This century in France has been characterized for its Jews by anti-Semitism. It is a major factor explaining the emigration in the past 10 years of tens of thousands of Jews from the country.
In recent months, there has been a spate of anti-Semitic attacks at French universities. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe has announced a new plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism for the current and coming two years. One component of this plan is legal strengthening of the obligation to suppress illicit content on social media. The plan does not, however, include the overdue appointment of a national Antisemitism Commissioner—as is the case in Germany—who would continuously expose and investigate the broad range of expressions of hatred against Jews.
The French government may not wish to recall the pioneering role of the country in the outburst of anti-Semitism in Western Europe since 2000 after the second Palestinian intifada. There were 450 anti-Semitic attacks in France in a year-and-half. At that time, the country’s socialist government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin tried to hide what was happening. Police stations often registered anti-Semitic attacks as hooliganism. The Ministry of the Interior tried to repress information about the anti-Semitic character of the attacks in order to maintain a non-existent “social peace” between communities. This translates as deliberately not pointing out that Muslims were the main perpetrators of such hate crimes.
Jews in France were even blamed for Israel’s reaction to the Palestinian uprising. Several French media outlets showed understanding for local Muslim reactions against the Jews. So, too, did the anti-Israeli Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine. He said that “one does not necessarily have to be shocked that young Frenchmen of immigrant origin have compassion for the Palestinians and are very excited because of what is happening.” This statement sounded like a justification for anti-Semitic attacks.
French academic Shmuel Trigano said “Jewish citizens couldn’t understand that violent acts were being committed against them in the name of developments 3,000 kilometers away … they considered it, however, outrageous that the French government and society did not condemn it immediately.”
Center-right President Jacques Chirac persisted as long as possible in denying the anti-Semitic character of what was going on. Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), mentioned to me in an interview that he and colleagues met with the president in May 2003. Chirac told them that there was no anti-Semitism in France; rather, it was young hooligans who attacked Jews.
Shortly after the delegation left the meeting with Chirac, two SWC representatives were insulted on the street by several people saying “get out of France, you Jews.”
Rabbi Hier said that it was an “eloquent” answer to Chirac’s vain claim that there was no anti-Semitism in France. Ultimately, however even Chirac had to admit that substantial antisemitism did exist in his country.
Successive French governments did not succeed in developing measures to reduce anti-Semitism. The situation continued to worsen. In 2003, a Muslim neighbor murdered Jewish DJ Sébastien Selam in a knife attack. It would take 15 years, until 2018, when President Emmanuel Macron finally recognized this murder as anti-Semitic. Since Selam, an additional 11 Jews have been murdered in France by Muslims. This accounts for the majority of all ideologically motivated murders of Jews in this century in Europe.
For the French government, the country’s economic problems are far bigger than issues of anti-Semitism. Both seem insolvable. Economic growth in the last five years has been low, at about 1 percent per year. Government debt is high at close to 100 percent of the gross domestic product. The unemployment rate in France averaged 9.27 percent from 1996 until 2018, and is currently close to that figure.
President Macron’s popularity in September of this year fell to a 29 percent low, compared to 39 percent in July. In such an unpleasant reality, he is looking for projects outside of France to divert attention from his country’s domestic problems. A possible Middle East peace plan fits part of this agenda.
Macron’s predecessor, socialist President François Hollande, convened a useless Middle East Peace conference in June 2016 to divert attention from his low domestic standing. He did not even seek re-election, as is usual for a first-round president. His Socialist party, which held the majority in the previous parliament, was decimated in the 2017 elections.
A French peace plan cannot make any contribution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. France’s multiple condemnations and votes against Israel in international forums in the past 50 years make it totally untrustworthy in Israeli eyes. All France can do is maintain its image as a disturbing factor in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is former chairman of the Steering Committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He specializes in Israeli-Western Europe relations, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.