Sarkozy's Honeymoon (Extract)

The French president and his new wife share the limelight, but the country's Jewish community is convinced that Nicolas Sarkozy is doing an equally good job courting them

22sarko (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Extract from article in Issue 22, February 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. "UNTIL NICOLAS Sarkozy took office, successive French administrations maintained a perfect attitude toward France's Jewish community, while their attitude toward Israel was tainted with misunderstandings. But since Sarkozy became president seven months ago, we have an administration, which continues to maintain a perfect attitude toward French Jews but now also demonstrates real understanding for Israel's situation." The statement - made in a recent interview with The Report - comes from someone who ought to know: Richard Prasquier, president of CRIF, the Conseil Representative des Institutions Juives de France (Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions), the elected leadership of France's 600,000-strong Jewish community, the world's third largest after those of the United States and Israel. The newfound confidence French Jews have in their country's president will be evident on February 13 when Sarkozy becomes the first French president to speak at CRIF's annual gala dinner, a major event in French political life, with an impact that extends far beyond the Jewish community. The dinner, instituted in 1985, has always been addressed by the prime minister, the second highest-ranking figure after the president. Most of the cabinet also attends the event, as did Sarkozy last year when he was interior minister in the cabinet of then-prime minister Dominique de Villepin, who delivered the keynote address. The approximately 1,200 guests include not only political figures and the heads of major French Jewish organizations, but also scores of ambassadors (including those of Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia) and top figures from the French intellectual and business worlds. Traditionally, the country's prime minister and the president of CRIF exchange speeches and pledges of friendship during the event. But there have been times when the audience remained stonily silent or even deeply annoyed as the prime minister defended government policies unpopular among French Jews, who make up about 1 percent of the population. At the 2005 dinner, outgoing CRIF President Roger Cukierman bitterly criticized the state honors afforded to Yasser Arafat's coffin after the Palestinian Authority chairman died in a Paris hospital weeks before. There was a storm of applause from the audience while French cabinet ministers looked embarrassed. Past presidents François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac avoided the event, presumably fearing catcalls in the presence of the French media. "President Sarkozy's presence among us this year is indeed exceptional," said Prasquier, during an interview in his office. "He had no hesitation in accepting our invitation, and we believe it is very important that, as French Middle East policy changes, we should hear about these changes directly from the man making them. The main concern of French Jews now lies in the international arena, concerning Iran, and we feel it is totally justified to have asked the president to address us on the matter." It is unlikely that Sarkozy - who assumed office half a year ago - will disappoint his audience. In mid-January he called for a toughening of United Nations Security Council sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear program. Days later, while on a tour of Gulf states, Sarkozy announced that France would establish a naval and air base in Abu Dhabi to help defend that country. Abu Dhabi's nemesis is Iran, which lies opposite it across the waters of the Gulf. Sarkozy's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, sparked a storm a few months ago when he said the world should prepare for the possibility of war against Iran. "During his election campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy had no hesitation in saying aloud that he was a friend of Israel and a friend of the United States. Taking such a stance could have cost him votes but he is a man of true political courage," says Prasquier of the French president, a Catholic whose maternal grandfather was a Jew from Thessalonike, Greece. That courage was already rewarded in November when, during a visit to the United States, Sarkozy was awarded the American Jewish Committee's "Light Unto The Nations" prize. Prasquier, 62, a prominent cardiologist, is the Polish-born son of Holocaust survivors and was longtime head of the French arm of Yad Vashem - Israel's Holocaust Memorial and Remembrance Authority. He says the main difference between Sarkozy and his predecessors is an empathy for Israel's security needs. "Sarkozy completely understands the need for such measures as the construction of a security barrier alongside the Palestinian territories," says Prasquier. He notes that there has been an apparent halt to what he calls the "longtime sniping" by France's Foreign Ministry, regarded by many Jews as a center of apologists for the Arab cause. The Quai d'Orsay, as the ministry is known because of its location, regularly infuriated Israel with its "condemning all violence," thus effectively placing Palestinian terror attacks and Israeli reprisals on the same moral ground. In closed door addresses to Jewish leaders, Sarkozy is reputed to have said: "I will never put pressure on Israel because it is Israel which is surrounded by enemies on all borders and whose population is under attack." Daniel Shek, Israeli ambassador to France, also points to a difference in the attitude and, to a more limited extent, the policy of France towards Israel since Sarkozy's election. "There is a distinctive change in that [past] attitude of using every opportunity to underline the French position which condemned [Israel]," Shek tells The Report. "The French positions themselves have not basically changed. But there is less lecturing [along the lines of] 'You should do this, you should do that,'" says Shek, who was appointed ambassador a year and a half ago, after serving four years as the Embassy's press attaché. Interviewed at the elegant but fortress-like embassy building just off the Champs-Elysées, Shek, 52, says the main difference between Sarkozy's style and that of his predecessors is that France is willing to help in peace efforts if asked, but no longer seeks to impose solutions. Former presidents Chirac and Mitterand would have been happy to dictate the terms of an Arab-Israeli agreement, contends Shek. "If they had been given a chance, they would have done so and it was always the Americans who stood in their way. Today," continues Shek, "this is no longer the position of Sarkozy; nor is it the position of Europe in general. What is very visible is that Sarkozy keeps saying he is a friend of Israel." Extract from article in Issue 22, February 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.