Leading French Jew Comes Out Strong for Presidential Hopeful
Sitting in a fashionable cafe on Boulevard Saint Germain, Nicole Guedj, perhaps the key point person between French government circles and the Jewish community in France, wonders aloud, “Is there a Jewish vote?” Her answer: “I don’t think so.”
But Guedj, a high-placed member of the campaign team for Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, was confident her candidate would fare well with French Jews even before Socialist Party hopeful Segolene Royal stumbled on her visit to the Middle East in early December.
Royal stood by idly as a Hezbollah deputy in Beirut compared the Israelis to the Nazis who occupied France, waiting until the next day to condemn the remarks as “unacceptable, abominable and odious.”
“Many people in the community were already convinced that Nicolas Sarkozy is the right person to be president of France,” said Guedj, a former lawyer.
Guedj, 51, is a close associate not only of Sarkozy but also President Jacques Chirac, who are political adversaries despite belonging to the same right-of-center party, the Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP.
But Guedj’s passions lie beyond French politics. Guedj, who has kosher meals delivered to staff in her office in the Elysee Palace, the presidential complex, is a steadfast defender of Israel. In 1996 she was one of the founders of UPFJ, the Union of Jewish Patrons of France, a group of Jewish heads of French companies who meet to discuss French-Jewish and Israel-related matters, but does not lobby in the American sense of the word. There are no political lobbying groups in France.
Guedj has been criticized by politicians and the French public for her commitments to the Jewish community in France and the security of Israel and her activity in French politics. Since Israel’s war this summer with Hezbollah, she has been worried about Israel and how it’s viewed. The July 2005 meeting in Paris between Chirac and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “was a real breakthrough in terms of Israel’s image in France and in Europe,” she said, “but since the war with the Hezbollah, that image is once again that of an aggressor. Israeli politicians have had great difficulty convincing the world that the war was an act of self defense.”
Among French politicians, Sarkozy has the clearest position on Israel, Guedj says. “He has always been clear about needing to find solutions to the rise of radical Islam throughout the world, the violence of angry youths in the suburbs in France, and about Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah in Lebanon,” she said. “No Socialist Party official can come close to Sarkozy in terms of his support for Israel.”
Some French blamed Sarkozy for compounding, even provoking, violence in the French suburbs in November 2005, when thousands of young people, mostly of North African Arab and other African background, burned cars, businesses and schools, and fought with police, sometimes in neighborhoods with substantial Jewish populations. “Sarkozy promised a tough response,” Guedj said sternly, “but I believe he was also fair.”
Guedj explained that suburban youths face high unemployment, even when they have high-level diplomas, because their parents have no networks to help them and employers sometimes don’t want to hire Arabs or blacks. “You know very well that in France, it is against the law to count people or group people according to their ethnic origins,” she said. “But Sarkozy is the only candidate who has come out and said he is in favor of some kind of affirmative action program, what we call positive discrimination in French.”
An Algerian native, Guedj came to France in 1961 with her parents during a mass exodus of Jews when the former French colony became independent.
Along with politics and Israel, another passion is humanitarian work. In 2004, as France’s undersecretary for victims’ rights, Guedj convinced Chirac to propose to the United Nations a satellite communications-based container called Emergesat to direct crises in the field. “For me, politics has always a tool to get things done,” she said. “The fact is that the United Nations has not been very present in crisis situations, be it in Bosnia, in Rwanda or now in Darfur. Putting U.N. blue-helmet troops on the ground is one thing, but identifying victims, managing food stocks, drinking water, medical supplies and coordinating communication requires a high-tech solution, and so far the U.N. has nothing like that.” Her proposal to employ high-tech teams, called “red helmets,” is still being examined by the United Nations.
Speaking about Royal’s trip to the Middle East, Guedj was dubious about the candidate
s excuse for not speaking out immediately against the Hezbollah deputy – a bad translation. “Honestly, I have my doubts, but at this point it doesn’t even matter,” said Guedj, who is one of 200 members of the Council of State, a government body that provides counsel on French law. “The explanation by Socialist Party officials is unacceptable to the French public and especially to the Jewish community.”
At such a high level of international politics, there’s no room for mistakes, she said. “Segolene Royal or anybody else cannot go to the Middle East without being fully prepared for every possible situation,” Guedj said. “She cannot hide behind a bad translation.”