Is France in the midst of an anti-Semitic wave?
Jean Kahn, the president of CRIF (Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France, i.e., the French equivalent of the American Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations), thinks that the answer is yes, that “there is an escalation of anti-Semitism in France.” And he cites “graffiti, threats, gasoline bombs thrown at synagogues, attacks on cemeteries, particularly in Alsace. . . . What happened at Carpentras is not new.”
Jews have lived in Carpentras, in the south of France, since at least the 1st century, which is to say even before there was a France. This past May, the ancient Jewish cemetery there was desecrated in a particularly odious way. Yet in response to this outrage (the term by which the event was headlined in Libération, a left-wing daily paper with a circulation of over a million), the entire French political class, with one significant exception, and virtually every editorialist in the country said more or less what President François Mitterrand said after visiting the home of Joseph Sitruk, France’s chief rabbi: “I came to him as one does when there is a death in the family.” Furthermore, an appeal by a Jewish organization brought 200,000 people into the streets on less than 48-hours’ notice.
The exception within the political class was Jean-Marie Le Pen, the president of the Front National (FN), a growing xenophobic party which also contains a serious current of anti-Semitism. As if to heighten alarm about Le Pen, a few days before the Carpentras desecration, Jacques Médecin, the mayor of Nice, had made a derogatory remark (“I have never met a Jew who did not accept a gift, even when he did not like it. . . .”). This was a case of adding insult to injury, since Médecin made the remark just after having ostentatiously played host to an FN congress at which a conspicuous guest was Franz Schönhuber, a former Waffen-SS officer who until recently was the leader of a right-wing West German party called the Republikaner and who has spoken of the Jews as the “fifth occupying power” in Germany.
In addition to such phenomena, there are also a number of French academics who deny that the Holocaust took place, and there are journalists who write things like, “Denying there was a Holocaust doesn’t make you an anti-Semite,” and, “Is it against the law to say someone is cheating? It depends on whether you are talking about pâté producers who are faking, or Jews.”
Does all this add up to a danger? Of course there are anti-Semites in France, and there is always some danger, practically everywhere, in being targeted simply as a Jew. It is also true that there is less rhetorical self-restraint in France than there used to be, now that the “taboo” imposed by the Holocaust has worn off. A report prepared for the French Premier last spring noted that while anti-Semitic acts remain relatively few, there seems to be a clear increase in verbal threats of all kinds. At the same time, however, many if not most politically consequential people in France are willing to stand up and be counted on the proposition that their country must not serve the ends of the Jew-haters.
Although the situation in France today is novel, to understand what has been going on here one has to reach back to the time of the Dreyfus Affair—when, as is often overlooked, the partisans of Captain Dreyfus won the day. True, the anti-Semites (or anti-Dreyfusards) got their revenge decades later when the Nazi puppet regime in Vichy was set up in 1940. But their triumph was short-lived, and its sweetness was immediately spoiled by the bitter experience after 1945 of being, if not shot, then purged, jailed, disgraced, and deprived for years of civil rights. Ever since, the old anti-Semites have been burning for another round of revenge.
Those in the vanguard of the anti-Dreyfusard-Pétainist-collaborationist tradition do not, as far as anyone can judge, have a truly substantial posterity. The people in leadership roles who are playing out this tradition are old men or, in a few instances, their sons—the Front National’s “scientific council” includes individuals drawn from the so-called New Right, which in reality is the old racist tradition dressed up in “ultraliberal” clothing. In some respects they all seem to be caught up in some gruesome family tragedy. On the other hand, they write and they, and especially their followers among France’s disgruntled, vote—in large enough numbers so that they could conceivably become part of a winning coalition.
For in addition to its history, France has its present. One of the world’s great empires has shrunk in less than a generation’s time to a small hexagonal territory at the tip of Europe. A country that was predominantly agricultural as late as the 1940’s has become an industrial and service-sector power. A highly centralized state, which for better or for worse had a homogeneous character, intellectual and cultural as well as administrative, has become fragmented, decentralized to some extent, and (in the nightmare of some) “multicultural.”
It is noteworthy that along with these demographic and cultural shifts, the Jewish community in France has grown into the world’s fourth largest1 (and Islam has emerged as the country’s second religion). This, however, has in some ways contributed to making France more, not less, tolerant than at any time in its past. The French today really are less sure of the superiority of their civilization than they used to be; perhaps more significantly, there is little evidence that they care a great deal about their civilization’s rank in the world, at least to the point of making it a fighting issue. But here, precisely, is the paradox: tolerance may be producing diminishing returns in the sense that xenophobes, raising the question of whether the French are not being asked to give up too much of themselves in order to be nice to others, touch a nerve that Le Pen is able to exploit.
This is not to say that xenophobia and anti-Semitism are always the same thing. Xenophobia can in certain circumstances be taken a long way in France, while programmatic anti-Semitism is almost universally viewed as demented. Every time Le Pen shows his frankly anti-Semitic side, he repulses those trying to convince themselves he has become respectable. It is mainly the French Left that has an interest in blurring the distinction between xenophobia and anti-Semitism, in order to make it that much harder for anti-Le Pen conservatives to take a principled “nationalist” position.
It is often said that France must be anti-Semitic because where else in Europe during World War II did the locals voluntarily pass anti- Jewish laws before the Nazis even asked them to? This thesis is not false but it lacks nuance and perspective. An anti-Semitic party which had not been able to win an election, but which was propelled into power under the impact of the military and moral collapse of France in 1940, took advantage of the fact that the Nazis had a gun to the country’s head to promulgate laws that never would have passed a democratic legislature.
This is not to dismiss as uncharacteristic a terrible chapter in French history, and by and large the French do not dismiss it. They remind themselves of it, as they did a few weeks ago when an enterprising reporter at l’ Express, the country’s leading newsweekly, reconstructed the deportation to a transit camp in the Loire valley that followed the infamous roundup by the French police of Jews in Paris in July 1942. The story was a painful one, soberly reported. It did not bring out any new historical facts. Rather, it brought out once again—and this is probably something that cannot be done too often-the peculiar mix of indifference and cowardice and moral exhaustion that characterized the French collaboration with the country’s Nazi conquerors.
What is often overlooked about France in the 1940’s, however, is that the anti-Semitic measures occurred only because the anti-democratic party—whose supporters ranged from Germanophobe monarchists like the writer and poet Charles Maurras to intellectual Teutonophiles and Nazi sympathizers like the writer Robert Brasillach—had been imposed on the country by German arms; and while crimes were being committed against the Jews, Jews were also being saved. As Claude Lanzmann, the author of the film Shoah, noted following the Carpentras affair in May: “Despite the collaboration, despite Vichy, two-thirds of the Jews of France were saved. And that is thanks to the French.” But Lanzmann also expressed concern over the fact that some people still do not realize that anti-Semitism is a crime, not an opinion.
Actually, anti-Semitism has been legally a crime in France since 1972, and just recently there has also been an attempt (which failed) to criminalize the view that the Holocaust never occurred. Lanzmann happens to think that such legislation is dangerous in a variety of ways, and that the weapons of choice now must be education and information (including films like his own). He may well be right: the laws have hardly affected the rate or quantity of anti-Semitic expression. Le Pen himself has been taken to court several times, has lost several times, and has at least two more court dates ahead of him. In late May he was found guilty and fined for his remark that the Holocaust was a “detail” (in the sense of a minor circumstance) of World War II; he is likely to appeal. A couple of years ago, he was also found guilty of incitement to hatred for specifically naming three prominent Jewish journalists as evidence that the press is against him and is controlled by his (Jewish) enemies. Yet none of this deterred him from referring, just before Carpentras, to the “good representation” of Jews in the media.
Nor does it appear that his party’s fortunes have ebbed under the prosecutorial offensive. Although the FN has only one deputy in the National Assembly, it has several hundred municipal and regional councillors scattered around France, and these sometimes represent the balance of local power. There are also 10 FN men in the European Parliament at Strasbourg, in a French delegation of 81.
Within the Le-Penist coalition of disaffected voters, a hard core is made up of people unhappy that it was de Gaulle, rather than Pétain, who turned out to be right in the 1940’s—right about the outcome of the war, of course, but also right about France. Others who were Gaullists then (as Le Pen has claimed of himself) still have not digested the loss of French Algeria. Still others long for the sort of pre-Vatican II Catholicism that the French Church has turned its back on. And finally there are those (by no means coming only from the Right) who vote for Le Pen’s party because they think it is the only one which addresses issues, such as immigration and security, that concern them.
How much these different circles of followers, whose common denominator is frustration, can be contaminated by the anti-Semitism of some simply cannot be predicted.2 But the archaic, or local, nature of the recent anti-Semitic affaires suggests that the contamination may not go far.
Consider the case of Claude Autant-Lara.
Autant-Lara is an acerbic old man who in the 1940’s was a successful film-maker, one of the leaders of what was called the Qualité française style. Although he did not enjoy German patronage and was never thought of as a Germanophile, he was later attacked mercilessly by the Nouvelle Vague group of critics and directors, led by François Truffaut, and he never forgave them. In his mind, disappointments going back to the 1930’s in Hollywood became confused with the eclipse of what had been a powerful film career in France, and accordingly the intellectuals in Paris and the Jews in Hollywood became his favorite scapegoats. These sentiments landed him a place on the Euro-parliamentary ticket of the FN and then a seat in Strasbourg.
Shortly after he took that seat, someone from the new Jewish magazine Globe got on the phone to the eighty-eight-year-old Autant-Lara and started pumping him. Autant-Lara asserted that there was a Jewish conspiracy against him, against France, and against the French film industry; moreover, he said, although he was not sure about the Holocaust, he did know that whatever the Nazis may have done, they did not get “the Veil woman” (ils ont raté la mère Veil), referring to Simone Veil, an Auschwitz survivor who has become one of the most popular politicians in France.
The Ministry of Justice initiated a suit against Autant-Lara for incitement to racial hatred. Every politician in France came out with statements condemning him. Even Jean-Marie Le Pen, who had put Autant-Lara on his ticket for a reason, felt compelled to express disapproval. Faced with all this, Autant-Lara resigned from the Euro-parliament and is presently facing prosecution for his interview with Globe.
More recently there was the Médecin affair in Nice, epitome of the French Riviera (bright sun and blue skies, mountains just behind the yellow and white beaches, elegant linen outfits, wine, seafood, the beautiful and the rich on the seashore, real-estate men and other tycoons, movie stars, and bimbos). Jacques Médecin practically inherited Nice’s city hall from his father in 1964, and from the Center-Left he has moved to the Center-Right; until lately he was a member of RPR, the Gaullist party of Jacques Chirac.
Now, it is important to understand about Médecin that he has been a strong supporter of Israel. He has twinned Nice with Netanya, he has denounced Arab terrorism, he has taken part in demonstrations against Arafat’s visit to meet with Mitterrand, and has done many things of concrete use to Israel, not to mention to the Jewish community of Nice, approximately 25,000 souls of mostly North African background.
Médecin, in other words, is emphatically not an enemy of the Jews. And yet, thinking he could score a few cheap political points at a time when he was under attack by his Socialist opponents for a variety of alleged financial irregularities, he publicly welcomed the Front National when it had its party congress in Nice not long before Carpentras and, as mentioned earlier, made a derogatory statement about Jews. The response of RPR, his own party, was to denounce Médecin, who in turn lost little time in resigning.
Again, as with Autant-Lara, the anti-Jewish virus was localized and quarantined.
If the anti-Semitism of an Autant-Lara (for all the echo it finds in the extreme right-wing press) represents nothing but a spent, or almost spent, tradition, and if the alleged anti-Semitism of a Jacques Médecin is, on closer inspection, nothing but a political gesture, albeit a shameful one, then what is the political significance of these “affairs,” of which so much has been made in France?
For one thing, the Left in France has been using the rhetoric of “anti-racism” to give itself a moral agenda and place the mainstream Right on the defensive. Up to now, moreover, this tactic has been successful. At Carpentras, the Minister of the Interior (who has responsibilities comparable to our Attorney General) virtually accused Le Pen of being responsible for the outrage. Then, as if such blatant politicization of a criminal affair were not sufficient, the Interior Ministry proceeded thoroughly to botch the Carpentras investigation. Not only was evidence lost, but it developed that the desecration, undoubtedly disgusting, was not quite so gross in its physical details as the Minister (and his government colleagues) had at first let on. Whether they themselves had been deceived by misleading reports, or whether they were unable to resist an opportunity to make a public show of moral indignation, will probably never be known. What is known is that there is no extremist group in France, particularly on the far Right, that remains closed to the police, and if any such group had been implicated the fact would have emerged quickly. As Salomon Malka, a radio journalist, was forced to conclude, “We feel we’ve been cuckolded. I hope it’s not worse than that. But the crime certainly was manipulated for political ends.”
Beyond the calculations of domestic politics, public displays of “anti-anti-Semitism” in France, as the historian Annie Kriegel has noted, serve another purpose: “covering” a government foreign policy that is not well disposed toward Israel, and indeed has not been well disposed ever since the Six-Day War of 1967. (If anything, Mitterrand has been rather more sympathetic, at least at the level of gestures, than his predecessors.) Thus, just after Carpentras, the French government sent its human-rights man, Bernard Kouchner, to Israel to complain about its treatment of Arabs.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the intellectuals in France (broadly speaking), despite their ritual “anti-anti-Semitism,” have permitted a public discourse to develop in which anti-Semitism nevertheless is a factor. Today, “certain things” can be said in France about the Jews that could not have been said twenty, let alone thirty or forty, years ago; and though these “certain things” are ritually denounced, they are seldom rebutted. What has happened in the intellectual world is that sentimental indignation often has taken the place of serious combat.
It is important to remember, moreover, that although today the main academic or would-be academic deniers of the Holocaust in France are in the orbit of the Front National, the late Robert Faurisson, the “dean” of the French Holocaust- deniers, was first represented by an extreme-Left publisher; and even today, a revisionist tract was recently published in an organ of the prestigious CNRS, France’s major state-funded graduate-research institute (it caused an uproar).
The shifting attitudes of the French Left to Israel play an important role here. It was Liberation, the same paper that ran the headline “Outrage” after Carpentras, that in 1976 greeted Israel’s lifesaving raid on Entebbe with the headline, “Israel, Champion Terrorist.” The paper would almost certainly not do this today—after repeated demonstrations of the way Israel’s enemies behave, the French media have acquired a certain respect for that country’s security requirements. Yet the often virulently anti-Israel view which prevailed on the Left between the end of the Six-Day War and the withdrawal from Lebanon did make it easier to raise other “questions” about the Jewish people, past and present, and the poison of that earlier view still lingers in the air. No wonder, then, that French intellectuals, whose delicate consciences only yesterday were hurt by Israel’s insistence on defending itself, today often lack the lucidity needed to mount an effective argument in behalf of Israel in particular, and the Jewish people in general, and instead wander perplexedly about in what the historian François Furet has justly called the “desert of antiracism.”
So there is an atmosphere in France—a tone, if you will—which, although hardly responsible for events like Carpentras, is very much part of the explanatory context in which such events take place.
Yet in the end it would be wrong to exaggerate on this score, too. The novelist Marek Halter, who lived through World War II in Poland and Russia and has witnessed the war against the Jews from Argentina to the borders of Israel, dismisses the notion that there is a serious threat in France of a social movement based on anti-Semitism. Referring to France as “one of the most beautiful democracies in the world, with a political class which, whatever else one might say of it, is one of the most generous,” Halter adds that it is now home to “a Jewish community which has never lived so freely throughout its two-thousand-year presence in this country.”
It does not do, ever, to underestimate the political potential of anti-Semitism in society. Yet despite the understandable alarm of Jews like Jean Kahn of CRIF, on balance Marek Halter’s seems a fair judgment about today’s France, even taking Le Pen into account, and even after the anxiety aroused by Carpentras.
1 There are in France a little under a million Jews, in a population of over 55 million. They are in their large majority of North African origin, having arrived in France in 1962 at the end of the Algerian war.
2 One of the more famous members of the Front National, for example, is Pierre Sergent, who is a municipal councillor at Perpignan, a city in the southwest. He was a leader of the OAS, the violent irredentist movement that tried to sabotage Algerian independence, and was later amnestied after years in hiding. But the relevant point about him in this context is that he chose to wear a yellow star in 1942 (when he was still in high school) before joining the Resistance. Sergent believes that so long as he is in the FN, the anti-Semites cannot gain the upper hand in the party.