Sonia Wasserman moved to Israel from France 45 years ago, and until today, never once voted in a French election.
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Her fear that the National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, could be elected the next French president, she says, is what drove her to stand in line for two-and-a-hours outside a polling station in Tel Aviv this afternoon in order to vote.
“She is simply a fascist,” says Wasserman of the French far-right leader. Like many of the hundreds standing in this long line that extends down the block, this 70-year-old retired dentist appears to care more about who loses in the election than who wins. By process of elimination, Emmanuel Macron, the independent centrist, has become her candidate of choice.
Standing just ahead of her in line is Avi Nabet who feels compelled to add his own two cents to the conversation. “I second everything this woman has said,” he says. Nabet was born in Israel but, as he explains, has French citizenship through his parents. “I’ve never voted before in the French elections, but I felt that this time it was a must,” says the 52-year-old advertising executive.
French diplomats in Israel hadn’t expected this kind of turnout. “It looks like there has been a strong mobilization of French voters in Israel,” says Jean-Marie Druette, the first secretary at the French embassy, observing the long lines down the street, “and this is a good thing.”
He admits he was “a bit surprised” to see so many French-Israelis come out to vote but understands where they’re coming from. “I think they feel it’s an important election,” says Druette during a short break from supervising one of the polling stations in the building, “and maybe they feel there are higher stakes this time.”
Roughly 70,000 Israelis are eligible to vote in the current election, according to data provided by the various French consulates around the country. In the last presidential election, held in 2012, only about 15 percent of them exercised this right. Based on the turnout in the first hours of voting today, the percentage will presumably be much higher this time around.
Polling stations were set up on Sunday in cities around Israel known to have large enclaves of French expats, among them Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Netanya, Haifa, Ashdod and Eilat. In Tel Aviv alone, six stations were opened in the large building that houses the French consulate on Ben-Yehuda Street. (Later in the day, less than a mile from here, four individuals would be wounded in an attack by a Palestinian assailant.)
Visible among the large crowd waiting to vote were elderly folks in wheelchairs alongside soldiers dressed in their fatigues. Immigrants fresh off the boat lined up with old-timers, many who had lived most of their lives outside of France. Women in halter-tops and sandals stood beside ultra-Orthodox men in traditional black garb, all of them proudly clutching their French passports.
Not all were willing to reveal which candidate they planned to vote for, but among those who did, Macron was the clear favorite – not because they liked him so much but because they disliked the others even more.
This would be the first time 18-year-old Eva Sebban votes in any election. “I’m voting for Macron, not because I believe in him, but because I’m afraid of the others,” she says. Not just Le Pen, she clarifies, but also Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the radical left candidate. “The situation for the Jews in France is already bad, and I fear that if either of these candidates wins, it would be a disaster for the Jews,” she says.
Le Pen had warned that if elected, she would prohibit dual citizenship for citizens of non-European countries like Israel. She has since retracted her words, but Sebban remains wary. “I don’t know why we should have to choose between being French and being Israeli when many of us feel we belong in both places,” she says.
Sebban and her family moved to a town near Tel Aviv two years ago, part of the recent wave of French immigration to Israel. A combination of rising anti-Semitism and a weak French economy have fueled this exodus. The total number of Israelis with French citizenship is estimated today at 150,000.
Arlette Perl has been living in Israel most of her life, but this is the first time she will be voting in a French election since leaving the country more than 40 years ago. Although she will not disclose which presidential candidate she supports (“In France, you don’t ask people who they’re voting for,” she admonishes a reporter), she has no problem revealing which ones she opposes. “I would never vote for the far-right candidate or the far-left candidate,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean I agree with everything the others say.”
Perl is willing to bet that half the people standing in line with her support Macron and the other half support the conservative Republican François Fillon. And this presents her with the opportunity to drop one more helpful hint about her preferred candidate: No, she acknowledges, she does not support Fillon.
Edmund, who asked that his full name not be published, will be voting for Fillon and says a surprisingly large number of French-Israelis he knows intend to as well. “It’s not that I have anything against Macron,” he explains. “He’s a good guy and not stupid at all. I just think he’ll have a hard time governing because he has no party behind him.”
A few feet behind him in line, 27-year-old Tom Cohen is still wavering between two candidates. A left-wing political activist, he says he identifies most with Mélenchon, but because he fears Fillon could make it to the next round, he will probably vote with his head rather than his heart. “I guess it will be Macron,” says Cohen, who was born and raised in Israel but has French citizenship through his mother who immigrated as a teenager.
Explaining why she, too, will vote for Macron, 58-year-old Agnes Peretz says: “It’s not that he’s good, it’s just that he’s not as awful as the others. As far as I’m concerned, the extreme left and the extreme right are equally dangerous.”
A lawyer based in Tel Aviv, Peretz moved to Israel 34 years ago but still stays in touch with many of her Jewish friends and relatives in Paris. If either Le Pen or Mélenchon is elected, she predicts, many of them will pack up and move to Israel. “These are people who’ve been mulling such a move for a while, and this would be the tipping factor,” she says.
She doesn’t believe it will come to that, though. “I think the French still have some sense left in them,” says Peretz.
Veronique Souffir, a veterinarian from Ra’anana, just north of Tel Aviv, has made a point of voting in every French election since she moved to Israel 18 years ago. “My soul is here in Israel, but my heart is still there,” she says. Although she refuses to disclose which candidate she supports, she gladly explains her strong feelings about voting in the French election.
“In the past 30 years, France has been transformed from an amazing country to a joke,” she says. “When I was a student in Paris, the laws were so strict that you couldn’t even hang signs on the Champs lysées to advertise an event you were holding. Today, the Champs lysées is a place where terrorists shoot policemen.”