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Behind the Headlines: Jews in France Alarmed by Election Gains of National Front

May 28, 1997
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French Jews reacted with shock and concern after the extreme right National Front Party garnered 15 percent in the country’s first round of parliamentary elections.

Although National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen won the same percentage in the 1995 presidential elections, never before has the anti-immigrant party obtained such wide support in a vote for legislators.

Some commentators said the Front’s tally proved that its success is no longer driven merely by Le Pen’s flamboyant and combative personality, but by the nationalistic and xenophobic ideas his party represents.

“The fact that the party can get the same score in parliamentary elections for a group of candidates that includes many unknowns as Le Pen won in 1995 is very frightening,” said Yves Derai, editor of the weekly Jewish Tribune.

Along with voicing his anti-immigrant positions, Le Pen has made frequent anti- Semitic statements. Le Pen himself did not run in the parliamentary elections, choosing instead to run in the next presidential elections.

During the past two years, the National Front won control of four town halls in southern France, playing on fears of emerging globalization, the opening of borders that accompanies membership in the European Union and most of all, the French population’s disenchantment with the mainstream parties’ failure to reduce record-high 12.8 percent unemployment.

Despite its high score, the Front probably stands to win no more than one seat in France’s 577-member National Assembly.

Under France’s electoral system, a candidate must win more than 12.5 percent in the first round to qualify for the run-offs, which will take place on Sunday.

Because of that system, a party may win a high percentage of the nationwide vote, but be beaten out of any parliamentary seats if none of its candidates wins during the run-off vote.

CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations, called on the ruling center-right coalition and the opposition Socialists to form alliances in those constituencies where the Front has a chance of winning the run-off vote in order to “systematically stand in the National Front’s way.”

“It is politically essential and morally fair to prevent the enemies of the Republic from taking advantage of its institutions in order to rot them,” CRIF said in a statement.

Sunday’s results came as a surprise to the nation: The leftist opposition won 40.24 percent of the vote while President Jacques Chirac’s ruling center-right coalition received only 36.52 percent.

Chirac had called the election a year early, betting on a vote of confidence for the drastic reforms he must push through in order for France to qualify for a single European currency in 1999.

But his gamble backfired.

In light of the French people’s show of discontent with the government, Alain Juppe, the country’s deeply unpopular prime minister, announced one day after the election that he would resign.

But France’s Jews neither rejoiced nor mourned the Juppe government’s undoing.

In general, French Jews vote along the same lines as the overall population, and the issues for them are the same as for the rest of French society.

Jean Kahn, president of the Consistoire, which tends to the religious needs of France’s 700,000-strong Jewish community, said the attitudes of the mainstream parties concerning Jewish interests “are identical.”

While the Socialist administration that held power in 1981-1995 was not exactly pro-Israel, Chirac has conducted an overt and aggressive pro-Arab policy since he took power two years ago.

His visit to the Middle East last October, from which he emerged a champion of the Arab world, deeply disturbed French Jewish leaders.

On the other hand, French Jews were delighted when Chirac, within two months of being elected, publicly acknowledged and apologized for the responsibility of French civil servants in helping the Nazis persecute Jews.

His Socialist predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, had refused to apologize for France’s wartime past, despite the demands of Jewish groups, intellectuals and former resistance fighters.

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