PARIS, April 16 (JTA) — With the first round of presidential elections set to begin Sunday, Jewish issues have been thrust into a prominent role on the French political stage. Several weeks ago, the leading candidates and the French media had appeared to settle on the idea that the headline issue of the campaign would be how to respond to France´s rising crime and delinquency rates. Jewish leaders, for their part, were trying desperately to inject the community´s own growing insecurity into the discussion. At the beginning of February, for instance, B´nai Brith France President Edwige Elkaim claimed, "To say that we are heard would be to exaggerate, but on the eve of elections we are listened to, and we do not remain silent." That was before the Israeli military began Operation Defensive Wall, the 18-month-long wave of anti-Semitic aggression in France reached new heights in a weekend of wild violence and over 100,000 Jews took to the streets of French cities in protest. This round of events began in the final weekend of March when pro-Palestinian demonstrations spurred an outbreak of anti-Semitic attacks in several French cities. In the most striking display of anti-Jewish aggression, a group of fifteen vandals used a car as a battering ram to enter a Lyon synagogue, and then attempted to set the building afire. The following weekend, the CRIF – the umbrella organization of secular French Jewish institutions – organized a massive rally against French anti-Semitism and terrorism. Despite bringing out perhaps the largest mobilization of Jews in French history, the demonstration revealed deepening cleavages within the Jewish community. In the days preceding the event, Jewish leaders clashed over CRIF President Roger Cukierman´s decision to place the conflict in Israel before the matter of French anti-Semitism. These tensions spilled into the streets when members of right-wing groups – mostly young men belonging to Betar and the Jewish Defense League – attacked Jewish peace protesters. The militants also roughed up photographers, assaulted police and beat up several young Arabs around the edges of the demonstration. Cukierman decried the extremist violence, but it was covered extensively in the French media and has refocused the Jewish question in the final week before the election. What had formerly been a problem of anti-Jewish hostility primarily among young Muslims of North African descent has been transformed almost overnight into a problem of "community conflict." This turn of events occurred in the midst of a flood of horrifying images from Israel, a situation that has made it impossible for the French candidates to take a position on communitarian violence without taking one on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With each new anti-Semitic incident in France and each new attack in Israel closely covered by the French media, the debate on Jewish issues now is largely out of the hands of the Jewish organizations who for so long pressed to put it on the agenda. Jewish leaders like Cukierman and Moise Cohen — president of the Paris Consistoire, which oversees the religious needs of the city´s Jews — have since the beginning of their struggle sought to appeal to French "republican values" and play down sectarianism. As the Jewish community prepares to go to the polls, its leaders thus far have refused to publicly back any candidate. Some fear that such endorsements would elicit accusations of a "Jewish vote" and feed suspicions of extremism. While also not plugging any of the candidates, Jewish hardliners have been less tongue-tied. In a recent incident in the Marais neighborhood, the former Parisian Jewish ghetto where bright yellow Jewish Defense League posters now cover the grey stone walls, several Jewish militants shouted profanities at Green Party candidate Noel Mamère during a campaign stop. When Mamère tried to confront his critics, police intervened to avoid a physical confrontation. Such frustrations with the left-wing parties in France are not limited to extremists. In the past weeks, the major parties on the far left – the Greens, Communists and Trotskyists, which between them could garner about 20 percent of the first-round vote – have participated in rallies against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, while refusing to march against anti-Semitism for fear of appearing to support Sharon. Several anti-racist organizations also abstained for similar reasons. Yet this week also brought signs of a changing tone among left-wing leaders regarding the issues of Israel and French Jewry. Following another desecration of a Jewish cemetery in the eastern French city of Strasbourg, several of the most prominent left and center candidates stated they would participate in a mass demonstration to "send a message of the right to security for some, the right to sovereignty for others, and a denunciation of anti-Semitic acts on French territory." Many labor unions and human rights groups also have backed such a rally. Slated for the Sunday between election rounds, it could attract an immense crowd. This shift has affected more than just the left side of the political spectrum. President Jacques Chirac, of the center-right Rally for the Republic Party, has replaced his denials of French anti-Semitism with heartfelt expressions of sympathy with French Jews and strong condemnations of anti-Jewish hostility. Even the perennial right-wing Jew-baiter, Jean-Marie Le Pen — who could capture up to 10 percent of the vote, according to latest polls — has abandoned his polemics about Jewish influence and Holocaust sensationalism Political commentators have attributed Le Pen´s surprisingly strong support to law-and-order sentiments rather than his link to anti-Semitic positions. As for attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, candidates on the left and right are more careful now than ever to couple their criticisms of Israeli military actions with a disapproval of Palestinian terrorist bombings. This new sensitivity stems not just from an attempt to capture the votes of the Jewish population, which numbers some 500,000, as opposed to an estimated 5 million Muslims in France. Candidates also are paying attention to the feelings of the overall French populace concerning Jews. In a recent "popularity" poll, 82 percent of respondents said they were favorably disposed to Jews in France, while only 71 percent claimed the same for Maghrebins, as Arabs of North African descent are known. Hence, if not the Jewish vote, the Jewish issue could play a deciding role in the coming election. But with the frontrunners, Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, separated by just a few percentage points, nobody can dismiss the difference several hundred thousand votes could make. Jewish leaders are reluctant to predict who will carry the day in the Jewish community. In what may be construed as the only endorsement by a Jewish organization thus far, the UEJF, France´s largest student union, invited Jospin to a gathering at a Paris café Monday to field questions on Israel and anti-Semitism in France. The Socialist prime minister didn´t hesitate to call Israel´s current response to terrorism "beyond what is reasonable and acceptable," but his reception by the Jewish students generally was warm. In the words of one student there, "I think Jospin is honest, and I respect his opinion." "Chirac," she added, "wants to be a friend to the Jews now, but his past record shows that we should not believe him."