For Franco-Israelis, a chance to elect their own ‘congressman’

This Sunday, 65,000 expats can choose a member of parliament to represent their interests at the National Assembly in Paris. Passions are high among the candidates; less so among the voters

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

French nationals in Israel cast ballots at their consulate in Tel Aviv for the presidential elections, April 2012 (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)
French nationals in Israel cast ballots at their consulate in Tel Aviv for the presidential elections, April 2012 (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Last Wednesday, on Nakba Day, Jonathan-Simon Sellem happened to drive by a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Jaffa. When he spotted Palestinian flags hung on lampposts, he mumbled to himself, “I cannot accept this,” got out of his car, took them down and put them in the trash. 

“We’re in the land of Israel here,” he yelled in strongly French-accented Hebrew. “What do you think? This is Israel’s state!”

“I think the protesters were stunned,” Sellem, who immigrated to Israel in 2006, recalled a few days later. “They did not expect that someone will dare to do that, in Jaffa, a city with a large number of Arabs.”

Evidently Sellem, a 30-year-old journalist and wannabe politician, is a man of action. And that’s why he believes he has a good shot at being elected next week to the French parliament, for a seat reserved for a lawmaker to represent the interests of French nationals living in Israel and seven other Mediterranean states.

Since 2012, French expatriates send their very own regional constituency representatives to the National Assembly in Paris. This Sunday, 66,225 French citizens living in Israel have the opportunity to elect their député, their own congressman. (Last year’s election was annulled because the winner — Franco-Israeli Daphna Poznanski-Benhamou — was disqualified due to campaign funding irregularities, thus requiring the new vote.)

“It’s a system that was designed in order to strengthen the link, the interconnection, between France and the French diaspora around the world,” Christophe Bigot, the French ambassador in Tel Aviv, said about his country’s new policy to reserve nearly a dozen parliamentary seats for overseas citizens. “I am sure that whoever gets elected will carry a lot of influence within the French political system,” the ambassador told The Times of Israel, be it by proposing and voting for laws or by interacting with government officials. 

Not every expat community sends its own lawmaker to the National Assembly. (Israelis who live abroad can’t even cast absentee ballots in Knesset elections, much less choose a candidate as their overseas representative.) The French diaspora is divided into 11 so-called conscriptions. Some of these regional groups consist of two countries. Others have many more — such as the tenth, which includes 48 countries in Africa and the Middle East. Israel is part of the eighth conscription, together with Italy, Turkey, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, San Marino and the Vatican.

Among the countries in its group, Israel has, by far, the largest number of French citizens. More than half of the eighth conscription’s 113,666 eligible voters are located here, which means that Franco-Israelis could have the decisive say in who gets elected. Indeed, most of the 20 candidates running for the March 26 elections are French immigrants to Israel, or French Jews with strong ties to Israel.

However, most Franco-Israelis will probably not take advantage of their right to vote. During the previous elections for French overseas residents, last June, only 7 percent of eligible voters in Israel cast a ballot (elsewhere participation was higher), and officials have little faith that the percentage will drastically improve this time around.

About 150,000 French citizens reside in Israel, but more than half never registered with the French authorities and so cannot vote.

Sellem, who is running for the marginal center-right Liberal Democratic Party, believes he has a chance of winning because, he says, the French in Israel like their politicians to be just like him: full of youthful passion, totally convinced of his political convictions — and ready to act on them.

Jonathan-Simon Sellem (photo credit: Reuven Attal)
Jonathan-Simon Sellem (photo credit: Reuven Attal)

“I represent the Israeli success,” he said. “Because Israel is the state of young people. The army is filled with young people, and also the high-tech scene is dominated by people our age.” If he gets elected, Sellem pledges, he would not remain in his seat silently and try to make friends with other parliamentarians. Instead, he promises “real activism” that would “make a lot of noise” and yield “real results.”

For Sellem, acts like defying Arab protesters and placing Palestinian flags in the trash show that he has what it takes to represent Franco-Israelis in Paris.

“That’s something only an activist can do,” he told The Times of Israel on Monday, pledging to fight in the National Assembly just as vigorously, for the rights of French nationals in Israel and the Jewish state in general.

“Israel is a victim of French politics,” Sellem said, lamenting Paris’s stance on Israeli policies, especially vis-à-vis the Palestinians and the settlements. “It doesn’t matter who is in power, the French Foreign Ministry is always against Israel.” 

But Sellem is an underdog candidate. One of the front-runners is Valerie Hoffenberg, who goes into the race for the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, France’s largest opposition party, and is backed by true political heavyweights. Last month, UMP president Jean-François Copé, a likely future presidential contender, came to Israel to endorse her. Earlier this month, former French prime minister François Fillon expressed his support for her during a campaign rally in Rome. On Tuesday, former president Nicholas Sarkozy arrived in Israel, where he is widely expected to throw his weight behind Hoffenberg as well. 

During a recent campaign event in Tel Aviv, Hoffenberg, a former head of the French branch of the American Jewish Committee, promised to fight against Paris’s ostensible anti-Israel bias and for labeling Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Addressing more mundane voter concerns, she also pledged work to get French diplomas recognized in Israel and to promote the creation of a francophone old age home in the Jewish state.

“Israel is the country of my ancestors and of my children’s future,” she said during the rally, explaining that her parents and her son live here. “I love this country in an unconditional manner — the only manner in which one can love it,” she exclaimed, amid professions that Israel needs to be recognized as a Jewish state and Jerusalem as its capital, and a host of other campaign promises.

Valerie Hoffenberg, center, next to prominent UMP politicians Claude Goasguen, left, and Jean-François Copé (photo credit: DR)
Valerie Hoffenberg, center, next to prominent UMP politicians Claude Goasguen, left, and Jean-François Copé (photo credit: DR)

Yet despite the support from senior UMP leaders, Hoffenberg’s victory is far from guaranteed, say her competitors. For one thing, they note, she already lost the race once, last June, to Poznanski-Benhamou, who ran for the Socialist Party of President François Hollande.

The Socialists’ current candidate, Istanbul resident Marie-Rose Koro, is considered by some to be a leading contestant this time, too, although she mostly represents the Franco-Turk vote and fewer than 4,000 French citizens are registered to vote in Turkey (compared to the more than 65,000 in Israel). Another high-profile candidate is Meyer Habib, vice president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France (CRIF), who runs for the small Union of Democrats and Independents.

Among French Israelis, Hoffenberg’s UMP seems by far the most popular party. In last year’s presidential elections, 93 percent of absentee ballots were cast for Sarkozy, who at the time headed the UMP. Only 7 percent voted for Hollande.

However, in Sunday’s elections, the UMP is fielding another candidate besides Hoffenberg, the Franco-Italian Alexandre Bezardin. If Bezardin wins in Italy and Hoffenberg loses Israel, she might not be among the two or three candidates to compete in a run-off ballot on June 9, her rivals hope.

In the end, the question of who will represent Israel — and the seven other Mediterranean countries — in Paris will largely depend on how many people turn up to vote on Sunday. Every vote counts; Poznanski-Benhamou beat Hoffenberg by just 1,597 votes.

Why the low turnout?

In last year’s elections for the overseas seat, only about seven percent of eligible voters in Israel cared enough to cast a ballot. In Greece, about 24 percent of eligible citizens voted.

Why is voter turnout here so low? According to Ambassador Bigot, it is because this is the first time in history expatriates can send their own député to parliament. “As with every new mechanism, it takes a while before people understand how it works, how important and how useful it is,” he said. The June legislative elections also came on the heels of the presidential elections that took place a month earlier, which caused some voter fatigue, Bigot said.

Still, why would the Israeli turnout be lower than that in other countries? One reason: French elections take place on Sundays, when the rest of the world has the day off but Israelis work, he noted.

Another possible reason: Perhaps Franco-Israelis don’t bother to vote for their representatives in the National Assembly because they simply care more about their representatives in the Knesset. Ninety-five percent of Franco-Israelis are dual citizens and “have to be involved in Israeli politics and in French politics,” Bigot said. “This is quite an ambition, and may explain why the turnout was rather low [last] time.”

The embassy in Tel Aviv has made a particular effort to encourage Franco-Israelis to take advantage of their right to vote now. It produced a video clip that explains the importance of the election, and is operating a dozen polling stations from Haifa to Eilat, and keeping them open as long as possible. In Tel Aviv, the booths are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. so that citizens can vote before or after going to work on Sunday. In addition, web-savvy voters were given the option to cast their ballot online if they signed up with the consulate.

But Bigot suspects that despite his best efforts, voter turnout will remain low. “Maybe this time people will already know more about how it works. [But] maybe we will have to wait for the next general elections, which will take place in 2017, to see the maximum understanding of this mechanism,” he said.

Or perhaps French immigrants to Israel just don’t care that much about what’s going on in the old country. During last year’s presidential race — which everyone knew would determine the face of Paris’s domestic and international policies for the next five years — voter turnout in France was 80 percent. In Israel, only 15 percent of eligible voters cast their ballot.

Maybe if they’d been voting over Palestinian flags in Jaffa…

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