In an amateurish video clip posted on YouTube at the end of May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu endorsed a candidate for the lower house of the French Parliament named Meyer Habib. Standing next to each other, with two Israeli flags in the background, Netanyahu called the candidate “un bon ami de moi et un bon ami d’Israël” (“a good friend of mine and of Israel’s”) and encouraged French citizens living in Israel to vote for him.
A few days later, on June 9, aided by support from Netanyahu and also from Israeli supermodel Bar Rafaeli, Habib became the first observant Jew to ever be elected to the French National Assembly. He won a second round of special elections in a new electoral district, which represents French citizens living abroad in Turkey, Italy, Greece, the Vatican, San Marino, Malta, and above all, in Israel, where half the district’s registered voters reside.
Habib’s victory came as a surprise; he had joined the race at the last minute, and the expected winner was supported by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. A day after the victory, the jubilant Habib told the Israeli radio station Arutz Sheva: “With God’s help I was elected to the French parliament, and this is a great pride for the Jewish people.”
The 52-year-old Habib, married with four children, divides his time between Paris and Jerusalem. He is shomer Shabbat, puts on tefillin every morning, and eats only kosher. As a teenager he was a member of Beitar, the right-wing Zionist youth movement. After making aliyah to Israel in the late 1970s, he studied at the Technion in Haifa and became an industrial engineer. His brother Moshe Haviv is a Rabbi in a yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Beit El.
“I am French, and the future of France is the most important thing for me,” Habib told Tablet in a recent interview. “But I am also a Jew and a supporter of Israel—I do not see any contradiction. I represent French people who live in eight countries in the Mediterranean region and not only Israelis or Jews. But certainly, as French-Israelis are my biggest constituency, I will deal intensively with their concerns.”
In order to run for the National Assembly, Habib had to resign his post as deputy chairman of the French Jewish umbrella group CRIF (Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France). Journalist Jonathan-Simon Sellem, founder of the main French-language website in Israel, JSSNews, said that Habib hesitated until the last moment since he was waiting for the endorsement of the French center-right political party UDI.
Sellem, who ran himself in the first round of the same elections and supported Habib in the second round, said that Habib is rather secretive but very well connected in France. “Each time Netanyahu is in France, Habib is just behind him,” he said, “and when French politicians visit Israel, he is there as well. He stays in the room when the most important meetings take place. If he feels he needs to call the president of the Republic, then he will call the president of the Republic.”
According to Habib, his friendship with Netanyahu goes back to 1993 when they met in Paris, and he helped the future prime minister to publish his brother Yoni’s letters in French. Habib’s father, the late Emanuel Habib, was one of the leaders of the Tunisian Jewish community in France, a friend of Menachem Begin and a member of the inner circle of the revisionist wing of Israeli politics. Meyer Habib considers Netanyahu to be “a very close friend. We have kids the same age, and he gave a eulogy at my father’s funeral.”
He says that he is proud that his country is a leading voice on the issue of Iran’s nuclear bomb but wants it to do much more. “As someone who knows Netanyahu very well,” he said, “I am sure that he will not let Iran become nuclear. If the world does not take responsibility for this issue, then Netanyahu will. He did not say as much to me; this is my personal conviction as someone who knows him very well. It’s not a good option, but it’s the least bad option.”
Habib sits on the assembly’s foreign-affairs committee, where he is highly critical of his country’s policies. “France made a lot of mistakes in matters of foreign policy and in choosing our friends,” he explained. “Sarkozy welcomed Syria’s Bashar Assad in 2009 as guest of honor in the French celebrations of our Independence Day. Guest of honor! Can you imagine?” The same is true for Libya’s Qaddafi, he added.
A main concern of his is what he regards as France’s mistaken and unbalanced policies toward Israel. “France should recognize and acknowledge who are its real allies and friends, who have the same values as we do,” he said. “Israel is the only country in the Middle East with the same values. We see what is happening across the region—in Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, and not to mention Iran. All this time, people in Europe said that Israel has extreme policies and the E.U. is dealing with the settlements. We made a mistake but now we see the truth—we cannot export democracy to countries that are not interested in it.”
In his first parliamentary question Habib asked the French government to support the admission of Israel (home to more than half a million French speakers) to the world organization of French-speaking countries (Organisation internationale de la Francophonie). Admissions are made unanimously, and Lebanon is expected to veto such a vote. Habib’s personal website details a further list of ambitious priorities, among them the controversial step of moving the French embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. His agenda, he said, is to make the rights of French people who live abroad equal to those who live in France on issues such as pension, taxation, and education.
Annette Levy Willard, correspondent in Israel for the daily Libération, wrote that although he is a close friend of Netanyahu and publicly pro-Israel, on French domestic issues Habib is considered to be a centrist. Habib agrees: “Both sides, the right and the left, are right sometime,” he said. “I am social but not socialist. I am in favor of free market but agree we should invest in society as well.”
While Habib’s new salary is much lower than the one he had as head of the jewelry company Groupe Vendôme, he said, politics are more interesting. “I wasn’t born a member of parliament and I probably won’t die a member of parliament,” he allowed. “I am here to promote my beliefs. But I am optimistic, because I think that our values—the values of Israel, France, and the United States—will prevail.”
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Adi Schwartz is an independent Israeli journalist and researcher.
Adi Schwartz is an Israeli scholar and author.