AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France - Two small and vulnerable communities, one constituting about 1 percent of the population and the other about 10 percent, are the fulcrum of the 2007 French presidential elections. The Jews and Muslims in France have fulfilled a decisive role in determining the political agenda for some 60 million French people.
First, the Jews were hit. In the fall of 2000, when the Muslims began to avenge the damage done to their Palestinian brethren in the territories, the lives of the Jews of France changed. Within months, hundreds of attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions were reported. Community leaders raised the alarm, but the French government dismissed the events as incidents perpetrated by criminals or delinquent youths.
The socialist government headed by Prime Minister Lionel Jospin deciphered the new reality, but feared sparking a communal and ethnic conflagration that would set fire to the republic. Thus, only rarely did government spokesmen mention the ethnic origin of the perpetrators or their victims. Only when synagogues and schools were hit was their link to Judaism mentioned. Only when Jews took to the streets and demanded that their country protect them, waving the flag of Israel alongside the French flag, did France concede that this was a new wave of anti-Semitism. In the past it had taken a Christian form; this time, it was described as Muslim anti-Semitism.
Seven years later, the all-clear can be sounded. Attacks do continue, but they are much less severe. Here and there curses, here and there shoving, here and there slogans on walls. The murder of Ilan Halimi a year ago was considered the height of the anti-Jewish campaign that began in the fall of 2000. These seven years have shaped the new politics of France's Jews. Real fears have grown strong sometimes to the point of exaggeration and have caused the Jews to prefer a right-wing to a left-wing candidate.
It is almost certain the extreme right headed by Jean-Marie Le Pen will benefit from the terror that has settled in the hearts of the Jews. In the past, Jews did not vote for Le Pen because they saw him as a racist and a xenophobe. As long as they felt protected, they condemned him and his opinions. But in light of their feeling that the state has abandoned them, some see him as a worthy address.
While the state has not admitted to the growth of extremist elements in the Muslim community, Le Pen more forcefully emphasizes his well-known opinions: Muslims, or most Muslims, should go back to their countries of origin. The enemy of my enemy has suddenly become a friend. A Jewish doctor in this picturesque town said a few days ago that many of his friends intended to vote for Le Pen. "Of course, because he is the best for the Jews of France," he said. A friend of his, an economics professor who took part in the conversation, conceded that although things had improved, most of the Jews of Aix-en-Provence would vote either for the right-wing candidate Nicolas Sarkozy or Le Pen. "I have a feeling that Le Pen will do very well in the coming elections," he said.
In the last elections, in 2002, Le Pen got most of the votes in the mixed cities, where veteran French people live alongside Muslim immigrants. Sarkozy, the leading candidate, is for this reason trying with all his might to pull votes that have already leaked into Le Pen's camp. Segolene Royal, the left-wing candidate, knows that hundreds of thousands of votes have gone to the margins, pursued by fears and insecurity.
To a great extent it is the Jews of France who have marked out the new path the 2007 election is taking. True, in the election campaign everybody is talking about the economy, unemployment, education, allocations to the weak, the level of universities, the need for increased military power, France's place in Europe and its relationship with the United States; but floating above all these important issues is the question of France's identity.
In what country do they want to live and how France will look in the future are two of the questions that the French voters are placing before their candidates. Who would have thought that France, too, would become entrapped by the politics of identities and would not be able to extricate itself from them. One hundred and two years after religion and state were separated and a way of life instituted that erases identities, France finds itself struggling over what is left of the republican revolution. On this level, not only the Jews have fulfilled a significant role since the fall of 2000, but so have the Muslims, since the riots of the fall of 2005.