French Jews fear that the odds-on favorite to win the French presidential run-off election May 6 will do so by reaching out to the far left, among whom are rabid anti-Israeli activists who favor the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that seeks to delegitimize Israel.
The Jewish community’s favorite candidate, incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, remains behind in the polls after coming in second in a 10-candidate race in the first round of balloting last Sunday.
“Sarkozy in his first presidential campaign was considered a friend of Israel because he had shown a real empathy with Israel,” said Richard Prasquier, president of the CRIF, the umbrella group of French Jewish organizations. “It is commonly believed that he received a large portion of the Jewish vote in 2007 — at least 70 percent.”
That sentiment for Sarkozy has “persisted” in the French Jewish community, although there are some Jews “who are disillusioned” with some of Sarkozy’s positions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Prasquier told The Jewish Week by phone from Paris.
The Socialist Party candidate, Francois Hollande, who finished first Sunday with 28.6 percent of the vote to Sarkozy’s 27.2 percent, is expected to get a “sizeable portion of French Jewish votes” because many still vote for the Socialist candidate and they “expect him to have the same positions as Sarkozy in the foreign policy area,” Prasquier said.
He said the only reluctance Jews have expressed about voting for Hollande is the fact that he is expected to align himself with groups like the Green and the Communist parties, both of which are “extremely anti-Israel” and support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
Tsilla Hershco, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Israel, said she, too, is wary of those who are expected to surround Hollande.
“Within the Socialist Party is the extreme left with ideas that are very anti-Israel,” she said. “They have ideological anti-Zionist opinions. If Hollande has to form a coalition with them, he will have to pay attention to their ideas and they would draw him to their opinions.”
Hershco said she does not believe that Hollande is against Jews or Israel and has “moderate opinions.” But, she added, “he is not strong enough … and in order to attract his electorate, he has to express ideas that are more severe on Israel. I don’t think things will be good for Israel with the left coming to power.”
Prasquier noted, however, that in an interview in a Jewish newspaper last week Hollande said that he, like Sarkozy, favors a Palestinian state through a negotiated settlement with Israel.
Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Paris office, said the main concern she has about Hollande is the unknown.
“He has spoken about getting French troops out of Afghanistan and recognizing a Palestinian state, but the main fear is not knowing” about his other positions, she said.
“It is true that the Socialist Party in the past has had a difficult relationship with Israel and the Jewish community,” she pointed out. “Under [Socialist] Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, French Jews felt they were not sufficiently well protected [from anti-Semitic attacks] in the year 2000.”
Thus, she said, while it is clear that overall Sarkozy has been a “good friend of Israel and France has been in the forefront of pressing for sanctions against Iran [to dissuade it from pursuing nuclear weapons], we don’t know about Hollande.”
Kenneth Weinstein, president and CEO of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, noted that he has already “heard reports that the mullahs [Islamic fundamentalist clergy] are awaiting [Hollande’s] election in the belief he will make it tougher to push a hard line on Iran.”
Sarkozy, on the other hand, “has been an historic figure in having a visibly pro-Israel stance and in being the most visible Western leader against the Iranian nuclear threat. And he has transformed the French political landscape, bringing a significant number of Jews over to the center-right.”
Arthur Goldhammer of the Center for European Studies at Harvard University said that although little is known of Hollande’s views now, that should come to an end next week when he is slated to debate Sarkozy, with two reporters asking them questions.
Hershco pointed out that in his quest to amass enough votes to push him over the 50 percent mark May 6, Sarkozy is reaching out to the far-right supporters of Marine Le Pen, whose National Front Party garnered a strong third place finish with nearly 18 percent of the vote.
Prasquier said that although no one knows for sure how French voters cast their ballots, because there is no exit polling, he doubts Marine Le Pen received many Jewish votes because of the racist views of her father, Jean Marie Le Pen and the fact that “there are still a number of anti-Semites in her surroundings.”
Goldhammer pointed out that Marine Le Pen “has moved away from the old anti-Semitic lines of her father and reoriented herself towards an anti-Islamic feeling that emphasized the French republican tradition of secularism in the public sphere. She says Islam is not compatible with public speech. She has expressed a lot of coded messages so that she can piggyback on her father’s hostility to various groups without actually saying it.”
He said Jews did not embrace her, even as she “took positive steps to break away from the anti-Semitism” of her father.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he is concerned that what is happening in France with the “extremes on the left and the right who are gaining ground” is happening throughout Europe.
But even as Sarkozy appeals for the support from Le Pen followers by voicing some of the same anti-Islamic talk, Pasquier said that “when he takes these positions, it is not the same thing. It doesn’t have the same meaning.”
Sarkozy’s relationship with Israel and the Jews has not been all good. For instance, some Jews were unhappy with Sarkozy’s support late last year for the Palestinians joining UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency. In December, the Palestinians raised their flag at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris as the agency’s 195th member, an historic step seen as moving them closer to United Nations recognition as an independent state.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Sarkozy’s stance is puzzling in light of the fact that Sarkozy supports a Palestinian state created as a result of a negotiated settlement with Israel.
“Why reward the Palestinian effort in UNESCO? It sends the wrong message,” he said.
Goldhammer also recalled the private conversation Sarkozy had with President Barack Obama that was heard by the open microphones they were wearing.
“Sarkozy said he finds [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu a burdensome partner, and it is known that he would like more Israeli flexibility on settlements.”
Foxman recalled that Sarkozy took a lead role in calling for a settlement freeze as well as an early cease-fire in the Gaza War.
“So things have not been all black and white, but on the whole Conservative governments in Europe have been friendlier than Socialist governments,” Foxman said. “That does not mean that a Socialist government cannot be as friendly or even friendlier. [Hollande’s] record is on par with Europe. Most of Europe is more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel; the question is the matter of degree. On Iran we may see a difference because France has been very tough, and I’m not sure where the Socialist government may be.”
Although Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said it would be a “big blow to Israel” if Sarkozy lost, there were others who said Hollande’s election would mean little in terms of French foreign policy.
“The most important characteristic of French foreign policy since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958 has been its consistency,” said Nicholas Dungan, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a trans-Atlantic think tank based on Washington, D.C. “I would not anticipate any major changes from Hollande or Sarkozy. … I do not anticipate any kind of radical change with respect to Israel or Iran.”
Justin Vaisse, director of research at the Center on the United States and Europe and a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institute, pointed out that it is a “longstanding Socialist position to support a two-state solution [Palestinian and Israeli] dating back to the end of the ‘70s and early ‘80s – long before most other observers were in favor of it. (Hollande) does not have a distinctive take on it that would distinguish him from the Socialist mainstream.”
Regarding Iran, Vaisse said there might be differences in nuance between Hollande and Sarkozy, but “Hollande has been explicit in saying there would be strong continuity.”