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French Jews Offer Mixed Reactions As Nation Rejects E.u. Constitution

June 1, 2005
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The Jewish community in France received news of the vote against the proposed European Union constitution with uncertainty about what it means for them. Contrasting reactions in the Jewish community after the results of Sunday’s referendum were announced parallel the variety of Jewish perspectives leading up to the crucial vote.

In a decision that rocked the French establishment — and led to a reshuffling of the French government — the final count was 56 percent against the proposed constitution, 44 percent in favor. The shock waves reverberated across Europe, in spite of polls that had indicated for weeks that the French would reject the treaty.

Many interpreted the French vote as a rejection of their president, rather than the constitution.

“They didn’t answer the question that was asked of them,” said Stephane Friedfeld, director of the French Jewish Business Union.

Nevertheless, it was not President Jacques Chirac but Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin who took the fall. Raffarin handed in his resignation Tuesday morning. Within half an hour, Chirac had named Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin as his successor.

Nicolas Sarkozy, who had been the popular favorite for prime minister and who is close to the Jewish community, took over the Interior Ministry.

Though dissatisfaction with the government may have contributed to the “no” vote, there certainly were other issues at stake, running the gamut from a desire to protect French social services, to a rejection of an unrestrained free market economy, to the extreme right’s outright rejection of the European Union.

The constitution, a copy of which was mailed to every registered voter in France, would protect fundamental human rights as well as the rights to social security, employment, freedom from discrimination and freedom of religion; iyt would also ensure gender equality and protect animals. It also would establish certain economic policies to ensure that the European Union will be “a domestic market with free and unadulterated competition.”

Though other E.U. nations still have to vote on the constitution, France’s vote likely means that the document will have to be rewritten, a contentious and laborious process.

For the most part, all leaders of the mainstream French political establishment — from the moderate right to the moderate left — had urged a vote in favor. The political margins on each side were more prone to vote no.

Polls indicate that mainstream voters weren’t against the concept of the European Union, but had a different idea of what that union should be.

In the Jewish community, responses to the vote were mixed.

The results were “not surprising, but disappointing,” said Friedfeld, who characterized the vote as a “reaction of fear” that was “not good for France, not good for the economy, not good for business.”

Sammy Ghozlan, president of the National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism and a backer of the constitution, was disappointed.

To move on from this defeat, he said, “France has to find an efficient way to get involved in Europe, and Europe has to find a way to work hand in hand with the United States.”

On the other hand, some members of the Jewish community found the constitution and the current political climate in the European Union too problematic to ratify.

“The E.U. wants to set itself up as a block against American superpower,” said M. Kalfon of The Book Fair, a Parisian Jewish bookstore. “They’re creating a false unity, a unity not built on positive reasons, but built out of anti-Americanism.”

What’s more, he said, the French Jewish community finds the idea of the European Union threatening in some ways.

Faced with the memory of anti-Semitism in Europe, and the reality of the E.U.’s current anti-American and anti-Israel stances, the Jewish community feels increasingly isolated, which is why most Jews he knows voted against the constitution, Kalfon said.

That opinion was shared by several Orthodox women in the Ninth District, who preferred not to be identified by name. They said most people they know in the Jewish community voted against the constitution for a variety of reasons, largely economic.

Some commentators in the Jewish media speculated that there was a “dusting” of anti-Semitism in the “no” vote, because the xenophobic extreme right urged voters to reject the constitution.

CRIF, the umbrella organization of secular Jewish groups, refused to comment on the results.

What concerns the Jewish community is how well the new French government will listen to the community’s concerns.

Friedfeld said the agenda of the Business Union, which is to meet with French politicians to discuss the needs of the Jewish community, would not be affected by the changes at the prime minister’s residence — except that it probably will be more difficult now to gain access to Villepin.

Sarkozy, who gained the confidence of the Jewish community with his vigorous action against anti-Semitism when he was the minister responsible for the French police, would have been more “useful” as prime minister, Friedfeld said.

Ghozlan said that both Villepin and Sarkozy would continue to be vigilant about fighting anti-Semitism, and he commended their efforts thus far.

Raffarin was extremely helpful in listening to the Jewish community, Ghozlan said, but he expected that Villepin would be as well.

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