French Jews and Anti-Semitism

Will a new president's election bring it to an end?

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President Jacques Chirac was very committed to memorializing the Holocaust and acknowledged France's responsibility in the deportation of Jews. But he was much more tepid in condemning contemporary anti-Semitism and was quiet on issues relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict. When Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped in Gaza in the summer of 2006, Chirac remained deaf to calls for help in spite of the fact that Shalit is also a French citizen.

Nicolas Sarkozy

The French Jewish community entered a new era on May 6, 2007, when Conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president. Sarkozy previously had been Minister of the Interior and took a strong stance against riots in Muslim-dominated suburbs. As a strong enforcer of French values of a secular republic, by which all institutions remain secular, while religion remains a private matter, he was also one of the designers of the "secular law" that forbids wearing religious attire such as headscarfs, kippot, and crucifixes in public schools. He tried to help politically organize Muslim community groups, but secular and moderate Muslims did not respond positively and boycotted the vote, and the current organization, the French Council of Muslim Worship, shows an unbalanced weight of fundamentalists. 

Throughout his campaign, Sarkozy proudly publicized his immigrant background, which appealed to many Jewish voters. Sarkozy's father is Hungarian, while his mother is the daughter of a Sephardic Jew from Salonika, Greece, who converted to Catholicism. Sarkozy's Jewish grandfather, Benedict (Aaron) Mallah, was influential in the president's upbringing. Though he was raised Catholic, Sarkozy did not shy away from his Jewish roots and the fact that his family hid in the outskirts of Paris during World War II, for fear of being arrested and deported to Auschwitz.

Sarkozy has publicly made pro-American and pro-Israel comments, a radical change from previous French political leaders. The Jewish community of France voted for him en masse, with the hope that he would protect them from a new wave of anti-Semitism, and re-establish law and order in unruly suburbs. Since his election, Sarkozy has already voiced concerned for the three Israeli soldiers captured in 2006 by Hamas and Hezbollah, and wants France to have a more active role in the Middle Eastern peace process. This might herald a new beginning for the Jewish community of France: if indeed, Sarkozy is able to curb anti-Semitic incidents, restore confidence for the Jewish community, and take a pro-active role in international diplomacy, then French Jews will again taste fully the French Republic's motto Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.

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Brigitte Sion

Brigitte Sion is Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow in New York University's Program in Religious Studies. A writer, editor, translator, and teacher, she earned her Ph.D. in Performance Studies from New York University in May 2008.