When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu mention French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, they refer to him as a personal friend.
On a Feb. 21 visit to Paris, Netanyahu was asked after a long meeting with Sarkozy why no meeting had been arranged with Segolene Royal, the Socialist Party candidate for president and Sarkozy s main rival in April 22 elections.
Netanyahu answered that Royal had declined an invitation to meet during her visit to Israel two months ago, so he saw no point in meeting her in Paris.
That coolness is evident in the French Jewish community as well.
It’s a community that has undergone deep changes since the Palestinian intifada began in late 2000, re-orienting itself toward Israel in various ways: rising aliyah, investments in real estate and business opportunities. And most importantly, by strong political support for Israel s leadership.
Several French Jews active in the community say openly that a candidate s position on Israel will be decisive when they re deciding how to vote. But does a Jewish vote really exist in France, considering that communal identification is strongly discouraged in France, in contrast to the American model?
Sarkozy, 52, the candidate from the ruling right-wing Union for a Popular Movement, has been nurturing his contacts with Israel and the Arab world for years. He visits Israel frequently and takes pride in his relentless fight against anti-Semitism.
Sarkozy s father was of Jewish origin, but he doesn’t play this up or identify himself as a Jew. Still, his close ties to French Jewish leaders, his admiration for America’s vision of the Middle East and his efforts against anti-Semitism all have earned him strong support in the Jewish community.
When Ilan Halimi, a young French Jew, was kidnapped and tortured to death by a gang near Paris last year, Sarkozy was the first politician to condemn a possible anti-! Semitic motivation even as Jewish communal leaders stepped cautiously.
His opponents accuse Sarkozy of favoring a communitarian approach encouraging strong identities within different ethnic communities, something perceived as contrary to France s republican ideal.
As interior minister, Sarkozy initiated the formation of an umbrella group uniting French Muslim associations similar to the main religious structures in other French faith communities. But Sarkozy s opponents accuse him of paving the way for the radical Muslim leadership that recently has taken over the group.
Left-wing parties traditionally have taken the French Jewish votes for granted. Philosophers like Andre Glucksman, Max Gallo and Alain Finkielraut long have considered the Socialist Party their ideological cradle.
But times are changing in France, and even Jews among the Intellos Rive Gauche or the Left Bank Intellectuals seem to be hesitating, primarily because of Royal s inexperience. Royal has tried to present her relative lack of experience as a breath of fresh air, but many intellectuals have been troubled by several high-profile foreign policy gaffes she has made in recent months.
Still, even for the Jews among the Left Bank Intellectuals, who strongly criticized Israeli policy in the 1970s and 1980s and, a bit less strongly, during the current intifada, a change has been apparent for the past several years. It reflects a growing fear of radical Islam and, consequently, a recognition of Israel s need for security.
Royal herself doesn t make it easy for Jews who have traditionally voted left but are seeking assurances that she will take a pro-Israel approach.
Sources indicate that Royal’s political handlers have shied away from contact with the Jewish community despite its outreach efforts.
When they saw many Jews abandoning the Socialists for Sarkozy, members of Royal s team accused CRIF, the umbrella organization of secular French Jewish gro! ups, of pushing Jews to vote for Sarkozy.
Socialist Party spokesman Julian Dray accused one Jewish leader of lobbying for Sarkozy. The leader argued that CRIF includes all Jewish associations, regardless of political orientation but the rift by then had been officially established.
Seeking to dispel that impression, 15 Jewish intellectuals published a letter this month rejecting the idea that the community would vote as a bloc for Sarkozy.
The text in Le Monde, initiated by lawyer Patrick Klugman, former president of the French Jewish student group UEJF and former vice president of the human rights group SOS Racisme, denounced supposed efforts to take “the Jewish community hostage by proclaiming that the Jewish community as a whole has chosen one” candidate.
Klugman acknowledged that many French Jews were attracted to Sarkozy’s pro-Israel stance and his fight against anti-Semitism, but protested Sarkozy’s “communitarian approach.”
Still, ties with Royal have been tense. Four weeks ago she said she would not attend CRIF s annual gala dinner, then changed her mind and arrived unannounced as a gesture of reconciliation.
CRIF President Roger Cukierman spoke privately with Royal during the event, after which he denied that there were any problems or misunderstandings between the candidate and the community.
Royal was unknown to the Israeli public until a recent visit to Israel, and she has never taken an interest in the Middle East. At 53, her political resume is rather short: She was appointed education minister by Francois Mitterand, and currently serves as president of her region. Her campaign aims to sell French people a warm and caring candidate who is concerned with their day-to-day problems, not international politics.
According to recent polls, the strategy is working. Royal and Sarkozy are in a tight battle, with a third candidate, centrist Francois Bayrou, taking votes from both candidates.
Royal s foreign policy remains something of a mystery. Her trip to the Middle East her first formal foreign visit after being chosen as the Socialists presidential candidate indicated that she would follow the French tradition of high visibility on the international scene.
But French media described the trip as a failure, especially after Royal remained silent during an appearance in Beirut as a Hezbollah official compared Israel to the Third Reich. Royal, who claimed not to have heard the remarks, repudiated them the following day.
In her 100 points speech presenting her political platform, Royal spoke clearly about Israel s right to security. Her surprisingly strong stand against Iranian nuclear power, including civilian nuclear capacity, no doubt helped her stock among Israel supporters.