Despite the impression one might receive visiting Tel Aviv in the summer months when hoards of vacationing Frenchspeaking Jews descend on the city, Israel is not part of France.
Nonetheless, it will soon have an official representative in the French parliament.
For the first time ever, France will allow citizens living in 11 newly created constituencies outside the country’s borders to elect their own representatives to the National Assembly in the June 2012 parliamentary elections.
With some 60,000 voters representing 50 percent of the vote, Israel forms the largest voting bloc in the Number 8 overseas French constituency. Other countries in the constituency include Italy, which has 30,000 voters, and Malta, Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and the Vatican.
So far at least four Jewish candidates have shown interest in running for the seat, including Valerie Hoffenberg, France’s current special envoy to the Middle East.
“They have French citizenship and they only vote in the presidential elections, and there is no reason why they cannot participate in the French debate,” she said. “You have questions of education and social retirement that are very important, and there’s no reason why the French who live abroad won’t have their say and be represented. But it’s something new and maybe Israel will one day think about it too. I remember speaking to President Shimon Peres about this idea, too, but for once we are the innovators.”
Looking at the oddly shaped constituency, it’s clear some gerrymandering has been at work. Instead of being paired with its Arab neighbors, Israel is grouped with Malta, several hundred kilometers away.
“Yes, of course Lebanon was considered to be more natural to be with Israel, but you can understand that politically it was very difficult to do,” Hoffenberg explained. “They had to take into consideration not only the geographical aspect but the political aspect. When they created these boundaries, relations between Turkey and Israel were much better.”
The 46-year-old Hoffenberg cited two qualities she believed made her a better candidate than the competition. First, her experience as a diplomat would be invaluable in parliament. For years she worked for the American Jewish Committee, rising to a senior positions in the Jewish- American advocacy group.
She also has the backing of the UMP, France’s governing party. If elected, she has her sights set on the foreign affairs committee.
“I want to be part of the commission on foreign affairs to be able to weigh in on Israel,” she said. “I used to work for the American Jewish Committee and met with leaders from all over the world, but I’m also used to working in lobbying, which is very important. Knowing the region is important, but having the legitimacy and credibility in the French media is also important, and I have that.”
Despite her long-list of credentials, Hoffenberg thinks it will be tough to win the election.
“Every election is difficult,” she said. “A lot of people know me in France, but the Israeli people do not know me. I will have to explain to all the French people living in all the constituency why I am the best candidate for them.”
Once the parliamentary election nears, Hoffenberg plans to travel extensively to the different countries of the constituency to promote her campaign.
The task of representing French voters from places as different as Israel and Turkey isn’t easy, she said.
Meanwhile, she is continuing to focus on her current position as
France’s special envoy to the Middle East. Next week, for instance,
Hoffenberg will host some 450 political leaders, business people and
scientists from Israel and Arab countries at a conference in Paris.
“I have invited people from Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories,
Oman, Egypt and Turkey, and we will speak about four different issues:
water, food security, energy and high tech, and information and its
effect on the Middle East,” she said.
“I have invited Minister of the Environment Gilad Erdan, the Palestinian
water minister, the environment minister of Jordan, as well as Alain
Juppé, the French foreign minister, who will open the event.”
Hoffenberg also set up meetings in Amman to discuss various issues,
including progress on the Dead Sea Canal, a proposed joint
Israeli-Jordanian project that would replenish the Dead Sea and provide
hydroelectricity for both countries.
Hoffenberg also spoke out on the shocking arrest of French politician
Dominique Strauss- Kahn in New York last week, who was jailed on
suspicion of rape.
“I felt very sad because I know Dominique Strauss-Kahn and even though I
am from the right and I support Sarkozy, I felt saddened about what
happened,” she said. “Now we’re going to see if he’s guilty, but I’m
part of the people who are really skeptical over whether he raped this