An attempt to organize the Jews of France into an American-style political lobby to counteract the French government's anti-Israeli policies has degenerated into a bitter dispute over the continued leadership of the French Jewish community by the Rothschilds, the banking family whose name is synonymous with wealth and power throughout Europe.
Baron Guy de Rothschild, the family's 70-year-old patriarch, is understood to have requested the World Zionist Organization in Jerusalem to call home its activist representative in Paris, an Israeli career diplomat named Avi Primor.
The outcome of the struggle could influence the prospects for reelection of French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.
Primor is accused by members of the French Jewish establishment of encouraging a revolt against the Rothschilds for allegedly acting as if poorer, less well-connected French Jews need the family's aristocratic protection and for being too soft on the French government, supposedly to preserve access to Giscard and his entourage.
The time is past for that kind of behind-the-scenes effort to influence French policies, say the opponents of Rothschild family power.
"Israel," said Baron Guy, "considers that it doesn't have enough problems at home. In every other country, it tries to take control of the institutions of the diaspora" -- the Jews scattered throughout the world.
"All Israeli governments want maximum support that is as vociferous and as unconditional as possible, regardless of how outrageous Israel's policies may be," he said.
The current government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin is no more guilty of this than its predecessors, he said. But he indicated that he was frequently in disagreement with it, especially over the policy of placing Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
The conflict inside the French Jewish community came to a head April 27 at a mass rally in Paris to show solidarity with Israel after Giscard's recent Middle East tour. The president on his trip stressed the need for Palestinian "self-determination." He particularly shocked French Jews by peering through binoculars at Israeli territory from neighboring Jordan. This was interpreted even by people like Baron Guy as a way of recognizing the hostility of Israel's neighbors as legitimate.
There were 123,000 tickets sold for the rally, called "12 Hours for Israel." Jewish Renewal a militant Zionist group formed on Primor's initiative and the organizers of the rally, were exultant that the turnout proved them far better at organizing French Jews than the Jewish establishment.
In the main speech at the rally, Jewish Renewal leader Henri Hajdenberg, a 33-year-old lawyer, attacked the Rothschilds and called for formation of a Jewish voting bloc to "punish" Giscard. On the dais with Hadjenberg was French Socialist leader Francois Mitterrand.
The French Jewish community is fourth largest in the world, smaller only than those in the United States, the Soviet Union and Israel. Estimates of its size range from 600,000 to 800,000 people.
In an interview at the family's bank, Baron Guy called the idea of forming a voting bloc of French Jews "an enormous hoax." At most, he said, Jewish organizations could hope to get 100,000 votes in the electorate of 30 million.
This view tends to neglect how closely balanced French voting can be. In the 1974 presidential elections, fewer than 350,000 votes separated Giscard and Mitterrand in the runoffs.
French Jews seem to be split along the country's left-right cleavage about like the rest of the nation. European Parliament President Simone Veil, a former minister under Giscard and a Jew, recently told an Israeli audience: "There is no Jewish vote. French Jews are French citizens who, like the others, decide their votes on a number of factors."
Nevertheless, the prospect that Hajdenberg might meet with some success apparently has Giscard's strategists worried. "If there's going to be a Jewish vote in this country, where are we headed?" asked government official. "Then there could be a Breton vote, a Corsican vote, a Basque vote."
The Hajdenberg effort is the negation of the centralizing doctrines of all governments here since the French Revolution. Of all Western democracies, the French state is undoubtedly the most rejecting of regional and cultural particularism.
The French Revolution broke up the Jewish ghettos, but many modern Jews reproach it in retrospect for also having tried to break up Jewish community life.
The Rothschilds came to symbolize the acceptance of assimilation by the relatively small Jewish community that survived World War II. Things were changed by the arrival of thousands of mostly poor North African Jews after France was forced to give independence to Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.
Yet, the Rothschilds, who belong to the country's financial and social elite, were still begged to lend their prestige and influence to Jewish community institutions.
The Consistory, the Central Jewish Representative Council, the powerful Social Fund, the Israeli Bonds organization and the United Jewish Appeal each has a baron Rothschild as its head. Guy directs the social Fund.
In an interview, Hajdenberg called the Jewish establishment "very Rothschild" in its desire to assimilate into French society. "At the rate we had been going," said Hajenberg, "there wouldn't have been any Jews as such left in France in less than two generations what with all the intermarriages and the insistence on making as little noise as possible."
Besides, said Hajdenberg, the Rothschilds are not credible power brokers because "they are upper class themselves and nobody believes they are capable of asking people to vote Communist or Socialist."
"We've got to change the methods in this community," said Hajdenberg, who admits he would like some day to succeed Baron Alain as head of the Jewish Representative Council. "There has never been a counterpower to the Rothschilds. We are the opposition.We are tired of hiding as Jews. I respect Alain. But the differences between us and Guy are fundamental. He said he felt like a foreigner in Israel. Individually, I've got nothing against them. It's perfectly true that they didn't seek their positions. But the Jewish establishment has been passive and immobile for 10 years.
Baron Guy said that personally it would not bother him to step aside. "But for the Jewish community, I think it would be too bad. I always maintained the pluralism of the community. I have been a force for liberalism, for not letting Israel pull all the strings.
"If the Hajdenbergs were in control, they wouldn't respect that kind of pluralism. It may sound funny to use the word democratic, but why be afraid of it? We are not self-appointed. We have no feeling that leadership is our own right."
As for Primor, Baron Guy said, "He told me he didn't want a repitition of the Jewish wars, and I believe him, but he sowed the seeds."