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French Jews, between the right and the hard left

François Hollande's election doesn't bode well for Europe -- or its Jews
French president-elect Francois Hollande waves to crowds gathered to celebrate his victory in presidential elections in May (photo credit: Laurent Cipriani/AP)
French president-elect Francois Hollande waves to crowds gathered to celebrate his victory in presidential elections in May (photo credit: Laurent Cipriani/AP)

In May 1981, Valery Giscard d’Estaing’s long reign as president of France ended with the election of François Mitterand.

Giscard later claimed that he had lost his presidency eight months earlier, with the bombing of the Paris Copernic Synagogue. Giscard had arrogantly refused to cut short a hunting weekend to show sympathy with the casualties, leaving his prime minister, Raymond Barre, to describe the attack as “a bomb set for Jews that killed innocent Frenchmen.”

A few weeks before the election, 43,000 French Jews attended the “24 Hours for Israel” rally of a community ginger group, Renouveau Juif (Jewish Renewal), in a huge warehouse. At the gate, people were handed ballots on Giscard’s Middle East record. At that mock election, over 90% voted against the incumbent.

The then-opposition Socialist candidate, Mitterand, addressed the crowd to tumultuous applause. Upon being elected, his first act as president was to visit the grave of his closest friend, in a Jewish cemetery. His first two years in power were marked by a wave of 29 terrorist attacks against Jewish targets in France, mostly in Paris. Mitterand cracked down on the terrorists and even led a march of 250,000 protesting the disinterment of a Jewish corpse at the Carpentras cemetery.

Thirty-one years later, the Socialists have once again returned to power. Why is there no such adulation among French Jews this time around?

Though the French national census or electoral polls may not register ethnic or faith identity, it is statistically and atmospherically clear that changing electoral demographics have further radicalized ideology.

The coming of age of a new generation of French voters of North African origin, curried by the left, has created an alliance on both domestic and international agendas — especially regarding a heightened role for Islam in French society and identification with the Palestinian cause.

Very telling was the call by an influential Swiss Islamic scholar, Tariq Ramadan, to vote for François Hollande.

In last month’s first-round, some five million voted for “new left” Communist, Trotskyite, anarchist and Green factions, among whom are many supporters of such anti-Zionist campaigns as the boycott of Israeli and associated Jewish targets.

François Hollande has expressed his friendship for Israel and contempt for anti-Semitism, but the impact of the extreme left on his administration remains to be seen, especially with the eventual appointment of ideologues to government portfolios.

French president-elect Francois Hollande (photo credit: Lionel Cironneau/AP)
French president-elect Francois Hollande (photo credit: Lionel Cironneau/AP)

In 1995, Mitterand was succeeded by Chirac, whose second term in office coincided with the blowback from the second intifada, including daily anti-Semitic assaults across France. That wave was markedly reduced by measures taken after Nicolas Sarkozy‘s accession. Attacks have recently renewed on a weekly basis, fired up by Middle East satellite television, jihadist websites and the disproportionate presence of French extreme-left agitators in anti-Zionist rallies.

The attacks assumed a more lethal character with the Toulouse atrocity.

All indicators now point to heightened insecurity for Jews, especially in the interim — until the new government is in place. Hollande’s choice of interior minister will also be crucial in reassuring French Jewry.

France faces multicultural and economic challenges that demand urgent attention, and Hollande’s sensitivity to Jewish concerns and Franco-Israeli relations will be tested as extremist elements will test the extent of their influence. Indeed, these are priorities of neither left nor right, but rather serve the interests of Europe as a whole.

However, France and its 700,000 Jews must also remain vigilant in the right eye, as well. The National Front’s six-million-vote triumph in the first round may come home to roost in next month’s legislative elections, when neo-fascist elements could take control of local politics in some regions.

Indeed, protest votes have empowered extremists in Europe, from France in the north to Greece in the south, where, for the first time, neo-Nazis — the Golden Dawn party with 7.5 percent of the electorate (around 800,000 voters) — will enter Parliament, and possibly even a governmental coalition.

At the anti-globalization and heavily anti-Zionist European Social Forum in Athens in May 2006, I ran into a group of Golden Dawn storm-troopers distributing their journal. The front cover featured two photos: Above, of Molotov and Ribbentrop celebrating the Soviet-Nazi pact of 1939; below, of Hitler with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini. The caption could not have been clearer:

“It is time for left, right and Muslim to stand in solidarity against the international Jew.”

About the Author
Shimon Samuels is Director for International Relations of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He has served as Deputy Director of the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, European Director of ADL, and Israel Director of AJC. He was born in UK and studied in UK, Israel, U.S. and Japan.