The United States is not the only place getting caught up in pre-election craziness, and ours not the only elections with Jewish and/or Israel-related subplots. France is holding the first round of its presidential elections on April 22 and the theoretical run-off on May 6. The London mayoral election is being held on May 3. Both of these campaigns have seen the injection of Israeli politics and Jewish concerns by almost all of the major contestants. Some of it has been gross pandering towards Jewish voters, and some of it might not bode well for Jewish interests once the campaigning season passes.
In the United States, Jews have become accustomed to being an important political constituency which needs to be courted and cultivated, especially given the American political system as well as the disproportionate influence of Jewish voters in pivotal, battleground states.
Both Britain and France have parliamentary democracy and very different party systems. In France there are only 500,000 Jews, or .07 percent of a total population of approximately 65 million people. In London there are fewer than 200,000 Jews in a city of 7.8 million, or 2.5 percent of the citizenry. While much is made of Jews and their interests, their political clout is minimal in both countries.
Nevertheless, in both of these upcoming elections, more than one candidate has demonstrated keen interest in courting Jewish voters.
In France’s presidential campaign, the right center Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) of Nicholas Sarkozy, has demonstrated extensive concern for Jews, Jewish interests, and Israel in a tight reelection contest. Sarkozy’s vocal and aggressive response to the tragic shooting at the Ozar Hatorah School in Toulouse, turned a generally lukewarm feeling towards his reelection among French Jews into a more favorable one, as well as into a much tighter contest overall.
Not that the leader in the polls, Socialist candidate Francois Hollande, has conducted himself inappropriately, but as the incumbent Sarkozy has the power to move aggressively on some of the underlining issues, including immigration and radical Islam. Hollande can only recommend or criticize. With a run-off virtually guaranteed, many of the other candidates, including the far right candidate Marine Le Pen of the National Front Party as well as far left candidates, have shaken up some in the Jewish community, since the extremes together, according to some polls, might well win a third of the vote overall.
The London mayoral campaign may seem rather incidental, but all of British politics has a national flavor more often than not. Ken Livingstone, the former Labour mayor, is seeking to recapture the seat from the sitting Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson. Both are operating on a national stage. When Livingstone meets with Jewish leaders in London he is speaking to and about all British Jews. Similarly, when Livingstone makes yet another disparaging remark about Jews and Israel, Jewish Labour supporters address their complaints to the head of the Labour Party in Parliament, Ed Miliband.
A few years ago, Livingstone suggested that a Jewish reporter who was questioning him was acting like a Nazi or Gestapo guard. In March, Livingstone met with Jewish leaders, and, according to the Jewish Chronicle, “stood by his decision to embrace radical Islamic cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi and take money from the Iranian state broadcaster Press TV.” Perhaps more damning, Jewish leaders wrote to Miliband complaining that during the meeting Livingstone said to them that Jews won’t vote Labour because they’re rich.
“Taken individually, each of his anti-Jewish indiscretions could perhaps be explained away as a slip of the tongue, a momentary lapse,” wrote Geoffrey Alderman of the University of Buckingham, in a Jerusalem Post op-ed column. “Taken together they constitute a dossier.”
Given the small number of Jewish votes at stake in these two races, it is rather absurd the amount of attention being paid to Jewish interests and concerns. Admittedly, both contests are close but, unlike American Jews — over-represented in political activism, fund-raising, and punditry — French and especially English Jews tend not to be very politically engaged.
It is a statement about the role, the status, and the condition of the Jewish communities in both of these countries that anti-Semitism, radical Islam, and anti-Israel positions can be bandied about without causing far greater concern, anxiety, and protest from the Jewish community.