Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Middle Eastern politics haunt French candidates

It almost seems fitting that the Middle East, the birthplace of civilization and the great three monotheistic religions, and the center of such enduring conflict, should play such a big role in the politics of a far away country called France. And it certainly doesn't keep quiet about it. The Israeli paper Haaretz is running an article that says that much to the dismay of the French Jewish community, Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal has for months ignored an invitation to appear before CRIF. CRIF is an umbrella organization for French Jewish groups, and has played host to countless French presidents, prime ministers, and candidates in the past.
"This is unprecedented," an Israeli diplomat who is serving in France admitted. "That's right," agreed CRIF director Chaim Musikant. "All the French leaders apart from Royal have already appeared before us. We have offered her whatever setting she would like, but to my regret, until now, we haven't heard from her."
On top of this, neither she nor her partner Francois Holland have ever visited Israel.

Nicolas Sarkozy, on the other hand, is doing well amongst France's 1% of Jewish constituents:
Most of the Jews, or so it appears at this time, are likely to vote for the candidate of the right. "Sarkozy is the natural candidate of Jewish voters," Deputy Interior Minister Christian Estrozi told Haaretz.

There are several reasons for this: Sarkozy's Jewish roots, the fact that he is considered a friend of Israel and the fact that he appears to be the only politician in the French leadership who has evinced sensitivity to French Jewry's distress. He has gone to every place where Jews have been attacked, and at every opportunity, he has condemned and attacked and threatened and asserted that any harm to Jews is tantamount to harming the heart of the Republic. "He has honestly earned the Jewish vote," said a Jewish doctor this week, who revealed that for the first time in his life, he is planning to defect from the Socialist camp. "And it's not just me, but also most of my Jewish friends."

Perhaps to counter this negative trend, Royal has hinted that she will soon visit the Middle East, including Lebanon and Israel. Jewish dissatisfaction with the Socialist party is not unjustified; during the second intifada in Israel, a Jew in France was 44 times more likely to be the victim of an attack than either an African or Muslim. And all of this violence occurred under the Socialist government of Lionel Jospin.

For good or for ill, Jewish votes in the US and France are influenced by a candidate's views on Israel. In the US this has not been as big an issue, because US-Israeli relations have been quite solid since the 60's, and very warm since the Reagan years. France has been a different story. France, perhaps because of a certain sense of Holocaust guilt, or a desire to check the Arab powers in the Mid-East, was an early and strong supporter of the nascent Jewish state. This culminated in two pivotal events: the 1956 Suez war that effectively spelt the end for British and French colonialism, and the French assisted construction of the Negev Nuclear Research Center at Dimona, the birthplace of the Israeli nuclear weapons program. Yet over time France began to again court the Arab countries, and Israel, in search of a new protector, fell in bed with the United States. Over time French public opinion has steadily turned against Israel, especially with the two intifadas and Israel's rather brutal tactics in dealing with them.

Because Royal has not been outspoken about the Israeli cause nor showed much interest in it, many French Jews are obviously worried. They should remember, however, the strong statements she has made about the Iranian nuclear program, which in Israel is preoccupation #1. They should also wonder what kind of candidate would have a better chance of making peace in the Middle East: an Israeli supporter or an honest broker.

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