Optimistic and celebratory, Jewish groups were quick to offer congratulations to Nicolas Sarkozy after his victory in French presidential elections.
Sarkozy, of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), defeated Socialist Party candidate Segolene Royal in Sunday’s runoff. He garnered some 53 percent to Royal’s 47 percent in the election, which featured a huge voter turnout.
The former interior minister was seen by Jewish voters as a friend to Israel and an important figure in the fight against anti-Semitism. Soon after his opponent conceded, Jewish groups came out with their good wishes.
“At a time when French Jews felt directly threatened by the rise in violent anti-Semitism in Paris and elsewhere across France a few years ago, Sarkozy played a critical role in moving the French government to finally recognize the gravity of the problem and to do what is necessary to address the ill winds that not only threaten the largest Jewish community in Western Europe, but, as we know from history, would ultimately pose a threat to wider French society,” American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris said in a statement.
The AJCommittee recalled that Sarkozy during that period was instrumental in stepping up police protection around Jewish buildings and schools, and arresting and prosecuting those who committed anti-Semitic acts. He told the group in a Washington address in 2004 that he would “consider any insult against Jews an insult against France.”
CRIF, the French Jewish community’s umbrella group, addressed its “warmest and most respectful congratulations” to Sarkozy in a Sunday statement.
“Your position statements during the electoral campaign carry much hope for a France that needs to be reconciled with itself,” President Roger Cukierman wrote. “I was touched by what you said and I understand that you intend to be a standard bearer of the French values we so cherish, those of a republic that… respects every individual and leaves no room for intolerance, racism and anti-Semitism.”
In a race that offered a clear choice between conservative and liberal policy, the voters gave Sarkozy, 52, a clear mandate for his economic and social reforms when he takes office May 16.
The grandson of a Greek Jew and the son of a Hungarian aristocrat, Sarkozy has pledged to initiate tougher rules to make it more difficult for immigrants to bring extended families to France. Among the economic reforms Sarkozy has pledged to push through early on are abolishing a tax on overtime, cutting the inheritance tax and obligating the unemployed to take work that is offered.
Sarkozy, who will succeed Jacques Chirac, will become the first president of immigrant stock.
Known as an American-style, law-and-order politician, Sarkozy had earned points in the Jewish community for his hard line against Muslim unrest in France, including anti-Semitic attacks — though he drew fire from some liberal and immigrant groups for referring to some of the rioters as “rabble.”
In his victory speech at party headquarters in Paris, Sarkozy mentioned France’s relationship with the United States. “True friends can accept each other even if they have differences of opinions,” he said.
Frederic Encel, professor at the prestigious Science-Po Institute, said that Sarkozy’s unusual willingness to be associated with the United States also strengthens hope for good relations between France and Israel. “Nicolas Sarkozy is by far the most pro-Israeli French presidential figure Israel could have hoped for,” he said.
The fact that Sarkozy had not been trained at France’s national public administration school or by the Foreign Ministry “is a great advantage for Israel, as he is not committed to traditional diplomacy,” Encel said. “Royal would have stuck with existing approach,” he added, allowing people like her adviser Jean Louis Baillancourt, a member of a pro-Palestinian organization, to lead French diplomacy.
Royal, 53, who trailed in the polls since Sarkozy won the first round of voting on April 22, had warned that electing Sarkozy might spark the kind of rioting that took place in the suburbs last year. She said his candidacy represented “a dangerous choice.”
“It is my responsibility to alert people to the risk of [his] candidature with regards to the violence and brutality that would be unleashed in the country,” said Royal, who during a televised debate May 2 accused Sarkozy of “political immorality.”
Both candidates symbolized a break with the old guard. Both were born after World War II and said they were intent on bringing a real change after Chirac’s 12-year rule. But the similarities ended there: French voters had to choose between two very distinct personalities, attitudes and political programs.
Sarkozy entered politics as a protege of Chirac, but the two had a falling-out that remains to this day when Sarkozy backed Chirac’s rival for the presidency in 1995.
The Jewish community has seen Sarkozy as a friend of Israel, though he maintains the Jewish state must make concessions to allow the Palestinians to establish a viable state. But he has made clear to the Palestinian Authority that there is no justification for violence to achieve its means.
In an interview in The Jerusalem Post, Sarkozy called the 2002 Saudi initiative “constructive.” Under the two-state proposal, Arab states would recognize Israel if it withdrew to its pre-1967 borders and calls for a “just solution” for Palestinian refugees.
In the interview, Sarkozy said, “Only if Israel is guaranteed that its existence will not be threatened and the Palestinians are allowed to form a viable state can we achieve a durable and viable solution.”
One Jewish voter said, “As far as Israel is concerned, Royal has nothing to offer us, compared to Sarkozy.”
Outside a synagogue in the Jewish Quarter, one Sarkozy voter rued some of Royal’s supporters. “As a Jew I don’t like the fact that many pro-Palestinian radical activists participate at her meetings,” said Armand, who asked that his last name not be used. “I think this is dangerous.
“Sarkozy, on the other hand, is one of the only [future] heads of states to have gone to the U.S. to meet President Bush. I’m not a fan of Bush, but still. In any case, I don’t think that Sarkozy is a fascist, as some people try to make us believe.”