French voters moving on from Toulouse, but Jews can’t let go

Jewish support for Sarkozy expected to surge after school shooting, but non-Jewish voters focused on economic worries

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy (photo credit: Michel Euler/AP)
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy (photo credit: Michel Euler/AP)

PARIS (JTA) — If Isaac Sitrin is worried about being targeted by Jew-hating thugs, then he is hiding it well.

After determining that a fellow train passenger is Jewish and willing to lay tefillin, he ushers the passenger to the center of Gare du Nord train station. Praying aloud, Sitrin performs the ritual ceremony as his wife and daughters wait nearby.

“We feel safer now. [President] Nicolas Sarkozy put cops everywhere and got the killer right away. Many Jews will vote for him after Toulouse,” Sitrin says in reference to the slaying of a rabbi and three children last month by a Muslim radical at a Jewish school.

Police killed the suspected murderer, Mohammad Merah, two days later in a gunfight. And authorities upped security around Jewish institutions, banned some radicals from entering France and made dozens of arrests.

The Toulouse attack will have a “decisive effect” on how Jews vote in France’s presidential election, says Michel Zerbib, news director at Radio J, the French Jewish station. “We can expect even greater Jewish support for Sarkozy than in 2007.”

Meanwhile, Zerbib says, the non-Jewish electorate has shifted its attention to the central issue of the race: the French economy. “But Jews see what happened as an existential threat,” he says. “They cannot let go.”

Influential members of the French Jewish community praise Sarkozy, leader of the center-right UMP party, for his performance. Yet many feel let down by Sarkozy, once their undisputed favorite. Influential French Jews balk at the Socialist attitude to “new anti-Semitism” and harsh criticism of Israel, and say they have few alternatives to Sarkozy.

That’s good news for the extreme right, now under softer leadership and hungry for Jewish approval to upgrade its public image.

On April 2, the Jewish umbrella group CRIF organized a meeting in Paris for the community with Pierre Moscovici, national secretary of the Socialist Party and a campaign manager for Socialist presidential hopeful Francois Hollande. Moscovici, a Pris-born Jew, says Hollande is “friendly to Israel and strict but fair with its government — out of commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state.”

“In addition, the Socialist Party has other rigorous men and women of principle who are both friendly and demanding when it comes to Israel. They firmly oppose anti-Semitism,” he says.

CRIF President Richard Prasquier believes “many Jews will vote for the Socialists.” But opinion shapers and Jewish community leaders also judge Hollande on the actions of some of his party members before and after the Toulouse shooting.

“Hollande is seen as responsible for the left’s unwillingness to face the new Muslim anti-Semitism in France,” Zerbib says — anti-Semitism that leads extremists to stage reprisals on French Jews for Israeli actions.

Professor Shmuel Trigano, an expert in French Jewry and lecturer at Paris-Nanterre University, speaks of “a near total silence of the Socialist Party on hundreds of anti-Semitic attacks” and complains of “disproportionate criticism of Israel.”

In January, Socialist parliament member Jean Glavany wrote a parliamentary report accusing Israel of “water apartheid” and theft in the Palestinian territories. CRIF called the document biased.

Regardless of their misgivings about the Socialist Party, many Jews are displeased with Sarkozy. The Cevipof study of Jewish voters shows they are more disappointed in the president than is the general electorate.

In the past two years, Sarkozy’s approval rating has dropped 19 percentage points among Jews — from 62 percent in 2007-09 to 43 percent in 2009-11. Among non-Jews, Sarkozy’s popularity fell 14 points, to 32 percent in January. The study was based on a questionnaire filled out by 173,000 French voters, including 1,000 who identified themselves as Jews.

“There isn’t a single candidate the Jews can wholly welcome,” says Philippe Karsenty, a Jewish-French politician and media analyst. “Sarkozy has some responsibility for what happened in Toulouse because he let anti-Zionist propaganda of the French public media outlets grow.”

Karsenty, who has long claimed that a France 2 television report on the killing of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohammed al-Dura, in Gaza in 2000 was doctored to blame his death on Israel, accuses Sarkozy of “helping Al Jazeera spread the kind of radicalism that caused the Toulouse massacre.”

Last year, the Al Jazeera network bought media rights from the Union of European Football Associations to screen most championship soccer matches in France. The deal came at the expense of the previous rights owner, the French pay-television channel Canal+. The French government has considerable clout over UEFA.

“The same imams Sarkozy banned deliver their message to France through Al Jazeera in Arabic,” Karsenty says. “The French government should not be encouraging that.”

Sarkozy has disappointed the French Jewish community in other ways, too: the French vote in favor of Palestinian membership in UNESCO, condemnations of Israeli settlements and when he called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “liar.”

That disappointment may partly explain an apparent shift in how some Jews view the National Front, France’s largest right-wing party. The anti-Muslim party with a history of anti-Semitism is led by Marine Le Pen.

On March 27, the French branch of the Jewish Defense League publicly expressed support for the National Front for the first time.

“An important National Front delegation visited the Grande Synagogue de la Victoire in Toulouse,” the branch’s website said. “Bickering” among Jewish institutions will “surely ensue.”

Founded in the 1970s by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, JDL is considered a terrorist group in the U.S. but is legal in France. Amnon Cohen, JDL’s Paris spokesman, says it has dozens of activists.
Cohen says the National Front “isn’t perfect but isn’t dangerous. We’ll work with those willing to fight the Islamic threat.”

Since assuming the leadership of the National Front last year, Le Pen has distanced herself from the anti-Semitic rhetoric of her father and predecessor, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has called the Holocaust a “detail in history” and been convicted several times in France for Holocaust denial. He also said the German occupation of France was “not particularly inhumane.”

Marine Le Pen, by contrast, has reached out to French Jews and Israelis, describing them as “natural allies.” Even before that, in 2007, the National Front received nealy 5 percent of the Jewish vote.

Zerbib, the Jewish radio journalist, says the Toulouse shooting could bring more Jews to vote Le Pen.

“They would be protest votes by Jews who feel abandoned,” he says. “More Jews feel like that after Toulouse and they are seriously thinking about emigrating to Israel.”

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