French unite, rally support for Chirac over Le Pen

The Jewish community has been disappointed by the French government's weak reaction to a wave of anti-Semitic aggression, carried out mainly by Arab youth in reaction to Israeli-Palestinian violence. Yet they probably never thought the alternative would be Le Pen, a far-rightist who favors stricter controls on North African immigration to France — but also has a history of anti-Semitic statements.

Since Le Pen won a place in the April 21 runoff against incumbent Jacques Chirac, half a million French citizens have taken to the streets to say no to the Nazism, fascism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism that Le Pen's National Front Party represents.

This past Sunday, some 15,000 French Jews held an anti-Le Pen rally in front of the Pantheon in Paris, the burial place of several heroes of the French republic.

Unlike other rallies that world Jewish communities have held in recent weeks, this one was not to decry the assault on Israel or support the policies of the Sharon government. Rather, it clearly was designed to show that French Jews are proud to be members of the multicultural republic — and that they see anti-Semitism not just as an attack on them but as an attack on the fundamental values of the French republic.

"As a Jew, I am very concerned with the situation in Israel, but I was born in France," said Muriel, an advertising worker. "I came here today because I love this country and don't want to see it filled with hate."

"I am only half-Jewish and nonpracticing, but that is not important," said Thomas, a financial services worker. "Everyone here, Jewish or not, cares deeply that France had been hurt. That is why you see all the flags waving."

Co-sponsored by France's largest Jewish student union, the UEJF, and one of the nation's oldest and most militant anti-racist organizations, the League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, the demonstration also showed that French Jews are no longer alone in their struggle against racism and anti-Semitism.

Joining the Jewish leaders on stage were one of the foremost Muslim clerics in France, a high-level representative of the Catholic Church and the mayor of Paris.

Taking the podium in front of a sea of French flags and anti-Le Pen signs, each speaker elicited rousing applause with exhortations to fight Le Pen and cast their votes for Chirac on Sunday.

Echoing a call made by numerous Jewish leaders over the past week, Gilles Bernheim, rabbi of one of the largest congregations in France, told the protesters it was their duty — and that of those not at the rally — to vote for Chirac.

Such political endorsements from Jewish religious leaders are unprecedented, but the community's highest spiritual figures issued unequivocal recommendations this week for Jews to get to the polls and vote Chirac.

But despite such displays of unity, the Le Pen issue has managed to provoke controversy among some French Jewish leaders.

On Tuesday, the French daily Le Monde reported that Roger Cukierman, the president of CRIF, the umbrella organization for secular Jewish institutions in France, told the Israeli daily Ha'aretz that Le Pen's success actually would help reduce Arab anti-Semitism.

Le Pen's surprise second-place finish in first-round voting April 21 constituted "a message to the Muslims to stay quiet," Cukierman allegedly said.

Cukierman later said he had been misquoted when his words were translated into English, but several Jewish leaders, including CRIF board members, were quick to criticize him.

"Such statements can only spread discord between the communities," Rabbi Daniel Fahri, president of the Liberal Jewish Movement of France, told Le Monde.

"Faced with" Le Pen, he added, "Jews and Muslims are in the same boat."

The emergence of such solidarity should not be overlooked in a country that in the past 18 months has seen more than 500 anti-Jewish incidents, many of them committed by young Muslims of North African descent who sympathize with the Palestinian cause.

In perhaps the ultimate irony of the election, a hatemongering leader appears to have contributed to a healing process in neighborhoods where Jews and Muslims live side by side.

Since the rise of Le Pen, the frequency and intensity of anti-Jewish incidents have ebbed considerably. The two reported incidents last week — the stoning of a school bus and an arson attack on a storage facility of a Jewish school, both in Paris suburbs — represent a substantial change from the weeks before the first round of the elections, when arson attacks and physical assaults were near-daily occurrences.

Then again, the extra police protection provided by the French government also may have played a role.