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Behind the Headlines French Official, Popular with Jews, in Trouble for Slur Against Socialists by P

April 30, 2004
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France’s new finance minister may be the darling of American Jewish organizations, but his latest outburst could put a major dint in his presidential ambitions.

Speaking Wednesday in France’s National Assembly, Nicolas Sarkozy — who as interior minister was widely credited with enforcing a zero-tolerance policy on anti-Jewish attacks in France — accused the previous Socialist administration of failing to tackle anti-Semitism.

He singled out his predecessor at the Interior Ministry, Daniel Vaillant, as the chief culprit.

Socialist members descended from their seats and converged on Parliament Speaker Jean-Louis Debre, demanding that Sarkozy apologize.

Amid cries of “shame” and “thug,” Debre was forced to abandon the debate. But the opposition benches had to make do with a rather lukewarm apology from government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope, since Sarkozy had left the chamber.

Sarkozy’s remarks followed a parliamentary question from a Socialist legislator who asked why Sarkozy hadn’t concentrated exclusively on his economic portfolio during a visit last week to the United States.

“With a little bit more modesty or, at the very least, lucidity, would there not have been a little less personal success for your expedition but a little more grandeur and coherence for France?” Philippe Martin asked.

Sarkozy took that as an oblique reference to his honored-guest status at a Washington breakfast hosted by the American Jewish Committee.

Telling legislators he had been “invited by the totality of American Jewish organizations,” Sarkozy said the gratitude he had been accorded by the AJCommittee “would never have risked happening to Mr. Vaillant” because – – after five years of the Socialist government of former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin — “we had arrived at a situation where people in the United States of America believed that France was an anti-Semitic country.”

Sarkozy’s comments came just a day after he was alleged to have verbally threatened a senior Socialist legislator.

Moreover, for a minister who has been trying to overcome a reputation as a political bruiser, the outburst contrasted with the calmer image Sarkozy has cultivated since becoming interior minister in 2002. He became finance minister not long ago, when the Cabinet was reshuffled.

Jewish legislator Pierre Lelouche, an ally of Sarkozy’s in the governing party and sponsor of last year’s bill to enforce stricter sentences for anti-Semitic offenses, said he agreed with every word of the minister’s statement.

But Sarkozy was hurt by the absence of some of his strongest supporters in the Jewish community — they were at a conference on anti-Semitism in Berlin — who almost certainly would have come to his defense.

That left the field to people such as Henri Hajdenberg — president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews during Jospin’s term — to state that “Jospin has always fought anti-Semitism.”

Similar comments also came from Pierre Aidenbaum, mayor of Paris’ 3rd District and honorary president of the mainly-Jewish International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism.

Aidenbaum said he had been “scandalized” by the remarks, noting that Jospin had taken great strides in providing funds for Holocaust victims and setting up government-funded institutions to commemorate the Shoah.

“Anti-Semitism is far too serious a problem for it to be used for political gain,” Aidenbaum said.

With editorials in all of France’s major national newspapers on Thursday slamming Sarkozy, even President Jacques Chirac was reticent to come to Sarkozy’s defense.

Speaking at a press conference Thursday, Chirac said anti-Semitism was not “a subject for polemics.”

Some of the strongest support for Sarkozy came from across the Atlantic.

“Mr. Sarkozy has earned the well-founded gratitude of American Jews and all others committed to a world free of hatred and bigotry,” American Jewish Congress President Jack Rosen said in a statement Thursday. “His strong leadership skills and broad vision have helped start an ongoing dialogue between French leaders and American Jews. This can only be a benefit to France.”

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