Shalit: The French Connection

By Simon Gordon
Wednesday, October 26, 2011

When Gilad Shalit was released on October 17, Israel was not the only country to welcome the liberation of one of its citizens.  Although Shalit was born and raised in Israel, he also holds French citizenship, through his grandmother.  Shalit returned to his home in northern Israel to find that President Nicolas Sarkozy had sent him an open letter affirming France's solidarity with him and its role in procuring his freedom.  "France has never forgotten you," the letter said. "She has joined herself to the efforts of your parents relentlessly and stubbornly, so that this day, the day that your liberty has been restored, would become a reality."

Bernard-Henri Lévy, Sarkozy's long-time friend, adviser, and ally, called Shalit's release a "victory for Nicholas Sarkozy."  In an address on the day of the release, Sarkozy elaborated on this victory. "The day I was elected," he declared, "I dedicated the election to the Bulgarian nurses held by Qaddafi for eight-and-a-half years; to Ingrid Bétancourt, who was facing her sixth year in the jungle; and, of course, to Gilad Shalit.  Voilà.  The three commitments of the night of my election have today been fulfilled."  

Well, not exactly.  Sarkozy was elected president of France on May 6, 2007.  On that day, as Nathalie Nougayrède notes in Le Monde, Sarkozy indeed promised that France would not forget the nurses or Bétancourt, but he said nothing about Shalit.  He called for Shalit's release only six months later—and did so, not accidentally, at the annual dinner of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France, the umbrella organization that represents French Jewry. 

If there was political capital to be gained from championing Shalit then, it is as nothing to what is at stake for the president now. Until recently, Sarkozy's main electoral fear was the rise of the right-wing National Front under Marine Le Pen; thus a series of measures were implemented to appeal to the right, including the ban on women's wearing the burqa in public, that culminated in last year's expulsion of the Roma from France. 

But now, like Netanyahu, Sarkozy faces an election next year; and his chief rival is not Le Pen, whose support has waned, but the freshly nominated socialist François Hollande, who has a comfortable lead in the polls.  Sarkozy's taking his share of credit for Shalit's release remains good politics: Though there are only 600,000 Jews in France, everybody wants to see a French president deliver on a promise to defend the Rights of the Citizen. 

But it is no surprise that after Shalit's release, Sarkozy quickly turned his public attention to another Middle Eastern prisoner with dual nationality: Salah Hamouri, the Franco-Palestinian student who in 2005 was sentenced by an Israeli military tribunal to seven years in prison for the attempted murder of Israel's then-Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.  One day after Shalit's release, in an interview on Radio J, France's Jewish radio station, the French president announced that he had asked for Hamouri to be among the second wave of prisoners released in exchange for Shalit because Hamouri, "like every French citizen, he has the right to the protection and attention of the French government."

The French government had not been silent on Hamouri:  In 2009, Sarkozy asked Prime Minister Netanyahu to grant clemency in the case.  Just before Shalit's release, however, the French president was particularly busy on Hamouri's behalf.  Thus, right after Sarkozy's Radio J interview, Hamouri's mother confirmed to Le Figaro that her son should be released "on November 28th, according to a decision by the [Israeli] Court of Military Justice."

When Sarkozy championed Hamouri on October 18, he put himself in the vanguard of the story.  True, a blogger on Le Post, the interactive subsidiary of Le Monde, insisted that the French government has applied double standards, showing "exceptional solicitude" toward Shalit (who was made an honorary citizen of Paris in 2008) while allowing Hamouri to remain unknown: "No one, or nearly no one, knows who he is."  In fact, however, only a few left-wing publications, like the formerly Communist daily newspaper L'Humanité, had drawn the comparison between Hamouri and Shalit before Sarkozy's statement. Only after his interview did the mainstream media pick up on the issue.  Sarkozy was not responding to media pressure but anticipating it.

Indeed, he anticipated so well that the French government's support for Hamouri came as news to the Minister of Defense, Gérard Longuet.  When Longuet was asked about Hamouri by a caller to a live radio program, he replied, "To be quite frank, this is the first I have heard about this situation."

Yet, by the same political logic that led Sarkozy to appeal to the right when Le Pen was strong, it is no surprise that he should have changed tack so quickly from Shalit to Hamouri as the need arose to appeal to the left, lest Hollande make causes like Hamouri his own.  Sarkozy is taking no chances.

Sarkozy's mother was a member of one of the oldest Jewish families in Salonika, Greece.  He has restored France to NATO and may be the most pro-American president France has ever had.  But it is fanciful to believe that he has any unshakeable commitment or even general bias toward Israel.  Chameleon Bonaparte, as the Economist dubbed him: He may have principles, but if you don't like them, he has others.  Doubtless Gilad Shalit will be welcomed to the Élysée Palace with great fanfare.  But if Hamouri is released, expect him to pay the president a visit as well.  In a sense, Sarkozy is merely the archetypal democrat, in that he seeks to mirror every section of the electorate.  If Sarkozy appears schizophrenic on Shalit, he reflects a nation which is divided on, and broadly suspicious of, Israel.  Whoever wins the election next year, the best Israel can hope for is a fair-weather friend.  

Simon Gordon studied philosophy and French at Jesus College, Oxford, and is currently a Tikvah Fellow at the Jewish Review of Books

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