The two countries have had a complicated relationship for decades. In the 1960s, French President Charles de Gaulle abruptly severed his country’s alliance with Israel in favor of ties with Arab countries. The French were suffering after the Algerian War of Independence, so Israel was hung out to dry.
But France is extremely important for Israel internationally on the one hand as a central player in world politics and secondly as the third largest Jewish country in the world (population, 500-600,000). It is essentially the capital of Jewish affairs in Europe like New York is for North America. But because of strong French nationalism and skepticism of religious communities, it also hosts a strongly Zionist-oriented Jewish population. It has been a major source for new olim the last few years.
But nothing characterizes the relationship more than the Gilad Shalit crisis. Shalit’s family is one of those immigrant families. He has dual citizenship between France and Israel, and he got several honorable mentions from the French president during his captivity. France also lent some diplomatic muscle to the negotiations for his release. It went well with what Israelis considered the best option for a French president. The Socialist Party isn’t considered as friendly or lenient to Israeli concerns or policies.
Sarkozy has tried improving the two countries’ relationship in other ways. But French politics make the relationship shaky. The European Union’s policies in the Middle East conflict also make a warmer relationship tough. Just last year, both Sarkozy and Obama were overheard talking about how much they distrust Benjamin Netanyahu. Things haven’t been easy.
But for traditional Jews in France, Sarkozy is a mixed bag. This year’s election has him saying just about anything to get himself votes, mirroring the flops Republican candidates have been making in the primaries. Not even two weeks ago, his Prime Minister very publicly said Jews and Muslims should give up their dietary laws and assimilate fully in “modern” France. This is a country where French nationalists have held public protests demanding true Frenchmen eat pork in recognition of pig’s place as a staple of a patriotic French diet.
The idea that anti-immigrant and anti-minority feelings are mixing with anti-Israeli politics is nothing new, and it worries Israel’s advocates that see it all exacerbating European policy against Israel. Since the Second Intifida started 12 years ago, attacks against Jews grew tremendously. The Anti-Defamation League is not missing this opportunity to again talk about the rise in anti-Semitism on the continent. That includes another high-profile Jewish murder, victim Ilan Halimi, in 2005. In France, Synagogue arson has occurred often. Attacks have becoming increasingly aggressive over the years.