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Violence in France ‘most serious’ since 2005 riots, AJC leaders say

“Antisemitism has historically been a barometer for social unrest, and today, it is indicative of the wider challenges facing France,” two American Jewish Committee leaders in France told JNS.

Destroyed infrastructure in France following the killing by a police officer of a 17-year-old Algerian young man, on June 29, 2023. Credit: PVNF/Shutterstock.
Destroyed infrastructure in France following the killing by a police officer of a 17-year-old Algerian young man, on June 29, 2023. Credit: PVNF/Shutterstock.

Riots swept across France after a police officer killed a 17-year-old Algerian young man in the Paris suburbs on June 27. Nearly 3,500 people have been arrested in the subsequent unrest, during which there have been arson attacks in more than 200 cities, per Associated Press reporting.

French President Emmanuel Macron has suggested cutting off social media to curb the violence. Earlier this week, he indicated that the peak rioting has passed.

There were reports of antisemitism amid the unrest, and a Holocaust memorial was vandalized. JNS spoke with two American Jewish Committee leaders based in France—Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, general manager of AJC Europe, and Anne-Sophie Sebban-Bécache, director of AJC Paris—about that and other aspects of the riots.

Q: How would you describe what it’s like on the ground to those of us who aren’t in Paris?

A: The initial trigger for the unrest was the tragic death of Nahel, a 17-year-old French boy, during a police checkpoint in Nanterre. The policeman involved has been formally investigated for “voluntary homicide,” raising questions about the incident. People are debating whether this is indicative of a broader problem within the police or simply an isolated and unfortunate event. These discussions will likely continue in the coming weeks and months.

While the initial demonstrations could be understood as a response to the incident, the riots that have taken place in recent days extend far beyond a reaction to the original event. They are being used as a pretext for violence.

The areas most affected by the unrest are Marseille, Lyon and the suburbs around Paris. Shops have been looted, libraries set on fire, and government buildings, including numerous city halls, have been attacked. Just a few nights ago, the house of a mayor in a city near Paris, La Hay-les-Roses, was rammed by a car. Although the mayor wasn’t home at the time, his wife had to flee with their two young children. Tragically, a firefighter lost his life last night while extinguishing a fire in a parking lot in the city of Seine-Saint-Denis.

While France has experienced episodes of violence in the past (such as the yellow vests protests), this situation involving young people from immigrant backgrounds is the most serious since the 2005 riots.

Q: Can you say more about the Holocaust memorial, which was desecrated, and the disturbing slogans, such as “Death to the Jews,” which have been found painted on buildings?

A: The memorial in Nanterre was defaced with anti-police slogans, and there have been reports of antisemitic acts, including attacks on Jewish shops and restaurants in Sarcelles. These incidents currently appear to be isolated, but there is obviously always a certain concern that they could become more widespread. During the 2005 riots, several synagogues were burned.

There are underlying factors that contribute to both the antisemitism and the overall violent situation. Many of the rioters come from what was previously referred to as the “lost territories of the Republic.”

France Riot
A burning car during riots in Paris, France. Credit: Bumble Dee/Shutterstock.

They live in a different reality, hold different values and reject the French government, its elites, and also Jews. Many factors play into it, the Israeli-Palestinian issue of course, but also the perception that Jews hold power. This rejection of the system can give rise to specific fears of Jews being targeted.

AJC’s survey in France from two years ago indicated an increased level of antisemitism among Muslims in France, with two to three times more inclination towards antisemitic prejudices compared to the general population.

There also are clearly questions raised on the ground about the convergence between groups seeking justice for Nahel, certain radical pro-Palestinian organizations and possibly far-left anarchist groups.

Q: What do we know about why antisemitism is surfacing in the unrest, and who might be behind it?

A: Antisemitism has historically been a barometer for social unrest, and today, it is indicative of the wider challenges facing France.

When speaking about antisemitism, we always used to speak of the “canary in the coal mine” as a metaphor for the fact that antisemitism was always an indicator that the rest of society would soon be affected by the same ill.

It seems pretty clear that today not only is the canary affected, but the rest of the mine is as well. The targets of this unrest have expanded beyond Jews to include symbols of the French Republic. The social phenomena at play today appear to be the same that have fueled antisemitism for the past two decades.

Q: What should readers know about Jewish life in France?

A: France has the second-largest Jewish diaspora community after the United States. Paris, in particular, is a major hub for Jewish life. There are numerous active communities, synagogues, cultural centers, associations, and kosher and Israeli restaurants, especially in large cities like Paris, Lyon and Marseille.

The Eiffel Tower, Paris. Credit: Pixabay.

French rabbis and French Judaism make significant contributions to the broader Jewish community. The French Jewish community has a strong connection to Israel, with many having family and friends there and engaging in regular travel between the two countries.

The community is diverse, consisting of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, with a predominant Orthodox presence, although Reform and liberal communities are also growing. While it is true that about half of French Jews have considered leaving the country, the motivations are mainly positive, such as cultural and economic opportunities, rather than driven solely by fear.

 However, it is important to acknowledge that antisemitism does have an impact on Jewish life in France, and this has been the case for the past two decades. France has unfortunately witnessed the highest number of antisemitic murders in recent years out of any country in Europe.

 Following the deadliest antisemitic terrorist attacks in 2012 (Toulouse) and 2015 (Hypercacher), the number of Jews emigrating more than doubled, although it has since returned to normal levels.

One notable trend is the phenomenon of “internal aliyah,” where Jewish communities have relocated from smaller cities to larger ones and from challenging neighborhoods to safer areas with larger Jewish populations, seeking a greater sense of security. Therefore, the safety and comfort of Jewish life in France can vary depending on the specific location.

AJC’s recent public opinion surveys on antisemitism in France, conducted in 2020 and 2022, shed light on the impact of antisemitism on the daily lives of French Jews.

Many choose to avoid certain places, refrain from displaying Jewish symbols, and hesitate to openly identify themselves as Jews. However, it is essential to understand that this tendency among French Jews to be less publicly expressive of their Jewish identity, compared to American Jews, for example, is influenced by cultural differences and the way French Jews have integrated into the French Republic.

Religion has traditionally been considered a private matter, and the concept of laïcité (secularism) strictly separates religion from the state.

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