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Jewish World Review
May 7, 2007
/ 19 Iyar, 5766
Who is Nicolas Sarkozy?
Sarkozy (L) with close friend Netanyahu in Paris
What to expect from France's new president, scion of one of the oldest Jewish families of Salonika, Greece
In an interview 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." (From the book "La République, les religions, l'espérance", interviews with Thibaud Collin and Philippe Verdin.)
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. Additionally, many may be surprised to learn that his yet-to-be-revealed family history involves a true and fascinating story of leadership, heroism and survival. 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 (in Hebrew: messenger or angel) escaped the Spanish Inquisition to Provence, France and moved about one hundred 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. To this day many Mallahs are still active Zionists around the world.
Sarkozy's grandfather, Aron Mallah, nicknamed Benkio, was born in 1890. Beniko's uncle Moshe was a well-known Rabbi and a devoted Zionist who, in 1898 published and edited "El Avenir", the leading paper of the Zionist national movement in Greece at the time. His cousin, Asher, was a Senator in the Greek Senate and in 1912 he helped guarantee the establishment of the Technion the elite technological university in Haifa, Israel. In 1919 he was elected as the first President of the Zionist Federation of Greece and he headed the Zionist Council for several years. In the 1930's he helped Jews flee to Israel, to which he himself immigrated in 1934. Another of Beniko's cousins, Peppo Mallah, was a philanthropist for Jewish causes who served in the Greek Parliament, and in 1920 he was offered, but declined, the position of Greece's Minister of Finance. After the establishment of the State of Israel he became the country's first diplomatic envoy to Greece.
In 1917 a great fire destroyed parts of Salonika and damaged the family estate. Many Jewish-owned properties, including the Mallah's, were expropriated by the Greek government. Jewish population emigrated from Greece and much of the Mallah family left Salonika to France, America and Israel. Sarkozy's grandfather, Beniko, immigrated to France with his mother. When in France Beniko converted to Catholicism and changed his name to Benedict in order to marry a French Christian girl named Adèle Bouvier.
Adèle and Benedict had two daughters, Susanne and Andrée. Although Benedict integrated fully into French society, he remained close to his Jewish family, origin and culture. Knowing he was still considered Jewish by blood, during World War II he and his family hid in Marcillac la Croisille in the Corrèze region, western France.
During the Holocaust, many of the Mallahs who stayed in Salonika or moved to France were deported to concentration and extermination camps. In total, fifty-seven family members were murdered by the Nazis. Testimonies reveal that several revolted against the Nazis and one, Buena Mallah, was the subject of Nazis medical experiments in the Birkenau concentration camp.
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In 1950 Benedict's daughter, Andrée Mallah, married Pal Nagy Bosca y Sarkozy, a descendent of a Hungarian aristocratic family. The couple had three sons Guillaume, Nicolas and François. The marriage failed and they divorced in 1960, so Andrée raised her three boys close to their grandfather, Benedict. Nicolas was especially close to Benedict, who was like a father to him. In his biography Sarkozy tells he admired his grandfather, and through hours spent of listening to his stories of the Nazi occupation, the "Maquis" (French resistance), De Gaulle and the 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 accounted Paul as a father who did not spend much time with the kids 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-à-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. One cannot overestimate the magnitude of the election of the first French President born after World War II, whose politics seem to represent a new dynamic after decades of old-guard Chirac and Mitterrand. There is even a reason to believe that Sarkozy, often mocked as "the American friend" and blamed for 'ultra-liberal' worldviews, will lean towards a more Atlanticist policy. 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, one must bear in mind that France's new president will spend the lion's share of his time dealing with domestic issues such as the country's stagnated 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 US, 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 reason why expectations for a drastic change in France's position in the Middle-East may be naïve is the significant weight the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs exerts over the country's policies and agenda. There, non-elected 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 in Quai d'Orsay would consider risking France's interests or increasing chances for "a clash of civilizations" in order to help troubled Israel or Palestine to reach peace.
It is a 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 US and the EU. Not much new policy is expected regarding Iran, on which Sarkozy has already voiced willingness to allow development of civilian nuclear capabilities, alongside tighter sanctions on any developments with military potency.
One significant policy modification that could actually come through under Sarkozy is on the Syrian and Lebanese fronts. The new French president is not as friendly to Lebanon as was his predecessor, furthermore, as the Minister of the Interior, Sarkozy even advocated closer ties between France and Syria. Especially if the later plays the cards of talking-peace correctly, Sarkozy may increase pressure on Israel to evacuate the Golan Heights in return for a peace deal with Assad.
Despite the above, although Sarkozy's family roots will not bring France closer to Israel, the presidents' personal Israeli friends may. As a Minister of Interior, 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.
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Raanan Eliaz is a former Director at the Israeli National Security Council and the Hudson Institute, Washington D.C. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, and a consultant on European-Israeli Affairs. He wrote this column for European Jewish Press, a Brussels-based pan-European news agency.
© 2007, European Jewish Press