PARIS (JTA) – When a 23-year-old French Jew was kidnapped and tortured to death by an anti-Semitic gang outside Paris in February 2006, France’s interior minister was among the masses who turned out for an overwhelmingly Jewish demonstration to protest the grisly murder of Ilan Halimi.
The minister said he took personally the failure by police to find Halimi before he died, and said as much to Halimi’s mother, Ruth.
When that minister – now France’s president – announced this week that he was severing diplomatic contacts with Syria because of its nefarious role in Lebanese politics, it was but the latest example of the sort of behavior that has endeared Nicolas Sarkozy to French Jewry.
“The community here is thrilled, and so am I,” said Nicole Guedj, a Jew who is a former minister and member of France’s highest legal body, the Conseil d’Etat. “Nicolas Sarkozy really understands as president of France what the word security means to the State of Israel and says it publicly.”
Since Sarkozy assumed the presidency half a year ago, he has shifted France away from the anti-American sentiment that marked the last few years under Jacques Chirac, hardened the country’s line toward Iran and promised to uphold Israel’s security in pushing for peace in the Middle East while maintaining France’s strong ties to the Arab world.
After years of stepped-up anti-Semitism and questions about the safety and future of Jews in France, most Jews here have welcomed Sarkozy’s ascendancy.
“We have rarely heard such words of support for Israeli security from a French president,” said Meyer Habib, the vice president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jewry.
“When the United States issued its report that Iran had stopped working on nuclear missile heads in 2003, the French president immediately said that this does not change a thing,” noted Habib, referring to the recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate.
Sarkozy, Habib said, “is maintaining a tough stance against any nuclear work in Iran, much more so than Chirac would have done, and he has full support on that from the Jews here, who believe that any nuclear warheads would be aimed at Israel.”
Others expressed more ambivalence about Sarkozy, particularly about his invitation to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who spent five days visiting France in December.
Sarkozy’s welcome of the Libyan strongman “bothered many French Jews,” French Jewish fund-raiser Gil Taieb said at a recent charity dinner of the French United Jewish Appeal. Sarkozy “wants to sell nuclear power stations to Gadhafi, who is nuts and dangerous,” he said.
Sarkozy is the baptized Catholic son of a Hungarian aristocrat father and French mother whose father was a Sephardic Jew from Thessaloniki, Greece.
Habib, who met often with Sarkozy during his years as interior minister, said Sarkozy has received anti-Semitic hate mail from French right-wing extremists throughout his political career, starting from when he was mayor of Neuilly, a well-off Paris suburb with a sizable Jewish population.
“Sarkozy has known the feeling of anti-Semitism, though he is not Jewish,” Habib said.
The head of the United French Jewish Social Fund, Pierre Besnainou, who is the former president of the European Jewish Congress, says French Jews also like Sarkozy for his pro-business policies. Among other things, Sarkozy has pushed to do away with France’s mandatory 35-hour work week.
“President Sarkozy is sending out two strong messages to the French: that America is our friend and there is nothing wrong with making money,” Besnainou, a self-made millionaire, said. “This is reassuring for many Jews here who are entrepreneurs.”
Though France has Europe’s largest Jewish community, with some 600,000 people in a total population of approximately 60 million, France has lagged behind Germany, Britain and even Belgium in trade ties with Israel.
At a recent gala dinner of the France-Israel Chamber of Commerce, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon said he wants that to change under Sarkozy.
“Given the new environment and ongoing contact, we want to see France-Israel trade relations double in the next five years,” Ramon said.
Daniel Rouach, founder and editor of IsraelValley, the Web site of the France-Israel Chamber of Commerce, said there has been an upsurge recently in requests by French companies at the commercial division of the French Embassy in Tel Aviv.
“French companies are feeling a sort of political signal from President Sarkozy to look into going to Israel,” said Rouach, who is also a professor at the prestigious ESCO-EAP management school in Paris and at Israel’s Technion Institute of Technology.
Before the 1967 Six-Day War, France was Israel’s largest supplier of weapons. France also built Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility in the Negev Desert.
Not all Jewish community members think it’s wise to embrace Sarkozy so warmly.
“Yes, he is certainly a friend of Israel’s, but he is also the president of France,” said Taieb, who is also a CRIF official.
Jewish fawning over Sarkozy “is excessive,” Taieb said. Instead, he said, Jewish officials should take care to maintain a certain distance.
“We must not be in a position to have to make excuses not to criticize him when necessary,” Taieb said. “Let’s keep some critical distance.”