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Heading for French Showdown, Candidates Have Eyes on Israel

French Jews have made it clear throughout the presidential campaign that candidates’ positions on Israel will be a key factor for Jewish voters.

With the second round of voting coming up May 6, it therefore was little surprise that advisers and allies to Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal were out in force at Israel’s glamorous Independence Day reception here. There was Jack Lang, a former culture minister and an adviser to Royal. There was Simone Veil, a former health minister and a popular public figure allied with Sarkozy.

A more unexpected guest at the April 24 event was Julian Dray, spokesman for Royal’s Socialist Party and a close adviser to the candidate. Observers said they couldn’t recall Dray ever attending the event before.

Dray has clashed with the Jewish community over reports that most Jews back Sarkozy, a conservative, in his bid to succeed Jacques Chirac, who is from Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement Party.

But just days after the first round of balloting April 22 and a short time before the runoff between Sarkozy and Royal, there was Dray talking with Israeli Ambassador Daniel Shek and having his picture taken.

The celebration offered a golden opportunity for politicians across the spectrum to be seen with Jewish community leaders and emphasize their sympathy for Israel, and no one was going to miss out.

According to opinion polls, Sarkozy and Royal are locked in a tight battle. Sarkozy won the first round with 31.1 percent of the vote to Royal’s 25.8 percent. The top two candidates advance to the run-off.

The concept of appealing to specific ethnic communities is foreign to French political culture, which stresses the country’s identity as a melting pot. But Royal and Sarkozy seem to be playing by new rules in a new political atmosphere — one that favors American-style politicking.

The candidates’ private lives are more exposed, and they’re fighting for television time. Their campaigns are focused on interest groups — for Royal, immigrants and suburbanites; for Sarkozy, the middle class, far-right and liberal professionals.

Outreach to the Jews appears to be part of this new atmosphere.

In criticizing Jewish leaders several months ago for backing Sarkozy, Dray expressed a certain bitterness among Socialist Party leaders. French Jews traditionally have voted Socialist, but with the French left sour on Israel, more and more Jews declared their support for Sarkozy.

No opinion polls are available on how Jews will vote in the runoff. But conversations with Jewish leaders and grassroots community members show that they they believe most French Jews backed Sarkozy in the first round of voting, and will do so again in the run-off.

“I’ve never voted before,” said Dominique, a shop worker in Paris’ old Jewish quarter who asked that her last name not be used. “This time I felt that I had to choose, to support Sarkozy’s warm relations with Israel and with the Jewish community, and at the same time reward the one who was able to take down” far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Since the Palestinian intifada began in 2000, the Jewish community has reoriented itself toward Israel in several ways, such as rising aliyah, investment in real estate and business opportunities. Most importantly, they have offered strong political support for Israel’s leadership, not always a popular position in France.

French Jews see Sarkozy as a good friend of Israel. Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu refer to Sarkozy, who had a Jewish grandfather, as a personal friend.

As interior minister, Sarkozy took a strong stance against fight anti-Semitism. His tough stand on immigration also seemed to please most French Jews.

For her part, Royal ran into hot water when, during a tour of the Middle East, she met with Hezbollah politicians in Lebanon and looked on quietly as they compared Israel to the Nazis.

While some groups may still be reticent about politicking in the community, Claude Baruch, president of UPFJ-the Union of Jewish Liberal Professions in France, is not. Throughout the campaign, UPFJ has organized several dinners to which political figures and political analysts were invited.

On April 30, six days before the runoff, Baruch called on French Jews to “make a choice between two visions of France.”

“Our choice,” he said, “must be dictated by three inseparable factors: as citizens of France, our homeland; as Jews attached to fully practicing Judaism in our country; and as citizens carrying an indestructible friendship to Israel.”

Likewise, Edward Amiach, president of UPJF-the Union of the Owners and Jewish Professionals of France, wasn’t hiding the fact that Israel and the Middle East are important questions for the candidates from Jewish voters.

“Should we demand of our political leaders a fair approach concerning the Middle East conflict? Should this aspect interfere with our electoral choice?” Amiach asked. “The UPJF believes that the answer to both questions is yes.

Yes, political leaders should consider the fact that French Jews support Israel, no conditions attached. What is more noble than supporting a state whose democracy is advanced, where liberty is the pillar of its institutions, where human values are her richness?” he asked.

Sarkozy and Royal, it appears, have picked up quickly on the new ground rules.

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