling on President George Bush at the White House. Bush is detested by much of the mostly left-leaning French press and Sarkozy was blasted by French media after he said while in the U.S. that he regretted 'French arrogance' toward the United States in leading diplomatic efforts to prevent the second Gulf War.

Sarkozy pledged that if he was president, 'France would never again appear to rejoice when America was in trouble.'

The words have come back to haunt him because Sarkozy now needs President Chirac, who conceived the anti-U.S. campaign, to support his bid for the five-year presidential term. Sarkozy has therefore started to water down his once-unwavering support for the U.S. and praised Chirac's role during the Iraq conflict. Unveiling his foreign policy platform at a news conference in Paris on February 28, Sarkozy pledged deep friendship to the United States, but asked Washington to stay out of French affairs while paying tribute to Chirac for 'lucidity ' in keeping out of the Iraq conflict he described as a 'historical error.'

Some Jews immediately scrutinized Sarkozy's statements to see if there was any such turnabout concerning Israel. They were reassured to see statements demanding the disarming of Hizballah and rejecting the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, 'which would be a danger for the existence of Israel.' But there was some unease that, while Sarkozy repeated 'Israel's security is non-negotiable,' he echoed Chirac's stance that Israeli military reaction in Lebanon last summer was 'disproportionate.'

And especially, they noted, each sentence about Israel's security needs was linked with words about the need for a 'viable Palestinian state.' That wasn't really new, but French Jews are not used to hearing it from Sarkozy in the same breath as his backing for Israel.

The very next morning, Claude Goasguen, a close Sarkozy ally and the vice chairman of the Israel-France parliamentary friendship group, was on French Jewish radio to soothe ever-sensitive Jewish anxieties.

'Is Monsieur Sarkozy changing his stance toward Israel?' he was asked. 'Not at all,' Goasguen replied. 'President Chirac is going to speak in a few days and we have no interest whatsoever in showing the deep differences which exist in our camp on these subjects,' he said candidly. Goasguen added: 'I think that with time, we will be able to obtain a radical change in French policy, which will bring us back to true friendship between France and Israel and that we will, once and for all, end all differences between the two countries.'

Time will tell. There is another French proverb which says: 'The only people who believe promises by politicians are those to whom they are made.'

This article was originally published at: Armenian Diaspora News Forum > April 2007 > The Jewish Vote And The French Election - The Jerusalem Report April 2, 2007 by Nicholas Simon (Page not loading when trying last)

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