Around the Jewish World French Jews Appear to Be Opting

With the French presidential election three months away, conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy is gaining strength in the Jewish community.

But are voters being swayed by Sarkozy’s strong support of Israel and tough stands on suburban violence and Islamic fundamentalism, or do they just not think much of his opponent, Segolene Royal of the Socialist Party?

“Usually I don’t vote, but this time I am registering and then I will vote for Sarkozy,” said Michael Sebban, 38, a high school philosophy teacher and author of several novels. “But I am really voting against Segolene Royal and the Socialist Party because her grasp of international politics is bad for Israel.”

Simy Bendahan, 45, a clothing manufacturer in Paris’ heavily Jewish garment center, says “everyone I know is voting for Nicolas Sarkozy, and I’m going to do the same.”

“Usually I vote Socialist Party,” Bendahan said, “but Segolene Royal knows nothing about foreign policy — about the Middle East, for example.”

The April election takes place in two rounds. All candidates and political parties participate in the first round, with the two top vote-getters then facing off.

While the Gallic French are still talking about voting along party lines, observers say that more than in any other election, the country’s 600,000 Jews are talking about voting against a candidate rather than supporting one — a vote de sanction, in French.

Sebban noted that Royal said she would talk with any official in another countries who was elected democratically. In early December, she met with Hezbollah parliamentarians in Beirut on a Middle East tour that included talks with high-level Israeli officials and Palestinian leaders in the Gaza Strip.

“That looks great on paper, but first of all, in some countries, bad guys are being elected, such as the Hamas or Ahmadinejad in Iran,” Sebban said. “If she wants to talk to them, I will not vote for her.”

On her Middle East tour, Royal was criticized for not immediately condemning a Hezbollah deputy in Beirut who equated Israel with the Nazis who occupied France. The next day she called the remarks “unacceptable, abominable and odious,” blaming her failure to speak out on a bad translation.

Ariane Warlin, business supplement editor at the left-leaning Le Monde newspaper, as well as an anchorwoman and talk-show host at TFJ, a French Jewish television station that recently went off the air, said she isn’t so sure that there even is a Jewish vote, under normal conditions.

“But this time, large numbers of Jews say they are voting for Nicolas Sarkozy and the center-right UMP party,” Warlin said. “He is clear about his support for Israel and about cracking down on violence in the suburbs, and on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism here.”

As interior minister, Sarkozy acted against illegal residents in France, mostly from West Africa and Arab North Africa, Warlin said. A number were deported.

“Even people who were put off by his demagogic approach to the illegal residents situation have nobody else to turn to because Socialist Party officials simply ignored the situation,” Warlin said. “I am very tempted to vote for him also.”

Sebban said Sarkozy is the only candidate, left or right, to recognize that French people increasingly are divided into different communities, such as North African Arabs, Muslims, Jews, Africans and Asians.

As interior minister, Sarkozy has tried to address the needs of those communities, for example, by forming a Muslim Council similar to the Jewish umbrella group, CRIF. That didn’t sit well with many mainstream French.

“For many Gallic French, addressing different communities is the same as admitting the failure of what is called here the republican model, whereby all French citizens are considered to be the same and their origins are never mentioned, such as in polls or even crime reports,” Sebban said.

“For many Jews it’s the opposite,” he continued. “They recognize themselves in this community identity, especially Jews from North Africa. They support Sarkozy because he openly talks about supporting Israel and about the insecurity Jews feel in certain suburbs when they have been victims of violence from young Arab neighbors.

“For many mainstream French, both the aggressors and victims are French and nothing more, but Jews know better than that, and so does Sarkozy,” he went on. “Personally, I think the French are fools to think like that, but the bottom line is that they really don’t give a damn.”

Not everyone agrees.

“The young North Africans in troubled suburbs will stop burning cars or turning to radical Islam when they are given a chance to work,” said Michel Lachkar, a television journalist of Moroccan Jewish origins, and a former activist in extreme-left circles.

“As interior minister, Sarkozy has failed to do anything, in spite of all the tough talk,” he said. “I think the Socialist Party is better equipped to change the situation, and I think that Segolene Royal is more interesting than she appears. I reason as a French person more than as a Jew on this.”

Lachkar did say that Sarkozy’s support for Israel represents a break with traditional right-wing policy.

“Rightist Gaullist politicians have always been pro-Arab in their Middle East policies,” Lachkar said. “Sarkozy is openly supportive of Israel and critical of Hamas and Hezbollah. Obviously that attracts many Jewish voters.”

In a strange twist, far-right leader Jean Marie Le Pen, by virtue of his statements against Arabs in France, has attracted a small number of Jewish voters, who have been victims of violence in certain suburbs.

“For the Jews who say they’re voting National Front,” Sebban said, “that just proves that even among us Jews there are a few idiots.”

Royal’s meeting with Hezbollah representatives provoked a critical letter from the CRIF saying that Hezbollah is “not frequentable.”

The Socialist Party official who organized Royal’s trip to the Middle East, Julien Dray, who is Jewish, responded that “there is a certain complacency between Jewish community leaders, especially at the CRIF, and the French political right, especially Nicolas Sarkozy. I think that Jewish community institutions are suspicious of Socialist Party candidates, but I think they should be neutral, except in the case of the extreme rightist Jean Marie LePen, of course.”

CRIF President Roger Cukierman told JTA, “At the CRIF, we are neutral. Dray organized this voyage by Royal and was clumsy about it. Now he is looking for a scapegoat.”

Cukierman says CRIF’s job is to get out the vote.

“We do not tell people whom to vote for,” he said. “We have no official position. Some people back Sarkozy and others do not.”

Adeline Attia, 42, isn’t sure whom to vote for.

“For the first time ever I’m completely lost,” said Attia, who heads a small marketing company. “Sarkozy has no ethics, and Segolene simply doesn’t have what it takes to be president.”

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