Sarkozy calls Israel a miracle in electoral pitch to Jews

paris  |  Trailing in the polls and with elections just 10 weeks away, French President Nicolas Sarkozy went to one of his most reliable bases of support — French Jews — to drum up enthusiasm.

Sarkozy met at Élysées Palace Feb. 8 with released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who holds dual French-Israeli citizenship. Later that day, the president addressed the annual dinner of the main French Jewish umbrella organization, the CRIF.

“France won’t compromise on Israel’s security, because Israel is a miracle,” Sarkozy told the group.

But with the French economy stumbling and some Jews less than thrilled with Sarkozy’s record on Middle East issues, he may not find the same kind of backing in the community as he did when he won in 2007.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy addresses France’s main Jewish group on Feb. 8. photo/courtesy of crif/erez lichtfeld

“A lot of Jews who voted for him are disappointed today,” said Ralph Bohbot, who was one of 1,000 Jewish community members at the CRIF dinner and identified himself as a member of the Alliance Centriste political party. “He didn’t know how to handle the economic crisis.”

Sarkozy has not officially declared himself a candidate in the elections, which has its first round of voting set for April 22. Polls show him trailing the Socialist candidate, François Hollande, 32 percent to 25 percent. Hollande also was in attendance at the CRIF dinner. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front, is polling at approximately 15 percent.

Despite the decline in support for Sarkozy among Jews, his conservative Union for a Popular Movement party still remains far more popular among the country’s 600,000 Jews than among the general French population of 60 million.

Jerome Fourquet, analyst for the French Ifop polling center, says 40 percent of Jewish voters feel “close to” the UMP, versus just 26 percent of the French in general.

“A part of the Jewish community is pretty worried about its security, and that’s a platform that is pretty favorable to the right,” Fourquet said.

Sarkozy as interior minister during the second intifada was widely credited for cracking down on the wave of anti-Semitic attacks in France at the time — a national effort that continued into his presidency. He remains an outspoken supporter of Israel.

In a sometimes emotional speech to a crowd of approximately 1,000 at the CRIF event, Sarkozy called for Israeli-Arab peace, talked of the importance of sanctions against Iran and extolled the Jewish state.

But his speech wasn’t all pandering. He said the solution to the Iran problem should be diplomatic, not military, and expressed sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Sarkozy’s decision last October to vote in favor of Palestinian state recognition in UNESCO, the Paris-based U.N. cultural and science organization, riled many in the Jewish community, and Sarkozy addressed the issue in his speech.

“We also wanted to tell the Palestinians that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that they too could be taken into consideration and listened to,” he said. “I know that by taking that position I could have troubled some of you, but if a friend of Israel doesn’t do it, who will?”

Perhaps more than Sarkozy’s record on Israel, France’s economic woes are diluting support for the president among Jews. He has been criticized for his handling of the European debt crisis, his deference to Germany on economic issues and the prospect of austerity measures, which are cutting into consumer spending.

While many Jews may gravitate to the Socialist candidate in the upcoming elections, few are likely to vote for Le Pen, whose far-right party is seen as hostile to Jews despite her attempts to distance it from its anti-Semitic past and its founder, her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

“We won’t vote for the National Front,” CRIF President Richard Prasquier said flatly at his group’s dinner.

Frida Zeitouni, 62, a member of the Women’s International Zionist Organization, says that  most French Jews will vote for Sarkozy. But in the south of France, where there are more tensions between Jews and immigrants of North African and Muslim backgrounds, Le Pen’s pitch may appeal to Jewish voters, Zeitouni said.