Sarkozy falls in first round of French vote, but not in Jewish eyes

paris  |  Jewish voters couldn’t put incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy over the top in the first round of presidential elections in France.

The Socialist Party candidate François Hollande eked out a 1.4 percent victory April 22 over Sarkozy, the center-right president, although Jewish community leaders said Sarkozy was the undisputed favorite among Jewish voters.

Hard figures on the Jewish vote are scarce, as French pollsters are not allowed to ask about religion in election surveys, and the number of French Jewish voters is negligible. French Jewry is approximately half a million strong, accounting for 0.6 percent of the national electorate.

Jewish representatives and politicians say they would have full confidence in Hollande as president, but not in his political associates.

Supporters of Nicolas Sarkozy await his arrival at the Place de la Concorde in Paris on April 15. photo/philippe agnifili via cc

Hollande won 28.6 percent of the vote, Sarkozy had 27.2 percent and Marine Le Pen, leader of the French extreme right, had 18 percent — the best showing ever for the National Front party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

A run-off round pitting Hollande against Sarkozy is scheduled for May 6; polls shows Hollande holds a commanding lead.

In Tel Aviv, voting results released by the French Embassy showed Sarkozy receiving 81 percent of the 9,302 votes cast there. Eight percent voted for Hollande and 4 percent for Le Pen.

Sarkozy, according to Richard Prasquier, president of the umbrella of French Jewish organizations known as CRIF, was the community’s favorite in the 2007 elections because of his firm stance on anti-Semitism, positive attitude toward Israel and, perhaps, his Jewish grandfather.

Despite some disappointments during his term, Sarkozy regained the appreciation of the Jewish community with his quick response to the Toulouse shooting last month, in which a Muslim radical killed three children and a rabbi at a school.

French authorities captured and killed the suspected perpetrator within two days, arrested dozens of suspects, barred radical preachers from entering and announced new anti-jihadist legislation.

“For the general vote, the Toulouse shooting and the appearance of radical Islam in Europe played a minor role. Not so for the Jewish community,” said Ivan Rioufol, columnist in the French daily Le Figaro.

If Hollande is elected president, “France would be more politically aligned with the Arab countries, and this could have an effect on its relations with Israel,” he said.

The French Jewish weekly Actualité Juive ran interviews with Hollande and Sarkozy last week in which both vowed to fight anti-Semitism and support Israel as the Jewish state. Asked whether they regarded Jerusalem as the capital of that state, Sarkozy said Jerusalem should be the capital of both Israel and the Palestinian state. Hollande said, “The parties needed to decide on that.”

On April 2, CRIF organized a meeting in Paris for the community with Pierre Moscovici, national secretary of the Socialist Party.

“The Socialist Party has many rigorous men and women of principle who are both friendly and demanding when it comes to Israel. They firmly oppose anti-Semitism,” said Moscovici, who is Jewish.

But 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.” In parallel, he complains of “disproportionate criticism of Israel.”

Still, many Jews are displeased with Sarkozy. A study of Jewish voters by the political research center Cevipof showed that over 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 by 14 percentage points, to 32 percent in January.

Sarkozy has disappointed the French Jewish community with, among other things, the French vote in favor of Palestinian membership in UNESCO, condemnations of Israeli settlements and his calling 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.

Since assuming the leadership of the National Front last year, Marine Le Pen has distanced herself from the anti-Semitic rhetoric of her father and predecessor, who has called the Holocaust a “detail in history” and been convicted several times in France for Holocaust denial.

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 nearly 5 percent of the Jewish vote.

Michel Zerbib, a radio journalist for Radio J, the French Jewish radio station, 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 immigrating to Israel.”

Cnaan Liphshiz, Netherlands-based Europe Correspondent for JTA
Cnaan Liphshiz

JTA Europe correspondent