PARIS (JTA) — With the first round of France’s presidential election less than four weeks away, the attacks that left four Jews and three French soldiers dead are reshaping the race — but for now it’s not clear exactly how.
In the days leading up to the attacks, President Nicolas Sarkozy had managed to close most of the gap behind the leader in the polls, Socialist candidate Francoise Hollande, with a rightward turn that included calls by Sarkozy in favor of tougher immigration restrictions and against the labeling of halal meat.
Since the March 19 attack on the Jewish Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, Sarkozy has announced several measures to clamp down on right-wing and Islamic extremists. He ordered French security forces to seek out Muslim extremists, barred an influential Egyptian Sunni cleric from attending a conference in France next month and urged TV networks not to air footage of the Toulouse attack and the one on soldiers in nearby Montauban that had been delivered to the Al Jazeera bureau here.
While politicians across the political spectrum condemned the attacks, Sarkozy won praise from the Jewish community for suspending his campaign and flying to Toulouse immediately after the school shooting, calling it “obviously anti-Semitic” and saying that the “whole republic” was mobilized to face the tragedy.
But it’s not clear how long the focus will remain on security before shifting back to the main issue facing France: the economy.
"The political debate will probably refocus on the fundamental economic topics,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist who specializes in right-wing extremism. “Still, it is very important to French Jews to make the population understand that the Toulouse attack does not only concern their community but the whole country."
French Jews, he said, “will most certainly vote for politicians with solid experience who are able to put in practice legal and credible measures to answer an Islamic threat.”
The latest national polls show Sarkozy and his center-right Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, trailing Hollande by a percentage point or two in the first round scheduled for April 22, but by a wider gap in a theoretical runoff scheduled for May 6.
Since the Toulouse attack, the National Front, France’s largest far-right party, has tried to take advantage of the changed climate. On Sunday, party leader Marine Le Pen promised to "bring radical Islam to its knees." In her speech Le Pen, who has been polling at approximately 15 percent, also linked mass immigration with fundamentalism and denounced the risk of a "green fascism."
Few observers believe that many Jews will opt for the National Front, even though Le Pen has sought to woo Jewish voters and distance herself and her party from the anti-Semitism of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front.
“In 2002, only 6 percent of French Jews voted for the National Front, while the election occurred only a few months after 9/11,” Camus said. “A substantial movement from the Jewish community toward Marine Le Pen is very unlikely.”
The Jewish community, whose 600,000 members represent less than 1 percent of the total French population, remains more supportive of Sarkozy’s party than the general public. But prior to the Toulouse shootings, a survey of the Jewish electorate showed that Sarkozy had lost support among Jews even though he remained more popular than any other single candidate.
According to a March 9 poll from the French polling institute IFOP, Sarkozy’s favorable ratings among Jews had fallen to 43 percent as of January from 62 percent in May 2007, when Sarkozy was elected president. The main reason, said Jerome Fourquet, who directed the survey for IFOP, was France’s economy.
“The trend is similar to the French general electorate’s disaffection with Sarkozy,” Fourquet said. “People are dissatisfied with the economic situation and their purchasing power.”
For many Jews, the economy is not the only source of discontent with the president. In early March, Sarkozy’s prime minister, Francois Fillon, made controversial statements about halal and kosher slaughter rituals, declaring that the "ancestral traditions” in Islam and Judaism were “outdated.”
The comment provoked a strong reaction from Jewish leaders.
“As religion and state are strictly separated in France, politicians should avoid giving their opinion on these topics,” said Richard Prasquier, president of the CRIF, the main French umbrella organization for Jewish institutions.
More widely, French moderates also have expressed concern about Sarkozy’s tilt to the right. A week before the Toulouse shootings, Sarkozy told an audience that France has “too many foreigners” and proposed cutting legal immigration in half.
Thirty years ago, most Jews leaned toward the Socialist Party. Francois Mitterrand, a Socialist who served as president of France from 1981 to 1995, was considered a friend of Israel — an image he developed after his 1982 address to the Knesset, where he emphasized the Jewish state’s right to security.
But the Jewish vote drifted toward the UMP during the second intifada, when many leftist organizations took a pro-Palestinian stance and violence against French Jews soared.
“Violence in the Middle East had a huge impact on this community,” Fourquet said. “During the wave of anti-Semitic attacks in France in the early 2000s, many Jews felt abandoned by the Socialists. This is when the center of gravity started shifting to the right for French Jews.”
Sarkozy was interior minister at the time — serving two stints from 2002 to 2007 — and his tough rhetoric and the aggressive measures he championed were credited with helping tamp down the anti-Semitic violence.