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French Jews conflicted on constitution

Posters of the Green Party, left, the Front National, center, and the Communist Party hang next to each other on a Paris street on May 26. (Lauren Elkin)

Posters of the Green Party, left, the Front National, center, and the Communist Party hang next to each other on a Paris street on May 26. (Lauren Elkin)

PARIS, May 27 (JTA) — Anywhere you go in Paris this week, every available surface is covered with posters advertising the words “oui” and “non.” The uninformed tourist might deduce that someone is having an extremely hard time making a decision about something. They’d be right, and French Jews seem as undecided as the rest of the nation. The decision is whether to ratify the European Union constitution on Sunday. A recent poll indicates that 54 percent of French voters will vote against, while 46 percent say they’ll vote yes. However, three quarters of those polled said they weren’t completely sure of their choice, and 22 percent thought they might still change their minds, leaving French leaders some room for last-minute campaigning. The constitution, a copy of which was mailed to every registered voter in France, protects fundamental human rights as well as the rights to social security, employment, freedom of religion and from discrimination, gender equality and protection of animals. It also establishes certain economic policies to ensure that the European Union will be “a domestic market with free and unadulterated competition.” If it’s not approved by all E.U. member nations by Nov. 1, 2006, the constitution will become null and a new one will have to be drawn up, a contentious and laborious process. For the most part, all leaders of the mainstream French political establishment — from the moderate right to the moderate left — are urging a vote in favor. However, the political margins on each side are more prone to vote no. The French indecision is ironic, considering that the text was drafted largely by a former French president, Valery Giscard-d’Estaing. While some French Jewish community leaders have refused to endorse one side or the other, others have tried to persuade the Jewish community that it’s best — both as French citizens and as Jews — to vote “yes.” But the community isn’t united on the issue. Jewish or not, the “no’s” are expressing their dissatisfaction with a wide variety of issues that may have little to do with the constitution itself. Many analysts have suggested that constitution opponents are using the referendum as an opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with French President Jacques Chirac’s government. Others may vote “no” to protest the E.U.’s free-market orientation. Still others fear an erosion of French national identity. Some French Jews will vote “no” over the possibility of Turkey joining the European Union. An even larger number will vote “no” because they mistrust E.U. policy toward Israel, fearing that if a minister from a country hostile to Israel is put in charge of E.U. foreign policy, the body will become even more pro-Arab than it already is. Claude Baroush, president of the Union of French Jewish Employers and Professionals, is incredulous that some Jews plan to vote “no.” “As a Jew, I find it impossible to vote with those people” who are against the constitution, notably Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, and Jose Bove, the radical leftist who served as a human shield to Yasser Arafat during the intifada. “These people are enemies of the Jews, they are enemies of Israel, and I could not vote on the same side as them,” Baroush said. Sammy Ghozlan, president of the National Bureau of Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism, said he felt many Jews planned to vote against the referendum, and that disappointed him. “It’s embarrassing to think of them aligning themselves with the ‘no’s’ of the extreme right and the Communist Party,” which is very anti-Israel, he said. Jews who vote “no” will do so because “they perceive the E.U. as unifying itself again the United States and against Israel,” Ghozlan said. However, as Elizabeth Schemla argued in a recent article on the Web site Proche-orient.info, “A ‘no’ in the name of Israel. . .would be a ‘yes’ to the worst enemies of Israel” because it would reinforce the nationalism of the extreme right and the fundamentalism of Islamists on the left. The E.U. constitution is a set of guidelines for political practice, not an endorsement of a particular political point of view, Schemla explained. Both Fuchs and Baroush argued that, if it wants to retain good relations with the United States and trade with Israel, the European Union would have to come down hard against anti-Semitism and, as Baroush put it, “pursue an equitable relationship with Israel.” Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress, expressed his hope that voters wouldn’t confuse national issues with pan-European ones. “There are a few open questions regarding the contents of this constitution,” he said, but commended it for establishing “a unified Europe that has ruptured with its past to create a new future.” Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor who served as president of the European Parliament, has come out in favor of the constitution, citing her experience in the Shoah. “This European construction responds to the will to never again let such warfare, such barbarity, come to pass,” she told Le Figaro newspaper. She was criticized in the media for using the Holocaust as a reason to ratify the constitution. David Fuchs, secretary general of the Centre Bernard Lazare, a Jewish community center in Paris, expressed his support for a “reasonable ‘yes,’ ” as opposed to a “utopian ‘yes.’ ” “It wouldn’t be possible to have something perfect,” Fuchs said. “This constitution represents certain advances over the treaties of Nice and Maastricht” — two earlier agreements that helped define the European Union — “both of which France has already agreed to.” The official mouthpieces of the Jewish community, such as CRIF and the Consistoire, have refused to take a stand. “We encourage every citizen to vote,” CRIF spokeswoman Edith Lenczner told JTA. “But we are not analyzing or advocating any one side.” Consistoire officials told Actualite Juive, a Jewish newspaper, that “we don’t permit ourselves to enter into political debates,” though the grand rabbi of Paris, David Messas, has indicated his support for a “yes” vote. Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris, cited articles in the constitution that directly affect the Jewish community. There is Article II-70, which governs freedom of religious expression: “All persons have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion…as well as the right to display said religion individually and collectively, publicly or privately,” it reads. Then there is Article III-121, which identifies animals as feeling creatures, “all the while respecting the religious practices or cultural traditions” of certain groups. It’s unclear what will happen if France fails to ratify the constitution. Chirac, who went before the nation Thursday night in a last-ditch attempt to persuade undecided voters, has firmly rejected talk of a “Plan B.” The document so far has been ratified in Austria, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain. Germany, Belgium, Estonia, and Latvia are expected to ratify it soon. Only the Netherlands, with a referendum set for June 1, shows signs of joining France in saying “no.”

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