JERUSALEM, Feb. 8 (JTA) — With Middle East-related issues playing an unusually large role in France’s upcoming presidential elections, a delegation of French senators came to Israel to see firsthand what all the fuss was about. The four-day fact-finding mission this week spanned the region’s sharp political divide: Delegates met with Israelis on either end of the political spectrum and also went to Ramallah to talk to Palestinian political leaders. The French participants said the trip broadened their view of a conflict and a region often misunderstood back home. “We have been struck at once by the unity and the paradoxes of Israeli society,” said Sen. Jean-Pierre Plancade, a member of France’s Socialist Party and vice chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. American Jewish organizations commonly use fact-finding missions to promote pro-Israel sentiment among U.S. politicians, but it’s not a familiar practice for French legislators. But the Middle East has been a hot topic in France in recent months, and Iran’s nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U.S. presence in Iraq and last summer’s war in Lebanon all have figured into this year’s tight French presidential contest. Nicolas Sarkozy, the law-and-order interior minister who is popular among French Jews in large part for his hard line against Muslim unrest in France, including attacks on Jews, is running virtually neck-and-neck with Segolene Royal, the anti-establishment Socialist contender who made a controversial visit to the Middle East last December. After making unusually strong statements in support of Israel’s security needs during a quick visit to Jerusalem, Royal went to Lebanon, where she met with a Hezbollah official. As the official characterized Israeli actions as modern-day Nazism and scorned the Bush administration, Royal said she agreed with “many of his views.” She later backtracked, but critics seized on the faux pas as a sign of Royal’s political inexperience. She is France’s first serious female candidate for president. Several other candidates could throw the election toward either of the two frontrunners, likely forcing a runoff two weeks after the April 22 election, but at this point none of the others stands much of a chance of winning. On the eve of the senators’ trip this week, French President Jacques Chirac gave an interview to American journalists in which he said it would not be very dangerous if Iran had “one or two” nuclear weapons. It was against this backdrop that the European Jewish Congress and Medbridge, a European nonprofit dedicated to strengthening ties between European politicians and Democratic voices in the Middle East, began this trip. The idea, Medbridge Secretary General Simone Rodan said, was to give French politicians a more nuanced view of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than what they get from media and other sources in France. “The complexity of the issue often in Europe is very much simplified,” Rodan told JTA. “In France in particular, the media has been biased against Israel, and the senators came with preconceived ideas of things they read in the newspapers and saw on TV.” “We arrived with preconceived ideas, but every day those preconceptions are diffused to make room for new realities,” Yvon Collin, secretary of the French Senate, said after a few days in Israel. Many members of the delegation had never been to the Middle East, and a number of those who came — including senators from the French Communist Party, the Socialist Party, the centrist Union for French Democracy and the right-of-center ruling party, the Union for a Popular Movement — are members of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. “This is the first time we brought a group from a whole variety of different parties,” Rodan said, “and we wanted them to meet a variety of Israel’s political class — from Shas to Yossi Beilin — to understand the democratic voices within Israeli society, and to understand what’s going on in the Palestinian territories.” Organizers scheduled meetings with right wingers like Likud Party member David Tal and left wingers like Meretz Party chairman Beilin, as well as with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Shas is a Sephardi Orthodox party. After a day that included visits to Hadassah Hospital and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, the senators went to Ramallah in the West Bank, where they met with Palestinian officials. Many of the senators expressed surprise that Ramallah appeared to be a modern, functioning city rather than a teeming refugee camp of the kind shown in TV news reports about the Palestinians. “We’re an organization that doesn’t bring converted friends of Israel who already know the situation,” Rodan said. “One of the things we do is take people to the Palestinian territories so they can see the reality for themselves.” Many observers say French political attitudes toward Israel have become more positive over the past few years. It’s evident both on trips like these and in the sentiments of political leaders like Sarkozy and Royal. France was a close ally and Israel’s largest arms supplier in the Jewish state’s early years, but ties cooled after the 1967 Six Day War. Ever since, France has followed the model of many other European countries, with President Jacques Chirac providing a counterpoint to U.S. policy, which many French believe is biased toward Israel. In 2001, France’s ambassador to England caused a stir when he reportedly described Israel as a “shitty little country” in a private conversation at a cocktail party. Two years later, France’s ambassador to Israel committed a similar gaffe, calling Israel “paranoid” and then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a “lout.” The ambassador, who has since been replaced, claimed his comments were taken out of context. Since then, a variety of developments have shifted France’s political winds back toward Israel, including Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, a visit by Sharon to France in 2005, Yasser Arafat’s death and Hamas’ electoral victory in the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, there is growing concern in France over the country’s restive Arab population, which exploded in riots in the summer of 2005. French Arab youth also were behind a spike in anti-Semitic incidents in France in 2002 and 2003. With 6 million Muslims, France is home to Western Europe’s largest Muslim population, most of them Arab immigrants from North Africa or their descendants. France also has Europe’s largest Jewish population, at approximately 600,000.
Uriel Heilman Uri Heilman is JTA's former managing editor. He is now director of business development at JTA's parent company, 70 Faces Media.