In an interview French President-elect Nicolas Sarkozy gave in 2004, he expressed an extraordinary understanding of the plight of the Jewish people for a home: “Should I remind you the visceral attachment of every Jew to Israel, as a second mother homeland? There is nothing outrageous about it. Every Jew carries within him a fear passed down through generations, and he knows that if one day he will not feel safe in his country, there will always be a place that would welcome him. And this is Israel.”
Sarkozy’s sympathy and understanding is most probably a product of his upbringing. It is well known that Sarkozy’s mother was born to the Mallah family, one of the oldest Jewish families of Salonika, Greece. Yet it remains to be seen whether his personal history will affect his foreign policy and France’s role in the Middle East conflict.
In the 15th century, the Mallah family (Hebrew for messenger or angel) escaped the Spanish Inquisition to Provence, France, and moved about 100 years later to Salonika. In Greece, several family members became prominent Zionist leaders, active in the local and national political, economic, social and cultural life.
In 1917, a great fire destroyed parts of Salonika and damaged the Mallah family estate. Many Jewish-owned properties, including the Mallah’s, were expropriated by the Greek government. The Jewish population emigrated from Greece and much of the Mallah family left Salonika for France, America and Israel.
Sarkozy’s grandfather, Aron Mallah, nicknamed Benkio, immigrated to France, where he converted to Catholicism and changed his name to Benedict in order to marry a French Christian girl named Adele Bouvier.
Although Benedict integrated fully into French society, he remained close to his Jewish family and culture. Knowing he was still considered Jewish by blood, he hid his family in the village of Marcillac la Croisille in western France during World War II.
During the Holocaust, many of the Mallahs who stayed in Salonika or moved to France were deported to concentration and extermination camps. In total, 57 family members were murdered by the Nazis. Testimonies reveal that several revolted against the Nazis.
In 1950, Benedict’s daughter, Andree Mallah, married Pal Nagy Bosca y Sarkozy, a descendant of an aristocratic Hungarian family. The couple had three sons, Guillaume, Nicolas and François. After the couple divorced in 1960, Andrée Sarkozy raised her three boys close to their grandfather, Benedict. Nicolas was especially close to Benedict, who was like a father to him.
Sarkozy says he admired his grandfather, and through hours spent listening to his stories of the Nazi occupation, the Maquis (French Resistance), De Gaulle and D-Day, Benedict bequeathed to Nicolas his political convictions.
Sarkozy’s family lived in Paris until Benedict’s death in 1972, at which point they moved to Neuilly-sur-Seine to be closer to the boys’ father, Pal (who changed his name to Paul) Sarkozy.
Various memoirs depict Paul Sarkozy as a father who did not spend much time with his children or help the family monetarily. Nicolas had to sell flowers and ice cream in order to pay for his studies. However, his fascination with politics led him to become the city’s youngest mayor and to rise to the top of French and world politics. The rest is history.
It may be a far leap to consider that Sarkozy’s Jewish ancestry may have any bearing on his policies vis-?-vis Israel. However, many expect Sarkozy’s presidency to bring a dramatic change not only in France’s domestic affairs but also in the country’s foreign policy in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, there are several reasons that any expectations for a drastic change in the country’s Middle East policy, or foreign policy in general, should be downplayed.
First, France’s new president will spend the lion’s share of his time dealing with domestic issues, such as the country’s stagnating economy, its social cohesiveness and the rising integration-related crime rate.
When he finds time to deal with foreign affairs, Sarkozy will have to devote most of his energy to protecting France’s standing in an ever-involved European Union. In his dealings with the United States, Sarkozy will most likely prefer to engage on less-explosive agenda items than the Middle East.
Second, France’s foreign policy stems from the nation’s interests rooted in reality and influenced by a range of historic, political, strategic and economic considerations. Since Sarkozy’s landing at the Elysée on May 16 will not change those, France’s foreign policy ship will not tilt so quickly under a new captain.
Third, France’s Foreign Affairs Ministry exerts significant weight over the country’s policies and agenda. There, nonelected bureaucrats tend to retain an image of Israel as a destabilizing element in the Middle East, rather then the first line of defense of democracy. Few civil servants would consider risking France’s interests or increasing chances for “a clash of civilizations” in order to help troubled Israel or Palestine reach peace.
It is fair to predict that France will stay consistent with its support in establishing a viable Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, existing side by side with a peaceful Israel. How to get there, if at all, will not be set by Sarkozy’s flagship, but rather he will follow the leadership of the United States and the European Union.
Although Sarkozy’s family roots will not bring France closer to Israel, the president’s personal Israeli friends may. As interior minister, Sarkozy shared much common policy ground with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The two started to develop a close friendship not long ago, and it is easy to observe similarities not only in their ideology and politics but also in their public image. If Netanyahu returns to Israel’s chief position, it will be interesting to see whether their personal dynamic will lead to a fresh start for Israel and France and a more constructive European role in the region.
Article courtesy European Jewish Press in Brussels.
Raanan Eliaz is a former director at the Israeli National Security Council and the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, and a consultant on European-Israeli affairs.