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French right-winger Fillon cozies up to Jews to defeat Le Pen

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Even to his supporters, France's centre-right presidential hopeful Francois Fillon is a flawed candidate.
by CNAAN LIPHSHIZ | Mar 23, 2017

Dogged by corruption scandals Fillon, who represents The Republicans party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, was indicted on Tuesday for allegedly funnelling public funds illicitly to his children and wife. Fillon, a career politician and former prime minister, has denied the allegations.

Nonetheless, his supporters are willing to forgive him these problems, as they see Fillon as likelier to beat the front-runner in the race, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Additionally, many of these supporters see him as more likely to act tough on radical Islam than his left-wing rivals.

On Monday, Fillon - who is running a credible third in the polls behind Le Pen and the centrist independent Emmanuel Macron - for the first time in his campaign attended a town hall meeting with some 700 members of the community, organised by the CRIF federation of Jewish communities.

For Fillon, it was a partial success.

Dozens of supporters welcomed him at the meeting at a Paris hotel. Meyer Habib, a Jewish lawmaker and former CRIF vice president, endorsed him publicly. Fillon earned applause at least a dozen times when he pledged to support Israel and curb jihadism.

Nevertheless, the applause was weak and sporadic, and the audience questions were critical.

Fillon rebuked France’s support for a Unesco resolution passed last year that ignored Jewish ties to Jerusalem, calling it “an error and historical untruth that complicates peace efforts”. And he vowed never to normalise ties with Iran as long as that country “continues to call for Israel’s destruction”.

He said he supported Palestinian statehood “only if the future Palestinian state is reached by an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians".

“Jewish values, they are, well, they’re our values,” Fillon said. “Jews had a very major role in building the French republic,” he added, noting that Jews have lived in France “since time immemorial”.

Fillon made little effort to present any Jewish or pro-Israel credentials other than assuring the audience of his desire to curb anti-Semitism and radical Islam.

“Without a candidate for the centre-right, Mrs Le Pen would have a field day," Fillon warned. "Some in the right wing would express their anger by going so far as to vote for her."

Many in the crowd, however, remained uninspired by Fillon's bleak description of French society and were unimpressed by his failure to apologise for mismanaging his financial affairs and accusing Jews of lawlessness.

"He's precise and logical, but I heard nothing that will inspire young people or instil hope in the minds of those seeking meaningful change," said Emmanuel Attlan, a 30-year-old finance executive who attended the meeting.

“He’s got nothing but fairy tales to offer,” said Henry Battner, president of the Farband association of Ashkenazi French Jews.

Serge Sznajder, a scholar on Eastern Europe and a Farband board member, used Yiddish to describe is impression of Fillon.

“Let me sum it up this way: Gurnisht,” he said, which means “nothing”.

Both Szajder and Battner said they will vote for Macron.

According to a poll on Tuesday, Le Pen is leading the race with a 26,5 per cent approval rating, followed by Macron at 25,5 per cent. Fillon was third at 18,5 per cent and the far-left Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon had 13,5 per cent.

The top two vote-getters in April's first round will advance to the second and final round on May 7.

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