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French Jews Cheer Le Pen Loss, but Their Fears for Future Remain

May 6, 2002
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Eric Sarfaty is happy that far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was trounced in France’s second-round presidential elections.

But Sarfaty, a dentist who is active in the Jewish community here, said the relief French Jews feel is mixed with a bit of dread following Sunday’s vote.

“Many people I have spoken with over the past weeks feel that” incumbent President Jacques Chirac is “very friendly with the Arab states and has a lot of support in the Muslim community here,” Sarfaty said. “So there is the perception that with his election things may get worse — that there will be more attacks against synagogues and schools by Arab youths.”

Chirac’s victory in Sunday’s runoff brought an end to an embarrassing two weeks in French history. But his election doesn’t end the problem of how government and society should react to the wave of anti-Semitic attacks that swept France in recent months before abating during the elections, French Jews said.

Chirac received about 82 percent of the vote, with some 18 percent going to Le Pen, according to exit polls.

The 18 percent represented a negligible percentage increase for Le Pen from the April 21 first round vote, when he finished second among 11 candidates with about 17 percent of the ballots.

Despite the lopsided results, Le Pen’s vote count still is worrisome, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“While the good news is that the French people overwhelmingly rejected the candidacy of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the bad news is that one out of five people accepted his message of hate,” Foxman said in a statement. “The challenge for President Chirac is to lead his country away from the message of hate and toward a more accepting society, where the ideals behind liberte, egalite and fraternite can be realized.”

During the past several months, the Jewish community has been disappointed by the French government s weak reaction to anti-Semitic aggression, carried out mainly by Arab youth inflamed by Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Yet they probably never thought the alternative would be Le Pen, a far-rightist who favors stricter controls on North African immigration to France — and has a history of anti-Semitic statements.

Immediately after first-round results showed Le Pen in the runoff, half a million French citizens took to the streets to say “no” to the Nazism, fascism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism that critics say Le Pen’s National Front Party represents.

On May 1, up to 1 million anti-Le Pen demonstrators turned out throughout France, including at least 400,000 in Paris alone.

That sense of crisis helped boost Sunday’s turnout to an estimated 80 percent, far higher than in the first round.

Despite the resounding demonstrations against Le Pen, French Jews remain worried about the anti-Semitic attacks, which have been the worst in France since World War II, some Jewish officials said.

“It is hard to know whether the attacks will resume after this is all over,” said Samuel, 32, a computer software engineer in Paris. “If they do, though, I think that the government will act more aggressively to find and punish those behind them. There is a feeling now that things got out of hand in the weeks before the election, and that is why the right did so well.”

Many Muslims, who recognized that they and the Jews had a common enemy in Le Pen, “became more involved in the problem of anti-Semitism during the past few weeks,” Samuel said. But, he added, “I’m not sure that these were the people who had anything to do with the attacks in the first place. I suppose we can only hope that the” feelings of unity “will spread.

Sarah, a 21-year-old student living in Paris, said the “election may have woken everybody up about what happens when you do not speak out against anti-Semitism and racism. I just hope we don’t fall asleep again.”

But, she added, she is not sure that anti-Semitic violence won’t return, “as long as the situation in Israel continues.”

Though voters from left and right came together to support Chirac on Sunday, there was evidence that the breather from France’s normally acrimonious partisan politics was only temporary.

Many French voters, particularly those on the left, were uninspired by either of the two main candidates — Chirac and the Socialist Party’s prime minister, Lionel Jospin — in the first round.

As a result, many voted for fringe parties or sat out the vote. That apathy allowed Le Pen to squeak by Jospin to qualify for the runoff.

French media — and Jospin himself — urged these voters to back Chirac in the runoff, despite reports linking Chirac to corruption.

Some voters who voted for Chirac on Sunday apparently chose him as the lesser of two evils.

“I obviously voted for Chirac, but against all my values,” Serge Recolin, a 27-year-old medical student, told The Associated Press. “He is a crook, but better than a fascist.”

Fears that Sunday’s vote isn’t the last of Le Pen are heightened by upcoming legislative elections. If the Socialist Party, galvanized by Jospin’s shocking defeat, wins those elections, the result could be a political paralysis that might again lead voters to Le Pen.

“Everything depends now upon the next weeks,” Sarfaty said.

Le Pen, 73, once dismissed the Nazi gas chambers as just a “detail” of history. In this campaign, however, he toned down his anti-Semitic rhetoric in favor of a populist crusade against the status quo, patriotic cries for restoring the franc as French’s currency and a xenophobic ideology, including a proposal that illegal aliens be placed in transit camps awaiting deportation.

The number of French Jews looking to leave — both to Israel and to other countries — already has increased in the past few months. If the far-right scores more political triumphs, or if the government fails to change course and crack down on anti-Semitism, that number could increase.

Already, there’s some evidence to that effect..

At the French-Israel House on Sunday, an annual day set aside to encourage French Jews to buy property in Israel drew more than twice the average number of people, Sarfaty said.

“I had many discussions over the past few weeks about where we would go if Le Pen got a lot of votes,” he said. “When people left the office, we would joke and say, ‘See you Sunday night at the airport.’ But you know, there is always some truth behind such jokes.”

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