PARIS — In an unprecedented speech by a French president to the umbrella organization of French Jewry, Nicolas Sarkozy pledged to boost the France-Israel relationship and play a major role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.Fulfilling a promise he made almost a year ago, Sarkozy on Wednesday night became the first French president ever to speak at the CRIF’s annual dinner, and many attendees said they felt they were on the cusp of a new era in France-Israel relations.
The address was also seen as a sign of the newfound warmth between Elysees Palace and French Jewry, whose place in French society has been shaken in recent years following a surge in anti-Semitic attacks.
“Israel can count on a new dynamic to its relationship with the European Union," Sarkozy declared, with France set to hold the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2008. "France will never compromise on Israel’s security."
Sarkozy also warned that the European Union might boycott the planned United Nations’ Durban conference on racism if it becomes an Israel-bashing conference, as it did in 2001.
"The Durban conference in 2001 led to intolerable excesses from certain states and numerous NGOs that turned the conference into a forum against Israel, and no one has forgotten," Sarkozy said. "France will not allow a repetition of the excesses and abuses of 2001. Our European partners share France’s concerns. France will chair the EU in the final months preceding the review conference. I say to you: if ever our legitimate demands are not taken into account, we will disengage from the process."
In his remarks, made to a crowd of more than 1,000 leading French Jews as well as politicians from the political right and left, Sarkozy spoke of the indispensable place of French Jewry in French society, said 2008 would be a crucial year for French-Israeli reconciliation and promised to play a leading role in helping Palestinians and Israelis reach a peace deal, which he called “absolutely possible.”
"I think it’s going to be a landmark year," Israel’s ambassador to France, Daniel Shek, said after the speech. "We used to be very close to France until 1967, so this is a real renovation, which is very exciting to experience."
The president’s appearance came as his approval rating among the French has dropped some 20 points since September, to 39 percent — due in large part to France’s sluggish economy and revelations about Sarkozy’s personal life, including his recent marriage to model Carla Bruni.
But Sarkozy found a warm reception at the CRIF dinner. French Jews overwhelmingly supported Sarkozy’s candidacy for president, and many say he is a true friend of the Jews and Israel.
"It’s the first time that a president of the republic has come here in person, and it shows how important it is to him," said Claude Hampel, editor of Cahiers Bernard Lazare, a Jewish periodical. "It shows that the Jewish community is an integral part of the French nation.”
Sarkozy described the evening as significant to him as well, and the start of a busy year in French-Israel relations.
Israeli President Shimon Peres is scheduled to visit Paris on an official state visit March 10-14, and Sarkozy is expected to go to Jerusalem in May to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary. In July, France will take over the E.U. presidency, which Sarkozy said could have major implications for Israel’s future.
The president also spoke of the need to maintain dialogue and trade ties with Arab states, saying he sees "absolutely no contradiction" between this policy and a steadfast friendship with Israel, arguing that this gives France broader influence in the Middle East to push for peace.
Yet Sarkozy drew a line when it came to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "I will not meet with or shake hands with people who refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist,” he said.
Sarkozy also talked about anti-Semitism in France, pledging to combat it through original educational measures, including a proposal to have every 10- or 11-year-old in the country “entrusted” with the profile of a French Jewish child killed during the Holocaust. Sarkozy’s maternal grandfather was a Greek Jew.
"I’m very touched and interested," Ariel Goldmann, CRIF’s vice president, said of the elementary school memorial initiative. "I think it’s a magnificent idea, and that it will last."
While the crowd here mostly had praise for Sarkozy’s remarks, his comments about the compatibility of religious and secular values struck some as striking the wrong chord, while others said they found them comforting.
In another one of his attempts to open up the delicate debate in France over introducing aspects of religion into French culture, Sarkozy said, "The drama of the 20th century, the millions of beings thrown into war, famine, separation, deportation and death, were not born from an excess of the idea of God, but of its fearsome absence.”
Sometimes sounding more pastor than politician, Sarkozy said of the Bible: "Never again, after the Torah, never again has man been able to speak about God the way he was able to in the past."
Alain Belhassen, president of the southeastern section of the CRIF, said he was thrilled to hear a politician talk about spirituality, and to listen to Sarkozy’s heartfelt contemplations about Judaism.
This is the kind of discussion France’s 600,000 Jews need more of, in order to heal the wounds caused by nearly a decade of renewed anti-Semitism here, Belhassen said.
Jean-Michel Quillardet, head of the Grand Orient of France, an organization that stridently defends French secularism, said Sarkozy’s remarks were at odds with French culture.
"This is the first time that a French president talks this much about God. That’s his affair, if you will, his personal conviction, but it’s a little like the U.S. in the end, and we are not in the U.S.; we are in France, with the great tradition of French enlightenment,” he said. “So I’m very dubious, and a little worried."