The notion of American-style identity politics was once as unthinkable to the French as driving SUVs down cobblestone streets. Yet both aspiring occupants of Le Palais de L’Élysée are making their case directly to France’s Jews.
Case in point: With the successor to Jacques Chirac to be decided Sunday, May 6, presidential candidates Nicolas Sarkozy, a center-rightist, and Socialist Ségolène Royal both made certain to conspicuously attend a lavish Israel Independence Day festival thrown in Paris late last month. None too subtly, both candidates were flanked by their influential and respected Jewish allies. Making the case for Royal was former French Culture Minister Jack Lang, while Simone Veil, an Auschwitz survivor and former health minister, attended at Sarkozy’s behest.
It was a cross-section of Jewish community leaders for Sarkozy and Royal to shmooze with — and, most of all, impress with their support for Israel. France’s Jews make up about 1 percent of the population.
France has had a mercurial relationship with Israel. In 1956, the French fought alongside the Israelis and passed Israel the information and technology necessary to build the nuclear arsenal the Jewish state still denies it possesses.
But for many years, starting with Charles de Gaulle’s pro-Arabism — he referred to the Israelis as “a stiff-necked people” — the nations have not been particularly close. It was no trivial matter that Osirak, the Iraqi nuclear reactor the Israelis obliterated in 1981, was French-built.
In the present day France, the message both Sarkozy and Royal hoped to convey to France’s Jews is that, no matter who wins, France’s relationship with Israel will change for the better.
Sarkozy — grandson of a Greek Jew and son of a Hungarian immigrant — is the powerful former minister of the interior invariably described in the American press as “the law and order candidate.” Labeled by some American observers as “France’s Rudolph Giuliani,” he is the tentative front-runner in Sunday’s election. Sarkozy polls strongly among France’s Jews at an overwhelming 65 percent, according to an “informal poll” reported by B’nai B’rith France.
B’nai B’rith reported that the percentage of Jews supporting Sarkozy was similar to the percentage of religious Christians or wealthy individuals supporting the Union for a Popular Movement leader. In other words, French Jews, unlike their American counterparts, tend to vote along socio-economic lines.
Sarkozy has the best rapport with Israeli leaders — both Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu claim him as a personal friend. Royal also met with Olmert on a recent trip to the Jewish state, and acknowledged Israel’s right to build its security wall. Yet the most memorable event of her voyage was a meeting with a Hezbollah politician in Lebanon who went on to compare Israel to Nazi Germany while she coolly looked on, one of several foreign policy gaffes that has hampered her campaign.
Sarkozy received 31.1 percent of the vote in the first round of France’s election last month — an impressive tally — while Royal clocked in at 25.8 percent — a similar percentage to that received by Socialist François Mitterrand in the first round of the 1981 election.
Royal also managed a quarter of the vote in the 12-candidate field despite a campaign of sabotage from the Socialist party’s old guard — “the Elephants” as they are known derisively — including some who wanted the candidacy for themselves or may not be completely confident with a female candidate.
Depending on which poll you believe, Sarkozy has between 51 and 52.5 percent support heading into Sunday’s finale. But with feelings running high and an expected turnout of greater than 80 percent, it’s anyone’s race. And, if the candidates are to be believed, Israel wins either way.