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At the Quai d’Orsay

Valerie Hoffenberg is the kind of Jew I was told did not exist in France. A former director of the American Jewish Committee field office in Paris, and a bigwig at the CRIF (the rough — and I stress rough — equivalent of the Conference of Presidents), Hoffenberg has been serving for over a year as Nicolas Sarkozy’s special representative for the economic, cultural, commercial, educational and environmental dimensions of the Middle East peace process.

This in a country where, I’m often told, Jews feel they shouldn’t advertise their identity too much, where wearing a yarmulke to work or asking for time off for religious holidays just isn’t done. All these things runs afoul of France’s commitment to secularism — or less charitably, of its seething underbelly of anti-Semitism.

Hoffenberg was all too happy to disabuse me of that notion, and to reassure me that she does, in fact, exist.

“It’s not easy,” she said. “There are not so many people like me. It’s true that there are many people who are Jewish who try not to say it openly, or not to mention it too much. But that was not my case.”

I met Hoffenberg Monday afternoon in her high-ceilinged office on the second floor at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a sprawling fortress of a building along the Seine. After passing through security, I was led down a dimly lit hallway lined with high resolution photos of French diplomacy in action, including one section detailing the Ministry’s efforts in the Palestinian territories.

My escort was a stern woman in a fitted white jacket who clearly didn’t abide pleasantries. I trailed three feet behind her except when we reached a door, whereupon she’d hold it open for me to walk through before scurrying back in front. She led me up a flight of winding carpeted stairs, through a glass door inscribed "Secretariat d’Etat aux Affaires Etrangeres Cabinet," and deposited me on a low couch. She never once looked back.

A lawyer and mother of three, Hoffenberg first met Sarkozy during her work with the AJC. Introducing American Jewish officials around Paris a few years ago, she urged them to meet a little-known man who was then the country’s brash interior minister. Hoffenberg is extremely solicitous of her patron, describing him as “courageous” and someone who likes to break the rules. She acknowledged significant opposition to the appointment of someone so closely allied with Israel to a foreign ministry post, but Sarkozy, she said, wasn’t about to get pushed around.

“He said, ‘I don’t care,’” Hoffenberg told me. “’I believe you’re the best.’”

During out conversation, Hoffenberg stayed relentlessly on message. When she finished answering a question, she’d flash me a big smile to let me know I was invited to pose another. She described her efforts to "educate for peace," bringing a group of Palestinian and Israeli children to Paris last September where they addressed the National Assembly and urged their leaders not to use them to promote intergroup hatred.

Her most candid assertion came in response to a question inspired by my weekend at Limoud (which she’d never heard of) about the claim that French Jewish institutions are headed for disaster if they don’t cultivate young leadership. The problem, she said, is money. The CRIF’s annual budget she estimated at between 1-2 million Euros. There are only a handful of paid staff. This for an organization that supposedly represents the views of a half-million Jews to the French government.

Hoffenberg was also forceful about the resurgent National Front, led by the youngest daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine, whose appearance on a Jewish radio program was cancelled last week amid intense community outrage (more on this to come). Hoffenberg defended the decision not to give Le Pen a platform on Jewish radio, chalking it up to cultural differences in the French and American views of free speech.

I asked her if she thought some Jews would be seduced into voting for Le Pen out of fear of France’s restive Muslim population.

“I hope not,” she told me, flashing the smile. Yes, but what do you think?

“I hope not,” she said again. “And if there are some people who believe so, I think it’s the role of the Jewish leaders to explain to them that they are wrong.”

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