Perceived rise in Anti-Semitic feelings, Middle East crisis could impact on French poll

By Ruth Nabakwe

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

Posted April 21, 2002

A Jewish football team was attacked by Arab youth in one of the French suburbs last week, two Jewish school buses burnt, synagogues desecrated as attacks on their establishments from Paris to southern French cities of Marseille and Lyon, etc continued to run side by side with French Presidential campaigns which wound up Friday ahead of the Presidential first round of polling slated for Sunday (April 21, 2002).

Coming at a time when the Middle East crisis deteriorates by the day the attacks were seen by observers of the French political environment as a prelude to the voting impact the French of Jewish-Arab origin could have on the upcoming French poll.

France is home to an estimated 600,00 French Jews, one of the highest in Europe compared to Britain’s 300,000, Italy and Germany 30,000. Many Jews in France are perceived to historically be closer to the Socialist Party in part because a former French military official Marshall Pétain who used to sign agreements with Hitler’s Nazis was from the Right-Wing party.

Socialists were also largely regarded by Jews as the ones who resisted Hitler’s invasion of France. They see the socialists as a party which protected them when they were persecuted by the Nazis.

The French North African immigrants of Arab descent notably Morrocans, Algerians and Tunisian estimated at between 1.5 and two million of them naturalised French citizens eligible to vote could on the other hand according to certain analysts give their poll verdict to the Right-wing French party in view of the party’s perceived pro-Arab-pro-Palestinian leanings.

Although the government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin has condemned attacks on Jewish establishments and taken steps to reinforce security around Jewish establishments, the hard reality is that police cannot be everywhere and the attacks have continued.

Poll watchers attribute such attacks to a rise in French nationalist anti-Jewish sentiments that many say could well translate into a Presidential victory for incumbent President Jacques Chirac through the vote of French of Arab origin coupled with that of the French who feel disappointed by Jospin’s government’s efforts to reassure French people on largely security concerns.

Historically, the French Right-wing in keeping with the Gaullisme spirit was perceived as ‘’ anti-American’’ and often pursued a pro-Arab and by extension a pro-Palestinian policy that could translate to North African Arab votes for Chirac in view of the escalating Middle East crisis.

When Chirac was elected President during the 1995 election, he visited Israel with the intention of going to East Jerusalem, a Palestinian strong-hold but was prevented by Israel.

Ideologically, France is perceived to be Right-wing and Chirac’s opinion poll lead of 51 percent, (compared to Prime Minister Jospin’s 48 percent) is seen as emanating from the insecurity concerns that have gripped French people who feel threatened by ‘’ foreigners’’ read immigrants (North Africans, Africans Jews etc...)

The feelings that Jews and immigrants of African and Arab origin threaten French security have often been whipped up by the anti- immigrant extreme Right National Front party of Jean MarieLe Pen who now sees himself as a third force in the French power equation as he ranks third in opinion polls with 14 percent.

However although French Media shy away from saying it loud, the anti-immigrant feeling is often perceived to be a smokescreen for the real targets of anti-foreigner feelings among a section of the French people. The real targets it is said are Jews.

Such sentiments observers say, are derived from the economic hold the Jewish community has on French society as they hold the financial clout in virtually all major sectors of French economy majority of which they control.

The Le Pen Slogan which has often echoed ‘’ France and French people First’’ is seen as explaining the hold his extreme party still retains among a section of the French electorate who appear to argue that ‘’ the Jews have the economy, we are not going to give them the country too ’’, hence the nationalist anti-foreigner sentiments whipped up by Le Pen’s extremist position.

The French anti-immigrant extreme right presidential candidate Jean Marie Le Pen’s campaign trail is therefore littered with a confidence derived from this perceived sense of being the third force in the French political power equation. After all he argues he is the third leading candidate in French opinion polls conducted by various organizations.

Le Pen’s party policies have often touted immigrants as the source of the French social malaise.

Le Pen’s steady hold on the third position has raised uncertainties in France with various French Media commentators hinting that the ‘’ extreme right is not entirely dead’’ in France despite its spilt in January 1999 with a splinter group led by Bruno Megret creating a new party known as Movement National Republicain (MNR) under which Megret hopes to capture the Presidency.

But like other smaller candidates, Megret dangling at between 1 and 2 percent in various opinion polls is perceived as not representing a strong threat to fellow extreme right power baron Jean Marie Le Pen.

Why the hold of Jean Marie le Pen on a section of the French electorate? Even beating other candidates at the opinion polls as the Greens Party candidate Noel Mamere or Robert Hue of the French Communist Party, both of whom were in the coalition government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin?

These and many more questions continue to raise concerns among other French political parties as well as minority immigrant groups in France who have often been the target of Le Pen’s political stand whose party slogan has often been perceived by immigrants to be exclusionist as it calls for ‘’France and French people First’’ that has generated hostility towards immigrants or French people of Arab or African origin.

But observers also attribute the rise of Le Pen in opinion polls to his agile like ability to ''instrumentalize'' a section of the French electorate on his policies as well as the the failure of mainly the leading party candidates (Chirac and Jospin) to address what are seen as the real concerns of French people.

For starters, critics say the French people are seeing no big difference between Chirac’s Rightist Party campaign issues and those of leftist Party Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.They say insecurity is not the only pre-occupation of the French people as has been played up by the Media and French politicians but the issue has overshadowed other major concerns of the French people such as unemployment.

Although Jospin has cut out an image of an honest, straight talking workaholic of high moral integrity his critics say he may lose the vote to Chirac as he (Jospin) was more of a technocrat, good manager but not a political strategist as his scandal-ridden rival Chirac.

Although a Chirac win was cautiously seen as highly likely, observers say surprises could not be ruled out in an election which for the first time has more candidates (16) running unlike in the past when six or seven vied for the hot seat.

They attribute political strategist and political grand master schemer qualities to Chirac as well as his affinity with power for powers sake including the uncertainty on their identity among French people as over-shadowing the scandals that have wreaked havoc on his image among French electorate. Some see Chirac as one who could restore French confidence in themselves at a time when they are perceived to harbour a sense of uncertainty due to insecurity.

But above all Chirac is perceived to be fighting not only for the Presidency but also for his political survival given that the Judiciary which was unable to haul him to court on scandal-related charges as he was still in power, could have the power to drag him to court in case he failed to win the upcoming poll as he would no longer be enjoying immunity from prosecution.

Global concerns such as insecurity as well as the uncertainties represented by trends towards globalization, the EU etc… are seen as generating feelings of uncertainty and loss of identity among certain sections of French people who see a recovery of the ‘’ French identity’’ best represented by parties such as those of Le Pen, hence his hold on a section of the electorate.

The Middle East crisis, including the general insecurity fears and uncertainties about the future worldwide following the 11 September attacks in the USA may therefore have a major impact on the upcoming French poll.

While ideology is no longer fashionable and French people have adapted to the liberal Free market trends their concerns could translate into votes for aspirants who best respond to their concerns such as unemployment analysts say.

Despite scandals of corruption and other ills- dogging Chirac’s candidacy, some observers say Chirac could still win the election boosted by the North African vote which is seen as not being neglibile as Islam forms the second largest religion in France with French of North African origin representing an estimated 1.5 million eligible voters.

However it remains to be seen whether the French of North African descent as well as other minority groups among them French of largely West African origin estimated at 500,000 eligible voters could form part of the estimated 30 percent of voters who analysts say may not to turn out to vote.

Lionel Jospin’s positive attributes of his five year Presidency in the upcoming polls is perceived to be linked to his scandal-free image unlike Chirac as well as the positive manner he has steered the French economy to a modernized level where even nagging problems as unemployment have dropped from about 4 million when he first won election in 1997 to present levels of an estimated 2 million or 10 percent.

Jospin was perceived to also enjoy a relatively large support among African immigrants of French nationality estimated at about 500,000.Although not meeting all of the African immigrants’ expectations Jospin’s immigration policies have largely been welcomed by the community as they have seen a large number of African immigrants enjoy regularised residence status which enables them secure employment and lead ‘’dignified’’ lives.

In 1997 some 60,000 immigrants were regularised under Jospin’s government including many Africans although majority still call on his government to live up to his promise of repealing the ‘’hated’’ so called Pasqua-Debre immigration Laws which tightened immigration rules for immigrants.

Jospin’s socialist party is also perceived to enjoy the support of a large segment of the French of African descent due to his New French -Africa policy seen by many African immigrants here to have set France on a new chapter of relations with the continent.

For instance many Africans interviewed by PANA talk of Jospin’s ‘’ non- interference -in African- internal- affairs-stand’’ as one which helped lay the foundation for emergence of democratic governments on the continent unlike in the past when French military interventions on the continent were perceived to entrench dictatorships.

They cite the closure of several French military bases on the continent as proof of Jospin’s desire to steer France away from any past tendencies of military interference in internal African affairs.

However critics say Jospin’s New Africa Policy emerged not out of a real desire to want to change but largely motivated by the EU Policy of strict convergence criteria that called for sound budgetary discipline.

Consequently in order to meet strict EU budgetary discipline the French authorities critics say have no means to meet a heavy foreign policy budget. hence the cuts in budgetary spending through trimming down not only of its military bases which were too expensive to maintain but also its diplomatic staff abroad.

That the current Presidential election campaigns featured little of French Foreign policy in general and Africa in particular point to what critics say was a declining French influence and interest in Africa.

They point to the recent crisis in Madagascar saying France which was perceived to be pro-Didier Ratsiraka could no longer impose regimes on the African people but had to be content to being in the role of spectator at the unfolding events.

The EU-Africa Policy under construction equally explain the declining French influence on a continent where Europe seeks to speak with one voice unlike in the past.

Chirac’s Right- wing Africa policy critics say was perceived to be ‘’ anti-African’’ and was less likely to attract the African vote.

They say for instance that the Right wing had not demonstrated a desire to ‘’ scold’’ its African allies into line such as the Sassous, Eyadema’s, and the Bongo’s whenever they flouted human rights in their countries.

They cite the failure of Chirac to sanction Guinean leader Lansana Conte’s incarceration of opposition leader Alpha Condé during a visit to Africa in 1997 as a sign that the France-Afrique, which refers to the past negative France Africa policy under President Chirac was well and truly alive despite official comments to the contrary.

But if any change of Africa policies already undertaken translate into African immigrant votes on Sunday remain to be seen as this election which for the first time has more Presidential candidates (16) unlike in the past ( about six or seven) is expected to spring some unexpected surprises and no one is certain about who could win in the first round. The second round of voting expected after 15 days of voting in the first round would put the matter in clearer perspective on the likely winner.

But if a second round of voting pits Chirac against Jospin observers say the stakes could be raised on Chirac's scandals that have embarassed French people and which could emerge as as a test of his credibility and honesty whipped up by the leftist camp.

Update: Jean-Marie Le Pen came second in the first round. The second round will be between him and Jacques Chirac. Le Pen’s success has prompted demonstrations in Paris against him.

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