Jews call Frances new prime minister a powerful ally, defender of Israel

Even among those who anticipated it, the intensity of anti-Semitic violence that hit France in 2002 was shocking.

It was the height of the second Palestinian intifada. In France, synagogues and schools were torched, anti-Semitic beatings occurred in Paris and elsewhere, and a new generation of Jews was introduced to dangers their grandparents recognized from the 1930s.

Manuel Valls, France’s new prime minister, arrives at a state dinner with his wife, Anne Gravoin, on Sept. 3. photo/jta-getty images-antoine antoniol

When teenagers started throwing stones at Jews walking to synagogue in Evry, Manuel Valls, then the mayor of the Paris suburb, joined the weekly synagogue walk, signaling to the perpetrators and anyone who cared to look that the Jews had a highly placed political ally.

Last week, Valls became France’s prime minister, the second most powerful position in the country.

Valls’ promotion last week from interior minister owed less to this kind of dramatic gesture on anti-Semitism and more to his reputation as an energetic and reform-minded politician, assets that have helped him rise amid the shakeup that followed his Socialist Party’s defeat in local elections last month.

But to many French Jews, Valls is something of a hero for his unusually robust defense of Israel and the French Jewish community, and his elevation is seen as a reassuring sign amid one of French Jewry’s most troublesome periods.

“I don’t think we ever knew a minister who said things the way he says them,” said Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities.

Cukierman was referring to a speech last month by Valls at a rally marking the two-year anniversary of the slaying of four Jews in Toulouse in which Valls said that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. But Cukierman could have had in mind any of several explicit displays of Jewish solidarity that Valls has undertaken over the years.

As interior minister, Valls led an uncompromising assault on the comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, who created a quasi-Nazi salute known as the quenelle that Valls has described as “an anti-Semitic gesture of hate.” And Valls has been filmed wearing a yarmulke at numerous Jewish community functions, exposing him to charges of hypocrisy since he supported banning Muslim head coverings for women at French universities.

Even more unusual, Valls has explicitly linked his pro-Jewish views to his Jewish wife, the violinist Anne Gravoin, saying in 2011 that his marriage connected him “in an eternal way” to Israel and the Jewish people.

“Without Jews,” Valls said last month, “France will no longer be France.”

Such statements are highly unusual in a country with a strong secularist ideology and where government officials are typically careful not to single out any minority or group for special treatment. But Valls is not a typical politician.

Born in Barcelona to a family of Catalan intellectuals, Valls moved to Paris in his teens, where he studied history and began his political career as president of a socialist student union.

Valls and Gravoin wed in 2010, the second marriage for Valls. The couple’s Paris wedding reception was, according to a report in Elle magazine, a “happy mix of men wearing kippahs, from Manhattan and Paris, and [local] imams.”

In a 2011 campaign speech before a Jewish audience in Paris, Valls invoked his wife to demonstrate his credentials as a defender of the Jewish community.

“So please,” Valls said, showing some of his trademark oratory passion. “I didn’t come here to get tips on how to fight anti-Semitism!”

In January, Valls lobbied mayors to ban a new tour by Dieudonne, who has been convicted multiple times for inciting hatred against Jews, leading to its eventual cancellation. Valls also has sparked an unrelenting financial investigation of Dieudonne that could land the comedian behind bars for years.

All this has not been cost-free. The battle with Dieudonne alienated many voters, some of whom admire the comedian for his defiance. Polls conducted immediately after Valls’ move to ban the tour saw him losing 5 to 8 percentage points from his earlier 60 percent approval rate.

Some critics, including several extremist Muslim preachers and right-wing conspiracy theorists, have taken to calling him “Valls the Jew.”

Despite his pro-Jewish credentials, Valls has faced distrust from Jewish supporters of the centrist UMP party and its former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who feared Sarkozy’s tough stance on anti-Semitism and his pro-Israel rhetoric would crumble under the Socialists.

Sarkozy was the clear favorite among Jews in the 2012 presidential election. But two years after Sarkozy lost to François Hollande, many Jews agree that Valls has made good on his pledge to follow Sarkozy’s lead in confronting Islamist fanaticism and anti-Semitism.

“We are fortunate,” Cukierman said, “to have a leadership that is perfectly attentive to the community’s needs.”

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

JTA Europe correspondent