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Behind the Headlines: French President Mitterrand Gets Mixed Report from Jews

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President Francois Mitterrand, who celebrated 10 years in office Friday, is still one of the most popular presidents France has ever had.

But he gets a mixed report card from French Jews.

The Paris dailies and national television were filled over the weekend with laudatory comments about the man who leads France’s powerful Socialist Party and follows conservative economic policies, which have brought down inflation but sent unemployment soaring.

Jewish opinions on such matters vary the same as all French citizens. But on issues of specific Jewish concern, there is widespread disappointment with the president, for whom Jews voted overwhelmingly when he was first elected on May 10, 1981.

There was ample reason to expect at that time that Mitterrand and his Socialists would reverse “France’s Arab policy.”

Hopes soared when Mitterrand announced his intention to go to Israel in 1982, the first French president ever to visit the Jewish state.

But politicians in office and those ex-officio march to different drummers.

The Israeli ambassador to Paris at the time, Meir Rosenne, used to quip about “our friends, the former French ministers, and the French ministers, our former friends.”

Mitterrand’s relationship with French Jewry turned sour when the president began advancing the fortunes of Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization on the international scene.

It plummeted when Mitterrand received Arafat in Paris in 1989.

He was greeted by Jewish street protests that were violent, but only verbally. Mitterrand was nevertheless outraged.

ASCENDANCY OF THE FAR RIGHT

He told Theo Klein, at the time president of CRIF, the representative council of French Jewish organizations, that “French foreign policy is decided in Paris, not Jerusalem.”

That does not mean that Mitterrand does not have genuine affection for Israel, its people and culture. But he simply believes his policy is the best way to peace and that Israel someday will be compelled to negotiate with Arafat and the PLO.

But while opinions can differ on the Middle East, even among Jews, French Jewry holds Mitterrand responsible for a menace much closer to home.

It is the rise, during his administration, of the extreme right-wing, racist National Front, a party led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has publicly denigrated the Holocaust and is widely considered an anti-Semite.

The National Front was able to legitimately enter the political arena only because Mitterrand pushed through an electoral reform law in 1985 that established proportional representation, which benefits splinter parties.

No one can say now whether it was a historical mistake or a cynical ploy by the Socialists to split the right-wing vote.

In any case, France’s neo-fascist party would win over 14 percent of the vote if elections were held now.

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