Antisemitism: France: February 2019
‘For several years – and the situation has become worse over the past few weeks – our country, like other European countries and nearly all western democracies, has been faced with a resurgence of anti-Semitism not seen since World War 2’ said President Macron this week.
February alone has seen many anti-semitic incidents:
- 96 tombstones in a Jewish cemetery (Quatzenhzeim, eastern France) dating from 1795, desecrated by swastikas
- ‘Juden’ sprayed on the front window of a Paris bagel restaurant, Bagelstein
- trees planted to commemorate 23-year-old Ivan Halimi – kidnapped and tortured to death over three weeks, in 2006, because he was a Jew – cut down on the eve of the annual memorial
- swastikas daubed on letter-boxes with street paintings of politician and Auschwitz survivor Simone Veil [‘Sick of this hatred!’ headlined Aujourd’hui en France]
- violent abuse spat at a well-known (outspokenly neo-con) Jewish public intellectual, 69-year-old Alain Finkielkraut by a group of gilets jaunes
All this after a huge increase in antisemitic incidents in France last year. Up 74%, according to the Government, after two years of decline. The total number of incidents formally reported to the police rose from 311 in 2017 to 541 in 2018.*
Initially a supporter of the gilets jaunes movement, Finkielkraut turned against them as the violence, largely uncriticised by its various figure-heads, increased. The final break was a vigorous piece he wrote for right-wing Le Figaro, last Friday, condemning the gilets jaunes and ‘a process of ‘de-civilisation’ which wants to devour everything’.
The next day, hatred was screamed at Finkielkraut (a Jew, born in France) by a group of gilets jaunes in Paris, on Day 14 of the protests: ‘Dirty Zionist shit’, ‘France belongs to us’, ‘Go back to Tel Aviv’. Some, including Government spokesperson Griveaux, said they’d heard shouts of ‘dirty Jew’
Scores of vile, threatening insults can be heard: Barre-toi, sale sioniste de merde. Sale merde. Nique ta mère. Homophobe de merde. T’es un raciste, casse-toi! Dégage fasciste. La France, elle est à nous. Sale enculé. Espèce de raciste. Espèce de haineux. T’es un haineux et tu vas mourir. Tu vas aller en enfer. Dieu, il va te punir. Le peuple va te punir. Nous sommes le peuple. Grosse merde. Tu te reconnaîtras. Espèce de sioniste. Grosse merde. Il est venu exprès pour nous provoquer. Taisez-vous!
Several people don’t hear the sale juif insult to add to the rest of the bile-ridden hate. Representatives of hard left Mélenchon’s France Unbound party initially seemed to hold some store by the ‘disagreement’ as to whether the words ‘sale juif‘ were actually articulated. Their equivocation was thoroughly reviled.
Mélenchon himself tried weaselling his way out of showing support for Finkielkraut. He condemned racism, while pointing out the dangers of ‘exploiting’ antisemitism. He noted that certain gilets jaunes tried defending Finkielkraut from attack. ‘I’m with them’ said The People’s Tribune. Nothing about the language used against him though.
President Macron tweeted his support to Finkielkraut that ‘anti-Semitic insults are the absolute negation of everything we are and of what makes us a great nation. We will not tolerate them.’
Rallies opposing antisemitism
Quatzenheim cemetery was desecrated the day before a series of rallies opposing antisemitism were to be held. The rallies had been organised on the initiative of Socialist Party Secretary, Olivier Faure. [That’s probably the first time since President Hollande left office in May 2017 the Socialist Party has done anything of note.]
There were gatherings in 70 towns throughout France, with the common slogan ‘No more’. The organisers claimed 20,000 in the place de la République in Paris. Ex-Presidents Sarkozy and Hollande, Prime Minister Philippe and many Ministers were present. La Marseillaise was sung by Abd al Malik. Texts were read by school-children. It was all over in 40 minutes.
President Macron had gone that morning to the desecrated cemetery accompanied by the Chief Rabbi and Interior Minister. In the evening, he went with the Presidents of the National Assembly and Senate to Paris’s Holocaust Memorial and laid wreaths. Finally, the President stood before the Wall of Names: it bears the names of 76,000 Jews, 11,000 of them children, who were sent by France to the concentration camps.
The invitation to the rallies had been sent to, and supported by, all political parties. Bar one. Le Pen’s ultra-right National Rally (formerly National Front) was not invited because, as Faure said, ‘its history is tied to antisemitism and racism’. But then Faure went and spoilt it all: on RTL radio he said Mme Le Pen would be welcome. Prime Minister Philippe disagreed with the non-invitation, calling in the National Assembly for ‘absolute unity’ in the face of antisemitism and ‘all-inclusive’ demonstrations.
Mélenchon’s hard left France Unbound party, however, seemed uncertain about its attitude to the Paris rally. A year ago, Mélenchon and his fellow France Unbound Deputies were forced out of a march in memory of an elderly murdered Jewish woman. Initially, France Unbound didn’t rush to support the rally publicly. Mélenchon made much of the death threats he and his fellow Deputies faced from those who said his party’s anti-Zionism made them ambivalent about antisemitism. [Assuring Mélenchon his security would be ensured, Interior Minister Castaner said ‘Today it’s rather the security of Jews in France which preoccupies me, and which should preoccupy us all’.]
Mélenchon then issued a very strange ‘protest too much’ defence of his party’s position: ‘We are absolutely pure and free of even the slightest hint of discriminatory thinking.’ But just so as to avoid any possible difficulties about personal safety, Mélenchon ended up attending the rally in his Marseilles constituency.
Action against antisemitism
On Tuesday, President Macron said in terms ‘I don’t think making anti-zionism a crime is a good solution’.
This may well have been a response to proposals to that effect previously raised in the National Assembly. Next day, he went to the annual dinner of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF), with his Ministers of Justice and Interior. Wearing a badge ‘All united against antisemitism’, the President said the Government would
- broaden France’s definition of antisemitism to include anti-Zionism, by adopting the Working Definition of antisemitism of the International Holocaust Working Alliance defining as antisemitic either holding Jews responsible for the State of Israel’s actions or denying Jews the right of self-determination. ‘Increasingly,’ said the President, ‘antisemitism hides behind a mask of anti-zionism’
- ban 3 ultra-right groups, Bastion social, Blood and Honour Hexagone, Combat 18
- propose, in May, a new law against internet hate speech and increase pressure on those operating web platforms to police them.
Is it then intended that French law would be amended so anti-zionism becomes a crime? How far will people be able to go in criticising the actions of the State of Israel? (Hopefully, an extremely long way indeed.) Yet, lines between criticising the existence of the State of Israel and its actions often become extremely confused. To add still further confusion to a fast-blurring picture, the Elysée Palace later let it be known via Le Figaro that the courts, police who receive formal complaints about antisemitism, as well as teachers, will all be given guidance about new forms of antisemitism which feed on hatred of Israel.
The President also slapped down the ultra-right. For years, the Front National have chanted at their rallies ‘On est chez nous‘ [This is our country, our home … and all those ‘others’ should be anywhere but here]. At the CRIF dinner, and in front of the assembled figureheads of France’s Jewry, the President said: ‘Nous sommes chez nous. Nous tous.’ Maybe this was also a small Presidential response to Israel’s Immigration Minister who, following the cemetery desecration, tweeted his condemnation of antisemitism in France and called on Jews to emigrate to Israel.
*Some further perspective is brought to this sad picture by looking at antisemitism in the UK. Jewish UK charity, Community Security Trust, recorded 1,652 antiSemitic incidents in the UK in 2018.