French Jews are fast coming to the conclusion that the second half of the 20th century, when anti-Semitism had all but vanished from the country, was not the norm, but an aberration. Back then, a 1978 poll found that only 4% wouldn’t want their children to marry someone Jewish. Violence against Jews, or their institutions, was unknown. In the notoriously inbred French political elites, in the civil service or the business world, Jews were unremarkable, undistinguishable, even.
In the 1980s, the chairman of the newly-privatised Renault was the École Polytechnique and MIT graduate Raymond Lévy, at the same time that the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), the hard-line Communist union, was headed by Henri Krasucki, a Polish-born metalworker and Résistance hero. When the time came for the annual collective wage bargaining sessions, commenters often remarked that Krasucki’s first job had been on the Renault shop floor, never that he and Lévy shared an “ethnicity” — a word that didn’t exist in the political discourse at the time anyway.
In contrast, the past two decades have seen murderous attacks against French Jews in the streets, in their homes, in their synagogues and in the districts where many of them had settled back in 1962, at the end of Algeria’s victorious independence war. Insults, bullying and worse against Jews became common in the classrooms of the difficult banlieues around large cities, where Muslim pupils are the majority, forcing an exodus of Jewish families to calmer areas, and some 50,000 people in the past decade to Israel. A smaller number have moved to London.
Things have got so bad that a yet-unpublished report commissioned by Ronald S. Lauder, the former U.S. Ambassador to Austria, rates France as the most dangerous place to be a Jew among 11 European countries.
This comes as no surprise here. Since the 1990s, as satellite Arab channels, and later the internet, started spreading the anti-Semitic propaganda that’s the norm in the Middle East, the French state was slow in acknowledging the existence of a problem, and even slower in responding. (One rare exception was the 2004 banning of the Hezbollah-financed Lebanese Al-Manar channel, where, among many comparable offerings, one 12-episode series followed a complicated plot culminating in Jews slaughtering the gentile children they’d kidnapped to make Matzo bread for Passover).
Warnings from sociologists, teachers and social workers, in numerous interviews, speeches and books, went unheeded or scorned. As a result, quite a few of the children brought up within this closely-insulated vortex of hatred ended up joining ISIS in Syria, or, like Mohamed Merah who in 2012 shot point-blank Jewish children in their Toulouse primary school, brought terror to France.
This, as well as the 2015 Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan killings, finally roused the French authorities to declare the fight against anti-Semitism a national priority, especially as the Hebdo massacre was followed by an attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris. Yet more horror was to come in 2017 with the horrific murder of 65-year-old Sarah Halimi in Paris. She was tortured and killed by Kabila Traoré, a 27-year-old young neighbour she’d known all his life, the murderer calling out “Allahu Akbar” and, finally, “I have killed the shaitan” (devil).
Not only did it take time to reclassify the murder specifically as an anti-Semitic hate crime: when the case finally came to court last year, the judge ruled Traoré “psychologically irresponsible” and sent him out to hospital treatment. (France has her share of activist judges — civil servants here — who often find sociological excuses not to sentence delinquents harshly.)
What’s new (“old-new”) is the recent resurgence of a more ancient form of anti-Semitism, born on the far-Right and now often shared on the far-Left. This seems to have left the country strangely unmoved. The rise of conspiracy theories has been charted by sociologists, who find that 22% of the French now believe in some sort of Jewish world-domination conspiracy: this proportion doubles to 44% among the Gilets Jaunes movement. (In fairness it is not just the Jews; large numbers of French people also believe in conspiracies involving the Freemasons and Illuminati.)
Emmanuel Macron, a non-practising Catholic who once worked for two and a half years for the merchant bank Rothschild et Cie, was routinely abused on Gilets Jaunes banners and posters showing him standing in front of a Star of David, surrounded by hooked-nosed Jews, captioned “Rothschild’s man”.
The Gilets Jaunes movement has abated, but similar slogans appeared in union marches against the pensions reform: they are all over the internet and in online comments on the websites of mainstream newspapers. Perhaps more than anywhere else, French anti-Semitism manifests itself across the political spectrum.
French authorities are at fault here, not because of institutional anti-Semitism but rather that French elites, so resistant to change, are still locked in 1960s ideas. Terrified of being accused of Islamophobia, they have, Left and Right, rejected for two generations the kind of law and order policies that voters clamour for (which explains Marine Le Pen’s swelling support, even without a credible platform). Half-hearted attempts by Nicolas Sarkozy, and later statements by the short-tenured hardline Les Républicains leader, Laurent Wauquiez, were nearly unanimously condemned by commenters and the rest of the political class.
As a result, France accepts a level of petty crime (quaintly called incivilités, as of someone eating the cheese course with their hands) that’s unheard of in the rest of Europe, from the regular burning of thousands of cars on holiday nights annually, to robberies, muggings and vandalism. State school teachers are often attacked by parents angry at their children’s bad marks; nurses and doctors are set upon in hospital emergency services; night bus drivers beaten up by gangs of youths in difficult areas, or simply threatened by clusters of passengers who refuse to pay.
What pushback there is from the police is due to local courage among the teams on the ground, who receive little thanks from their superiors. The feral youth created by this terminal attitude of laissez-faire targets Jews first, but many in France are uncomfortably aware that if Jews went away, they would be next. Until France decides to replace declarative posturing at the top with actual enforcement of the law at the citizen’s level, France will remain the most dangerous place to be a Jew in Europe — and the late 20th century will seem like another age.