Since most of my happiest childhood memories stem from family camping holidays in France, I am something of a rarity – someone who spent formative years surrounded by British culture and remains a Francophile.
Admittedly the France I so fondly remember was probably a product of a certain time, or perhaps my young age and imagination. It doesn’t exist in the same way today and I can’t be sure it ever truly existed. When you’re a kid happily collecting shells on a beach, making friends through the common language of building sandcastles, every day is a summery dream.
Until my teens, when I discovered a much deeper connection with Israel, I thought I would move to France, although I have since discovered that adult life even in beautiful climes is not one long summer holiday.
The pictures from France for the last couple of years have not been postcard material. Islamist terrorism has struck repeatedly in Paris, mowed down more than 80 people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice last year, and in a particularly gruesome attack, a priest was slaughtered as he conducted mass in church. My memories of the French capital, Riviera and small northern towns are much pleasanter.
The recent French elections were to a certain extent the ugly product of the country’s economic woes and increasing problems with Islamic terrorism.
Many friends and neighbors in Israel exercised their right to vote in the French elections. They didn’t vote for a particular candidate; they voted against Marine Le Pen.
I was reminded of the American elections when it had come down to two unattractive candidates: Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump.
On May 7, Emmanuel Macron, 39, beat Marine Le Pen in the second round of voting to become the youngest- ever president-elect of the French Republic.
Neither of the two candidates represented a mainstream party. No wonder pundits described it as a second French Revolution. The Socialists had fallen from grace and the Center-Right was battered by the corruption scandals of François Fillon.
Although a former finance minister under François Hollande, Macron didn’t have a party, only the En Marche! movement that he founded a year ago. Le Pen’s National Front had only two members in parliament.
Some would argue that by getting so far, Le Pen has had a significant impact even if ultimately she will not be living in the Elysée Palace. Marine Le Pen carefully cultivated an image of a French patriot very different from her racist father, whom she ousted. But her outrageous statement last month denying that France bore any responsibility for rounding up thousands of Jews in Paris during the Second World War gave her away.
Like the US elections, stories of possible Russian intervention in the democratic process were rife, yet the open interference by Barack Obama was almost overlooked.
Obama made a video, shared by Macron ahead of the runoff elections in which the former US president says: “I’m not planning to get involved in many elections now that I don’t have to run for office again, but the French election is very important to the future of France and to the values that we care so much about. Because of how important this election is, I also want you to know that I am supporting Emmanuel Macron to lead you forward.”
According to data from the French Embassy, 96% of the French citizens in Israel who voted this week supported Macron, with only 4% casting votes in favor of Le Pen.
“Like the vast majority of the French Israelis and the French Jews, I feel relieved that Emmanuel Macron got elected,” says a friend of mine who lives in the Galilee.
“He is a bright young man, with a different background than his political peers, who has been able to think outside the box and achieve his goals.
“I truly hope he will bring to France the energy and optimism it badly needs right now,” says Florence Touati- Wachsstock. “He has a real desire to unify the French nation. If he succeeds, we won’t see Le Pen so close to the power again soon.”
Touati-Wachsstock was not surprised by his success.
Macron was in the year below her in the prestigious Lycée Henri IV in Paris. Although she never met Macron, she’s familiar with the ethos that pervaded what’s considered the best high school in France.
“The teachers used to tell us we’re the elite of the nation,” she notes. Although she is far from elitist, and lives far from France, she acknowledges that Macron “accomplished his mission.”
And in case you’re wondering, Macron met the teacher nearly 25 years his senior who is now his wife when he attended Brigitte Trogneux’s literature and theater classes at a Jesuit high school in Amiens. The story goes that his parents sent him to Paris in the hope of ending the romance between the teenager and his married teacher.
After graduating from the lycée, he studied at the Ecole Nationale d’Adminstration, which has been called “the central clearing-house for French leaders.”
Clearly Macron was groomed for greatness, and he has determination and tenacity. He is intelligent, hardworking and politically pragmatic, exploiting his youthful energy in a system disillusioned on both sides by the establishment.
A former investment banker, pushing for unpopular liberal economic reforms, he is his own man, combining ambition with ambiguity. He plays up his modest family background (although it was more middle-class than working-class) and plays down the age gap with his wife – the mother of three from her first marriage.
Macron is enthusiastically pro-Europe, while Le Pen was vehemently anti-EU and anti-immigrant. Perhaps, like me, they both want to recreate a France that didn’t really exist outside of pleasant memories and childhood stories.
What happens in the elections for the National Assembly next month will have a role in determining the direction that Macron is able to take the country.
Channel 10’s Hatzinor nightly news program this week showed American journalists trying (and failing) to correctly pronounce the name of the president-elect. (A clue: It has nothing to do with a macaroon.) A colleague at the Jerusalem Post’s Edition Française laughingly shared the tweet by “Betty Bowers”: “This is the first time in history that the President of France will speak better English than the President of America.”
A running joke among French Jews ahead of the elections was that if Le Pen were to win, they would move to Israel. Except it wasn’t a joke and it wasn’t funny. Liberal American Jews said the same thing ahead of the US elections, although the first 100 days of Trump brought several policy changes but so far no spike in immigrants.
British friends have made the same quip should Jeremy Corbyn lead Labour into power in the UK.
But Jews shouldn’t move to Israel because they’re running away from something, but running to the country for its own sake. It’s not perfect, and certainly this is not the political system’s finest hour here either, but there are still plenty of reasons for them to vote for Israel in a positive way, with their feet.