What does a new president mean for French Jewry?
In France, the election results are in—but what do they mean for the local Jewish community?
Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party defeated incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement on Sunday with about 52 percent of the vote. Although Sarkozy attempted to destabilize the Socialist candidate in a televised three-hour debate just days before the final election, he was unable to overcome the comfortable lead Hollande had maintained since he became the Socialist nominee in October 2011.
According to the European Jewish Congress, Hollande has said that he will be “uncompromising in the fight against anti-Semitism,” and he will oppose anything that “could contribute to a climate that would isolate the Jews within their own country.” With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hollande supports two neighboring and sovereign states for Jews and for Palestinians. “Even beyond the Israeli-Palestinian issue, we must be very firm with respect to Iran, whose nuclear program is a vital danger for Israel and for world peace,” he said.
However, Dr. Richard Prasquier, president of the French Jewish community’s Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF) umbrella organization, said at a New York press conference attended by JointMedia News Service April 30 that a Hollande-led Socialist government could allow parties with strong anti-Israel views to gain influence in France.
“What I know is the new category of Jew bashing comes from the position of anti-Zionism, from those who stigmatize, who vilify the State of Israel,” Prasquier said. Sarkozy, he said, “is a friend of the Jewish community.”
While Hollande has said he is “totally opposed” to the boycott of Israeli products, which he said is “illegal and does not serve the cause of peace,” his government could take on the Communist and the Green parties as coalition partners. These parties are known to have signed the charter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)-France Campaign and made an appeal to boycott Israeli goods in 2009, according to the CRIF website.
As of 2010 approximately 480,000 Jews lived in France, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. Historically, French Jews have been influential politically and have also typically aligned themselves with liberal views. “They enthusiastically voted for the left as far back as 1981, when they favored the socialist François Mitterrand as President of the French Republic,” said Joseph Sungolowsky, professor of French and Jewish Studies at Queens College, City University of New York, in a phone interview with JointMedia News Service. “But with the rise of the deligitimization of Israel and subsequent anti-Zionist and repeated anti-Semitic incidents, French Jews veered to the right and in 2007 voted for Nicolas Sarkozy.”
Jewish support for Sarkozy can also be explained by another factor. According to Ethan Katz, a University of Cincinnati historian, France has had five prime ministers of Jewish descent, although some of them were practicing Christians. The first one was Léon Blum in the 1930s and the most recent was Laurent Fabius in the 1980s. These individuals have ranged fairly widely across the political spectrum, from Blum, one of the emblematic figures in the history of the French left, to Michel Debré who was Prime Minister under Charles de Gaulle and strongly associated with the right. Nicolas Sarkozy is also of Jewish descent through his mother. “Altogether, there’s a way in which I think Sarkozy creates a visceral level of comfort with many French Jews who are concerned about their future,” Katz told JointMedia News Service.
There are probably some Jews who have been historically active in the political left, and who might be uncomfortable with Sarkozy’s use of anti-immigrant rhetoric. However, “I’ve even spoken to Jews who are uncomfortable with the xenophobic rhetoric but will still vote for Sarkozy because they are more scared of what they see as the threat of ‘Islam’ than they are uncomfortable,” Katz added.
Up until it was disqualified in the first election round, the French far-right National Front party, led by Marine Le Pen, had been courting Jewish voters. Historically, the party has been known for an anti-Semitic political platform, but Le Pen has distanced herself from that platform, and her party garnered a higher-than-usual 18 percent of the overall vote in the first round.
For many French Jews, it’s difficult to “forget that the Front National is an extreme right-wing party founded by an anti-Semite,” Sungolowsky said. However, Katz argues that the party has been shifting away from focusing on anti-Semitism even when Jean-Marie Le Pen was still in control. “If you look at his rhetoric, you’ll see that he mentioned Jews less and less, and focused more and more on the threat of Islam,” Katz said. There are probably some Jews who share this concern and have come to regard Muslims, rather than the Christian far right, as the main source of anti-Semitism in France, to the point that they voted for the National Front. In 2007, about five percent of Jews voted for the party.
Michel Thooris, a former CRIF employee who is running for parliament as a member of the National Front, told Haaretz that “my belief is that it’s natural to turn to [Marine] Le Pen when you’re Jewish. She fights crime and Islamism and that means she defends Jews.”
As columnist Boaz Bismuth of the Israeli daily newspaper Israel Hayom wrote just days before the election, “Sarkozy understood that the 6.4 million French citizens who voted for Marine Le Pen's National Front would decide the election...Consequently, Sarkozy has decided to sidestep Marine Le Pen and appeal directly to her voters, by striking a very right-wing tone.”
Sarkozy had also taken a position against “uncontrolled immigration and illegal immigration,” Prasquier told JointMedia News Service. After the Toulouse shooting in March, in which Muslim extremist Mohammad Merah killed three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school, Sarkozy ordered a roundup of several suspected terrorists and people with alleged ties to terrorism.
How France’s Jewish community will fare in the future, or what position the new president will take with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is now anyone’s guess. The defeated Sarkozy “has only himself to blame…He is now regarded as a president of the wealthy, even the extremely wealthy… Nor has his personal life been very presidential,” wrote Israel Hayom’s Bismuth.
Katz believes it is certainly possible that Hollande will be less pro-Israel than Sarkozy was, but “If Holland is shrewd, he will work to reach out to the Jewish community in his early months in office.”