JTA — The fact that Sarah Knafo rose quickly to the top echelon of French politics came as no surprise to people who know this 28-year-old Jewish woman from the Paris region.
A studious, charming and well-connected law graduate of the prestigious Sciences Po university who works as a public funds auditor, Knafo was deemed highly likely to succeed by the classmates of her Jewish high school in Pavillons-sous-Bois, a northeastern suburb of Paris.
But few people, if any, expected Knafo to rise the way she did: by becoming the protege, lover and campaign manager of Eric Zemmour, a Jewish right-wing presidential candidate and 63-year-old married father of three.
The French gossip papers and their paparazzi have pounced on the relationship, speculating about what appeared to be Knafo’s pregnancy earlier this year and taking pictures of the pair during their beach vacation at Christmas. The tabloid coverage has increased the campaign’s visibility, though it’s unclear how it is affecting right-wing voters, who may see the affair as conflicting with their traditional values — or as evidence that Zemmour is a virile, paternal figure, exactly what they believe incumbent President Emmanuel Macron is not.
Whichever way it plays out at the polls, the Zemmour-Knafo love story is a striking partnership between two successful Parisian Jews who have shunned the conventions of their own communities and bet their careers and reputations on harnessing a discontented conservative electorate.
Both come from Jewish families with roots in North Africa and have embraced a right-wing, anti-immigrant politics that is more common among France’s Christian conservatives. Both have said Jews who choose to live in France should feel an allegiance first to France, not to their Judaism.
“I can identify with Éric Zemmour’s trajectory for assimilation and his detachment from the Jewish identity,” Knafo said during a rare interview in 2016. “My religion is Jewish, but I feel my culture is Christian.”
The pair’s political prospects are uncertain. Zemmour has failed to crack the top echelon of the French polls for this month’s elections, suggesting that Marine Le Pen, not he, will go on as the right’s candidate in the second and final round April 24. That could set France up for a repeat of 2017, when Le Pen, the daughter of the Holocaust-denying Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far-right National Rally party, obtained a third of the vote but ultimately lost to Macron, a centrist.
Marine Le Pen and Zemmour agree on many key issues: They are both fierce critics of the European Union and support drastically limiting immigration from Africa and the Middle East, positions for which they have been labeled pro-fascist by their critics. Both have been tried for alleged hate speech against Muslims; while Le Pen was acquitted, Zemmour was convicted for saying most drug dealers are Africans or Arabs.
Zemmour’s supporters think he would be a stronger candidate than Le Pen, in part because his pedigree as the son of Jewish parents from Algeria insulates him from the fascism charges that have dogged Le Pen because of her father. A veteran television pundit, Zemmour is also widely seen as a quicker orator than the sometimes sluggish Le Pen.
But since rumors of Knafo’s pregnancy broke in November, coverage of her love affair with Zemmour has in some ways eclipsed talk of his politics.
Zemmour, who has three children with his wife, Mylène Chichportich, a Jew of Tunisian descent, finally acknowledged their romantic involvement in a January interview with BFMTV. Asked “Who is Sarah Knafo,” he told the interviewer: “My partner. My life partner. There would’ve been no campaign if not for Sarah Knafo.”
It was an unusual statement on every level. Zemmour had sued to prevent tabloids from publishing pictures of him with Knafo just months earlier. He was also breaking from tradition in French politics by praising Knafo publicly, according to Philippe Karsenty, a French Jew and former politician who knows Zemmour personally.
“Usually, campaign leaders stay in the background. To this day, I don’t know the name of Macron’s campaign manager,” Karsenty said. “Éric has placed her at the center of his campaign.”
Even before the tabloid coverage kicked into high gear, it was evident that their relationship goes far beyond that of a campaign manager and their boss.
At political rallies, observant reporters noticed how Knafo coached Zemmour during debates, correcting him from an off-camera perch on figures using hand gestures, telling him to slow down when she thought he spoke too fast and cueing him through a series of facial expressions that demonstrated deep familiarity.
Knafo “organizes everything, thinks of everything and structures everything,” Emilie Lanez, a reporter for Paris Match, said in September during an interview for BFMTV about paparazzi photos that showed Zemmour hugging Knafo on the beach near Toulon. (Paris Match’s Hervé Gattegno was fired for printing those photos on the cover, in what was seen as a violation of the unwritten rule in France against invasive media coverage of politicians’ private lives.)
But Lanez said the intimate nature of their relationship is less interesting to her than “the astonishing scope of Sarah Knafo’s network. This highly-intelligent, sociable young woman maintains ties with former nobility, former key personalities [of the administration of Socialist former President Francois] Mitterrand, young, left-wing supporters of President Emmanuel Macron almost as though she’s not the head of the campaign for Zemmour.”
To build and maintain such a network, Lanez added, Knafo would have had to “assimilate” for many years in left-leaning circles where she would have been ostracized for espousing the sort of views championed by Zemmour, who often inveighs against what he calls the cultural elites whom he says are betraying the French people by plotting to replace them with Muslim immigrants.
Knafo, who rarely speaks to the media and declined to be interviewed for this article, has known Zemmour since she was a teenager at least, according to Anael Chemla, one of her former classmates at the Alliance Jewish high school in Pavillons-sous-Bois.
The circumstances of how they met are vague. According to some versions, including one offered by Knafo last year in a rare interview with the L’Obs magazine, Knafo’s parents — a hypnotherapist mother and businessman father, both of Moroccan descent — were acquainted with Zemmour. Other accounts have her contacting him as a teenager in the mid 2000s as a fan of his television show.
Knafo’s ties to Zemmour were well known to people around her already when she was a teenager, Chemla, Knafo’s former classmate, recalled.
“He was then just a celebrity journalist, not a political person. But she was private about it, she never bragged about knowing Zemmour. She was also very well-informed about politics but did not say radical things,” Chemla, 27, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Chemla said it “saddened” her to see her former classmate’s name in gossip magazines reporting about her pregnancy with a married man more than twice her age.
“I hope Sarah is happy. It just doesn’t look like the sort of thing that makes you happy,” said Chemla, who now lives in Israel and says she does not support Zemmour’s presidential bid.
Knafo’s life has been fraught with unhappy moments. Her mother suffered a violent assault on the street when she was pregnant with Knafo’s younger brother, according to a French media profile of Knafo. The brother, Dan, was born with a severe disability and died in 2018 at age 21.
The assault, which was part of a robbery, profoundly shook the sense of security of Sarah Knafo and her sister, Cindy, who works as a fashion photographer. Sarah Knafo earlier this month revisited that aspect of her childhood in a rare intervention on her part during an interview that Elle had with Zemmour.
When the subject of the safety of women in France came up, she told Elle: “In Seine-Saint-Denis [the district to which Pavillons-sous-Bois belongs] where I grew up, it was palpable,” she said of the feeling of insecurity for women. “My parents forbade me to take the bus.”
Many of the students at the Alliance Pavillons-sous-Bois Jewish high school that Knafo attended live outside that relatively poor suburb, where the rate of assaults on individuals is more than double that of Neuilly-sur-Seine, a more affluent suburb where many Jews live.
The French Jewish community’s main watchdog group last month said that it had recorded an increase of 75% in antisemitic incidents last year over 2020. The increase to 589 incidents owed in part to a rise in physical assaults.
The security situation could play a role in the upcoming election, especially after the revelation this week that a Jewish man’s death in February that was originally attributed to a vehicle accident actually followed an assault. Zemmour questioned whether the victim, Jérémie Cohen, had been attacked or details of his death suppressed because he was Jewish.
One Jewish mother whose children attend Alliance Pavillons-Sous-Bois, Sandra Sebbah, told JTA in 2015 that she encourages them to leave France so they can live “like normal people and not like this, where I am afraid every minute they’re not home — especially when they’re at school.”
This dynamic was a factor in the departure of many of the 50,000-odd French Jews who had left France for Israel over the past decade – a significant drain on French Jewry. France is Europe’s largest Jewish community with about 446,000 people who self-identify as Jews, according to a 2020 demographic study.
But Knafo was never one of the many Alliance students who spoke about leaving, said Chemla, Knafo’s former classmate who immigrated to Israel last year.
In a little-publicized op-ed that Knafo penned as a student in 2016 on Dafina.net, a French-language website on Moroccan Jewry, she criticized French Jews on multiple counts, including the instinctive support for Israel many of them feel.
Jews who leave for Israel, she wrote, aren’t really doing it to escape antisemitism or for financial reasons but because they are not fully part of French society. “The reasons for their leaving are rooted in identity,” she wrote, and therefore reflect “the perverse effects of multiculturalism.”
A former straight-A student already embarked on a promising legal career, Knafo in 2017 gave her school a quote for a promotional flier in which she was featured alongside far older graduates who were far more famous, including the philosopher Armand Abécassis, 88, and the late author Albert Memmi.
Far from focusing on Alliance’s capacity for strengthening Jewish identity, Knafo extolled the school’s potential for opening Jews to broader society.
“It’s one of the rare places where children need not renounce anything and reaffirm both facets of the identities, Jewish and French, without having one come at the expense of the other,” she wrote. It was long before anyone entertained the notion of a presidential bid by Zemmour, who often uses similar language in describing his ideal for the relationship between the majority and minorities in France.
Judaism is one of the things that connect her to Zemmour, she added in the 2016 interview, in which she said she feels an affinity with Christian culture. She was speaking to the author Alexandre Devecchio for his book “The New Children of the Century,” about young French conservatives.
Knafo used the term “French Israelite,” an antiquated and unusual formulation that Zemmour also uses. He has explained that it is more fitting than “Jew” because it does not carry a religious implication while still signifying the subject’s ethnic and cultural particularities.
The identity is a curiosity for Chemla, who recalls Knafo’s success in their Jewish high school.
“Sarah, who was studious, sociable and pleasant, could rise to the top of French politics, or law, or whatever she chose,” she said classmates believed. “And I guess she did, but not in the way any of us thought.”
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