Jews emerge as ‘model for integration’ in French elections debate, rabbi says

PARIS (JTA) – The Jewish community of France has emerged during the nation’s presidential campaign as a model for integration of other faith groups, a senior rabbi noted following the first candidates debate.

Rabbi Moche Lewin, a spokesman for the chief rabbi of France, Rabbi Haim Korsia, made the observation in an interview Tuesday with JTA in response to the assertion by the centre-right candidate François Fillon, who cited the history of French Jews as exemplary of how Muslims should be integrated into French society.

“Clearly, the history of the Jewish community of France and its loyalty are emerging as a model” in discussions on integration during the campaign, Lewin said.

Asked during the debate Monday about his views on laïcité – a French word that refers to the republic’s vision of a secular government ensuring religious freedoms – Fillon said “the main issue today is the integration of the Muslim community.” The candidate of the Republicans party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, Fillon is the author of the 2014 book “Vanquishing Radical Islam” and supports a ban on wearing Muslim religious symbols in public.

Eschewing “generalization of Muslims,” he added that despite the desire of “a vast majority of Muslims” to integrate, “there is a rise in fundamentalism at the heart of the Muslim faith community and it threatens laïcité, coexistence, which poses a problem in the integration of the Muslim faith.”

In the only explicit reference during the debate to the Jewish community of France, Fillon added, “We’ve had this situation with other religions. The Catholic community took centuries to accept the rules of the republic. Napoleon wanted to have the Jewish community align with the republic, so he created the Consistoire.”

Established in 1808, the Consistoire is a government-recognized entity responsible for religious services to Jewish communities.

Korsia had criticized Fillon in November after Fillon claimed that prior to the Consistoire, the French “fought against a form of Catholic sectarianism or like we fought the desire of Jews to live in a community that does not respect the laws of the French republic.” Fillon’s spokesman said that interpretations of the quote as critical of Jews’ willingness to live according to French laws was rooted in “a misunderstanding.”

Also during the debate Monday, the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen advocated further limitations on wearing religious Muslim symbols in public.

“There is a rise in Islamic fundamentalism” evident in “constant issues concerning nourishment and clothing.” It was a reference to the current debate on the serving of pork in school cafeterias and the wearing of Muslim head coverings in the workplace.

Le Pen is leading in the polls ahead of the first round of voting on April 23 with 26.5 percent of the vote. She is followed by the centrist independent candidate Emmnauel Macron with 25.6 per cent and Fillon with 19.5 per cent.

Macron during the debate advocated a “heavy hand” against those who violate France’s laws but “an accommodating attitude” toward minorities’ sensibilities.

Other candidates participating in the debate were the Socialist Benoit Hamon, who comes from the leftist margins of his party, and the Jean-Luc Melenchon from the far left.

Analysts described to the French media the debate as relatively “polite,” except when Macron lashed out at Le Pen after she claimed that he had opposed the ban last year by dozens of mayors on the wearing of the burkini – a full-body swimsuit favored by Muslim women.

“I am in no need of a voice-over, Mrs. Le Pen, I’m quite capable of expressing my self and do so regularly,” Macron said curtly.

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