Sarkozy stumbles in first round of French vote, but Jewish support still strong

Supporters of Nicolas Sarkozy awaiting his arrival at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, April 15, 2012.  (Philippe Agnifili via CC)

Supporters of Nicolas Sarkozy awaiting his arrival at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, April 15, 2012. (Philippe Agnifili via CC)

PARIS (JTA) — Jewish voters couldn’t put incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy over the top in the first round of presidential elections in France.

The Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande eked out a 1.4 percent victory on Sunday over Sarkozy, the center-right president, although Jewish community leaders said Sarkozy was the undisputed favorite among Jewish voters.

Hard figures on the Jewish vote are scarce, as French pollsters are not allowed to ask about religion in election surveys, and the number of French Jewish voters is negligible.

Jewish representatives and politicians say they would have full confidence in Hollande as president, but not in his political associates.

Hollande won 28.6 percent of the vote, Sarkozy had 27.2 percent and Marine Le Pen, leader of the French extreme right, had 18 percent — the best showing ever for the National Front party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The second and final round pitting Hollande against Sarkozy is scheduled to take place in two weeks; polls shows Hollande with a commanding lead.

In Tel Aviv, voting results released Monday by the French Embassy showed Sarkozy receiving 81 percent of the 9,302 votes cast there. Eight percent voted for Hollande and 4 percent for Le Pen.

Sarkozy, according to Richard Prasquier, president of the umbrella of French Jewish organizations known as CRIF, was the community’s favorite in the 2007 elections because of his firm stance on anti-Semitism, positive attitude toward Israel and, perhaps, Sarkozy’s Jewish grandfather.

French Jewry is approximately half a million strong, accounting for 0.6 percent of the national electorate, according to a study by the Cevipof polling company.

Despite some disappointments during his term, Sarkozy regained the appreciation of the Jewish community with his quick response to the Toulouse shooting last month, in which a Muslim radical killed three children and a rabbi at a school.

French authorities captured and killed the suspected perpetrator within two days, arrested dozens of suspects, barred radical preachers from entering and announced new anti-jihadist legislation.

“For the general vote, the Toulouse shooting and the appearance of radical Islam in Europe played a minor role. Not so for the Jewish community,” said Ivan Rioufol, columnist in the French daily Le Figaro.

Sarkozy would “have a tough time winning” against Hollande, but it was still be possible, Rioufol added, depending on how the  Le Pen voters cast their ballots in the second round.

If Hollande is elected president, “France would be more politically aligned with the Arab countries, and this could have an effect on its relations with Israel,” he said.

“Hollande represents the center-right wing of the Socialist Party,” said Joel Rubinfeld, a Jewish politician from Belgium. “If he becomes president, the question for French Jews and for Israel is which wing of the Socialist Party prevails.”

Prasquier concurs, saying “We have absolutely no problem with Hollande as president, [but] if some leading members of his party appear to be more against Israel than the previous UMP party of Sarkozy, this might have consequences on the general opinion.”

He added that traditionally, Jews tended to vote Socialist, but “It changed with Sarkozy.”

In January, Socialist MP Jean Glavany grabbed headlines as the author of a parliamentary report accusing Israel of “water apartheid” and theft in the Palestinian territories. CRIF rejected the document, calling it biased.

The French Jewish weekly Actualite Juive ran interviews with Hollande and Sarkozy last week in which both vowed to fight anti-Semitism and support Israel as the Jewish state. Asked whether they regarded Jerusalem as the capital of that state, Sarkozy said Jerusalem should be the capital of both Israel and the Palestinian state. Hollande said “the parties needed to decide on that.” 

On April 2, CRIF organized a meeting in Paris for the community with Pierre Moscovici, national secretary of the Socialist Party.

“The Socialist Party has many rigorous men and women of principle who are both friendly and demanding when it comes to Israel. They firmly oppose anti-Semitism,” said Moscovici, who is Jewish.

But Professor Shmuel Trigano, an expert in French Jewry and lecturer at Paris-Nanterre University, speaks of “a near total silence of the Socialist Party on hundreds of anti-Semitic attacks.” In parallel, he complains of “disproportionate criticism of Israel.”

Still, many Jews are displeased with Sarkozy. A study of Jewish voters by Cevipof showed that over the past two years, Sarkozy’s approval rating has dropped 19 percentage points among Jews — from 62 percent in 2007-09 to 43 percent in 2009-11. Among non-Jews, Sarkozy’s popularity fell by 14 percentage points, to 32 percent in January.

Prior to the election, Philippe Karsenty, a Jewish-French politician and media analyst said “There isn’t a single candidate the Jews can wholly welcome. Sarkozy has some responsibility for what happened in Toulouse because he let anti-Zionist propaganda of the French public media outlets grow.”

Sarkozy has disappointed the French Jewish community in other ways, too: the French vote in favor of Palestinian membership in UNESCO, condemnations of Israeli settlements and when he called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “liar.”

That disappointment may partly explain an apparent shift in how some Jews view the National Front, France’s largest right-wing party. On March 27, the French branch of the Jewish Defense League publicly expressed support for the anti-Muslim party, which has a history of anti-Semitism.

“An important National Front delegation visited the Grande Synagogue de la Victoire in Toulouse,” the branch’s website said.

Founded in the 1970s by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, JDL is considered a terrorist group in the U.S. but is legal in France. Amnon Cohen, JDL’s Paris spokesman, says it has dozens of activists.

Cohen says the National Front “isn’t perfect but isn’t dangerous. We’ll work with those willing to fight the Islamic threat.”

Since assuming the leadership of the National Front last year, Marine Le Pen has distanced herself from the anti-Semitic rhetoric of her father and predecessor, who has called the Holocaust a “detail in history” and been convicted several times in France for Holocaust denial. Jean-Marie Le Pen also said the German occupation of France was “not particularly inhumane.”

Marine Le Pen, by contrast, has reached out to French Jews and Israelis, describing them as “natural allies.” Even before that, in 2007, the National Front received nealy 5 percent of the Jewish vote.

Zerbib, a radio journalist for Radio J, the French Jewish radio station, says the Toulouse shooting could bring more Jews to vote Le Pen.

“They would be protest votes by Jews who feel abandoned," he says. "More Jews feel like that after Toulouse and they are seriously thinking about emigrating to Israel.”

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