Friday, 8 February 2008

Letter from France: The hottest ticket in town

The Judeo-political happening of the year, the annual dinner of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions juives de France (Council of Jewish Organizations of France, better known as CRIF), is about to take place on Feb. 13 in one of Paris' glamorous venues, the Pavilion d'Ermenonville, and all of its aficionados are wondering whether this year's edition will stand up to the competition of preceding ones.

Last year, the Jewish community dinner was the only event attended by both presidential candidates, Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy, and no guest could ever forget how the two managed to avoid each other while moving through the packed lounge, shaking hands with everyone else. Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, officially the star guest, was completely ignored by the crowd.

This year Sarkozy, one of the dinner's regular guests, will attend the event once again. Only this time he will be in attendance as France's leader, the first president to do so.

CRIF press director Edith Lenczner told me that organizing the dinner has been even more delicate now that Sarkozy is coming, and she hopes to keep the press in a separate hall with a giant TV screen to watch the speeches. Some would say this sounds like an idea Sarkozy himself would have suggested.

The CRIF annual dinner was never meant to become a central political event of national importance; it started out as a simple distinguished meeting between Jewish leaders and political officials where the CRIF shared its fears, ideas and projects. Throughout the years, though, an increasing number of public figures have attended the event. High-ranking leaders, the whole government and the opposition, TV stars, singers, ambassadors of numerous countries -- from China to Tunisia -- and even controversial figures wouldn't miss the event and press their Jewish friends to get them in. Jacques Chirac's lawyer, Francis Szpiner, called his most influential clients to get a seat, without managing to do so. The dinner, speeches and cocktail reception are even broadcasted live on French TV, because everyone knows this is the place to be, and that an important message will be delivered.

In 2002, Roger Cukierman, the excellent former CRIF leader, denounced the growing anti-Semitism in France at a time when Lionel Jospin's government was still denying its existence.

In 2003 Cukierman criticized the "Brown-red-green alliance," implying that the extreme left had joined the extreme right and fundamentalist Muslims, symbolized by the color green, in an anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic allegiance. The speech launched a great controversy, because the audience misunderstood Cukierman and thought he was attacking the Green environmentalist party, whose leader Gilles Lemaire left the dinner angrily. Cukierman never openly cleared up the misunderstanding, and some of his enemies within the Jewish community accuse him of enjoying the attention and headlines too much to admit he never intended to attack the nature-friendly Greens, who do tend to strongly criticize Israel at times.

Every year the CRIF tries to impress by inviting a special guest involved in some recent news event. Robert Redecker, the philosophy teacher who had to run for his life after criticizing Islam in a newspaper column, was invited along with anti-terror judge Bruguière, Ilan Halimi's family and the policeman who saved a young Jewish soccer fan from an enraged crowd of Jew-haters trying to lynch him, etc. This year's special guest will be a newlywed couple: top model Carla Bruni and Sarkozy himself.

Sarkozy's participation is appreciated by the CRIF, but some observers, such as the newsmagazine Marianne, criticize the move, arguing that it shows once again that Sarkozy is encouraging religious communities to lobby for their interests in a strongly secular state.

"We shouldn't be ashamed to lobby for Israel, against anti-Semitism and in favor of inter-religious dialogue," Pierre Besnainou, the former head of the European Jewish Congress, told me last year when he was still running the organization.

French observers, mainly the left-wing press Liberation, Charly Hebdo and Marianne, fear that the Jewish annual happening will open Pandora's box, strengthen other communities, including Muslim extremists, and weaken the French secular identity, the nation's apparent immunity against fundamentalism and terror.

The process they dread so much had already begun when Sarkozy created a few years back the CFCM (French Muslim Council), an Islamic CRIF. From this Muslim council emerged the UOIF (Islamic Organizations' Union of France), a fundamentalist body.

"Sarkozy the bigot is endangering secularity" was Marianne's main headline last week. The magazine printed a series of articles and a picture of Sarkozy with a white-bearded rabbi, mistakenly identified as the French Chief Rabbi Joseph Sitruk, when he was in fact David Messas, the rabbi of Paris.

Sarkozy's favorable attitude toward religion; as well as his speeches in the Vatican, where he pleaded for a "positive secularity," and in Saudi Arabia, where he said religion saved civilization from man's extremism, shocked French observers.

Those who criticize his position don't accept the concept of positive or negative secularism, saying secularism is an intrinsic notion; they don't accept the growing importance of communities and say that the republic should be lobby-free.

However, fundamentalism does exist in France as well as fundamentalist lobbies. They are also active in European Union bodies.

Maybe Sarkozy's "positive secularism" is a way of battling against extremists while recognizing a community's right to defend its security and interests.

Maybe it begins by trying to understand religion, the right to practice and by avoiding mixing up all rabbis and imams.

Maybe then would France's cherished secularity be truly protected.

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