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Liberte, Egalite, Judeophobie - Why Le Pen is the least of France's problems

Liberte, Egalite, Judeophobie - Why Le Pen is the least of France's problems

Author: Christopher Caldwell
Publication: The Weekly Standard
Date: May 6, 2002

STRASBOURG, FRANCE The atmosphere of the first round of France's presidential election was captured by candidate Francois Bayrou's visit to Strasbourg on April 9. Bayrou, who represents Valery Giscard d'Estaing's center-right Union of French Democracy (UDF), was scheduled to visit a new mayoral sub-office on Strasbourg's outskirts with the city's elegant, Berkeley-educated UDF mayor, Fabienne Keller. Bayrou got hung up campaigning in another city. While Keller waited for him, she was surrounded by a mob of jeunes des banlieues--or "suburban youth." This is the euphemism the French use for residents of the crime-infested ring of high-rise housing projects (HLMs) that were built on the outskirts of all French cities in the 1960s and '70s.

The "youth," all of them beurs, or Muslims of North African descent, were staging an orchestrated protest against Bayrou, who as education minister in the mid-1990s had opposed letting Muslim girls wear the hijab, the Muslim headscarf, to public schools. But Keller was a convenient stand-in. They shouted insults and obscenities at her, one of them threatening (according to an account I was too embarrassed to ask the mayor to confirm specifically when I interviewed her days later) to take a razor to her private parts. When Bayrou arrived, the two went inside for meetings, and the crowd began to pelt the new building with stones, and howl what was really on their minds. First, "Why did you ban the headscarf!" And second, "F-- off! We don't want to live anymore in a country that has Jews in it!"

Bayrou emerged from the building while the stones were still flying and told the mob, "Talk about Jews that way today, and you may find people talking about young Muslims the same way tomorrow." At some point during Bayrou's visit, an 11-year-old boy jostled up against him and tried to pick his pocket. Bayrou, heedless that the cameras were running, slapped the kid in the face.

Politicians of the left tried to make hay of the incident, using it to paint Bayrou as some kind of fogey, and themselves as hip to the country's new and "vibrant" youth culture. "Heck, I live in the suburbs, and no one's ever tried to pick my pockets," said Communist party presidential candidate Robert Hue. "Me neither," added Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, also running for president. The French public didn't see it that way. The more the Bayrou slap played on national television, the higher Bayrou's poll numbers rose--as he was seen as willing to support an assertion of authority against the country's lawless youths. He emerged from deep in the pack of 16 presidential candidates to finish a respectable fourth place, just behind Lionel Jospin. To the extent that he mentioned crime at all (and he never did, preferring the euphemism insecurite), Jospin evinced a la-di-da attitude that dropped him to third place and ended his political career.

As French students by the hundreds of thousands stage protest marches across the country, pretty much the entire world knows the result of the first round of the French election. Jacques Chirac, the conservative sitting president, goes into a runoff on May 5 against not Jospin but Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the country's fascistic National Front. Le Pen has built his career mimicking the oratory of the rightists who collaborated with Nazi Germany in World War II. He has been a consistent foe of immigration and a practitioner of nudge-nudge, wink-wink cracks against Jews. In the past decade he has added rage against America and the global economy to his oratorical repertory. He is a goon and a gangster, but he had little need to raise divisive issues in the first round. France now has 4,244 crimes per 100,000 residents annually, according to European Union statistics, making it a higher-crime society than even the long-belittled United States. During a week when the top story on tabloid TV was the bloody beating of an 80-year-old man in sleepy Orleans by a gang of beurs who had invaded his house, Le Pen focused, as did Chirac, on the dramatic upsurge in violence over the past decade.

But while crime was what brought voters to the polls, France has an even more ominous problem: a wave of attacks and threats against the country's 700,000 Jews that is unprecedented in the last half century of European history. It includes what Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center describes as "the largest onslaught against European synagogues and Jewish schools since Kristallnacht" in 1938. What is surprising and confusing in all of this is that the "new anti-Semitism" in France is a phenomenon of the left. It has practically nothing to do with Le Pen. In fact, its most dangerous practitioners are to be found among the very crowds thronging the streets to protest him.


The outbreak began in September 2000, in the days after Palestinians launched the "second intifada" against Israel. The first attacks included firebombings of synagogues in Paris, Villepinte, Creil, Lyons, Ulis (badly damaged), and Trappes (burned to the ground), and other Jewish buildings (high schools, kosher restaurants) throughout France; desecrations of synagogues and cemeteries; widespread stonings of Jews leaving Sabbath worship, death threats, bomb threats, and Nazi and Islamist graffiti of every description: swastikas, "Hitler was right," "F-- Your Mother, Jews" (Nique ta mere les juifs--a slogan so commonplace that it now appears more usually as NTM les juifs), "Death to the Jews," and "In Paris as in Gaza--Intifada!"

Such slogans, particularly the last, now get chanted routinely at pro-Palestinian rallies in Paris and elsewhere. (As do hymns to Osama bin Laden, according to reports of last October's pro-Palestinian march in Paris.) Anti-Jewish violence has indeed tracked the progress of the intifada, rising during violent periods in the Middle East and falling during truces. There was also a spike after September 11; on the following Sabbath alone, worshippers were stoned at synagogues in Clichy, Garges-les-Gonesse, and Massy; gangs sought to storm a synagogue in Villepinte; and shots were fired outside a Jewish association in Paris. But if it has slowed at times, the cascade of such incidents has never stopped, even for a week, in the last 19 months. At the turn of this year, the League of French Jewish Students and the watchdog agency SOS Racism compiled a list of 406 such incidents.

After Israel's attack on terrorist camps in Jenin and elsewhere, the violence exploded to unheard-of proportions. Over Passover weekend last month, a bomb was found in a cemetery in Schiltigheim, outside Strasbourg, and three synagogues were burned. The authorities seemed to be waking up. While it took 12 days for any national official to even comment on the October 2000 attacks, this time the Ministry of the Interior issued a report showing 395 anti-Jewish incidents in the first half of April alone. Almost two-thirds of these involved graffiti, but the others were more serious, including 16 physical assaults and 14 more firebombings. The Wiesenthal Center circulated an advisory urging Jewish travelers to France to exercise "extreme caution."

What has been most shocking to the Jews of France is that the political class of their country, which has an anti-racism establishment to rival any in the world, has been largely silent about their plight. When a Jewish cemetery was defiled at Carpentras in May 1990, and right-wing extremists were (wrongly) suspected of the misdeed, there was a mass demonstration in Paris. Between a quarter and a half million people marched, and President Francois Mitterrand marched with them--the only demonstration he attended in his presidency.

Yet Jacques Chirac recently announced in front of Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres that "There is no anti-Semitism and no anti-Semites in France." Every French politician interviewed for this article said pretty much the same. Strasbourg mayor Fabienne Keller says: "There is no significant anti-Semitism." Her deputy mayor Robert Grossmann says: "There is no active anti-Semitism." How can they say this with a straight face?


One innocent explanation would be that French society has suited up to do battle with the anti-Semitism of 70 years ago, and simply doesn't recognize any other kind. The new anti-Semites are not German-speaking militarists--who were conquered. They are not Catholic traditionalists--whose anti-Semitism rested on doctrines no longer asserted by Catholicism, which, in any case, is a religion the French no longer practice. As such, the French lack the imagination to see that the new anti-Semites--who are primarily radical Muslims--are anti-Semites at all. "Your father's Nazism is dead," says the political scientist Alexandre Del Valle. "It exists in the heads of three or four alcoholic skinheads." In other words, the new anti-Semitism is not coming from the right.

"The danger that looms over the Jewish community is not the danger that threatened us before," says Gilles William Goldnadel, author of an acute study of recent anti-Semitism, The New Breviary of Hatred. Goldnadel told a crowd at a B'nai B'rith Center in Paris's sixth arrondissement a few nights before the election, "Worry about the right has turned out to be a decoy--in the military sense--to distract us from the real danger. French anti-racists have been parsing the tiniest dictum of Le Pen, while Jewish blood has been spilled by the left in Athens, Istanbul, Rome, Vienna, and Paris." (Particularly by Palestinian terrorists.) There are indications that the government, too, is looking at the wrong target. By the turn of this year, 60 people had been questioned for the hundreds of acts of intimidation. "Only 5 were subject to legal proceedings, being far Right," according to a report prepared by Shimon Samuels of the Wiesenthal Center. "As if the others were not really anti-Semitic and their exactions not just as serious."

There's another way that French politicians can deny that what they are dealing with is an outbreak of anti-Semitism. That is, in the philosopher Pierre-Andre Taguieff's memorable phrase, to "dissolve the anti-Jewish acts in a rising tide of delinquency." French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine told the Wiesenthal Center last June that the anti-Jewish acts were a matter of "suburban hooliganism." (He continues to hold that view.) The French ambassador to Israel, Jacques Huntzinger, called them "only part of the general violence manifested by marginal youth in France."

Since France's foreign policy has for the past half decade been built around its role as a force that would "tame" or "bridle" Anglo-Saxon capitalism, it was clearly an embarrassment that the country was unable to bridle anti-Semitic violence in its own backyard. Ignoring anti-Semitism has the advantage of allowing French politicians to proceed as if nothing has happened. In the first weeks of April, while the worst acts of aggression were occurring, Socialist culture minister Catherine Tasca led a march against the "threat" emanating from Italy's conservative prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, and Jospin warned that Berlusconi could serve as a model for his rival Chirac. (Jospin's suggestions for stopping the actual anti-Semitism, meanwhile, went no further than a generalized crime initiative, the highlight of which was a proposal to reduce the number of shotguns a hunter could legally own from 12 to 6.) In the course of the campaign, only 3 of the 16 candidates--Bayrou, the free-marketer Alain Madelin, and the centrist Corinne LePage--condemned the acts unconditionally.

And this unwillingness to call a spade a spade trickled down. The three boys who burned the synagogue at Montpellier--identified as "Morad," "Jamel," and "Hakim"--denied being anti-Semites, and so did those around them. Everyone interviewed about them in the news was content to call them "classic delinquents." The prosecutor described them as "like a lot of petty delinquents, animated by a spirit of revenge, who try to ennoble their excesses by using a political discourse." This seems to apply to all synagogue-burners, if we're to believe the representative from the local office of the mutual-aid society Cimade, who said, "In Montpellier--as in [the synagogue-burning at] N mes--more and more kids from the projects are identifying the victimization of the Palestinians with their own. It's a simplistic thing, it's not really an ideology."

This would seem to be immunity on grounds of animality--or at least on grounds of ignorance. Such an understanding appalls Goldnadel. "Delinquents?" he asks. "All anti-Semitic thugs are delinquents. Who do they think was burning down Jews' houses on the Russian steppes a hundred years ago? Disgruntled architects?" And with immunity comes impunity. In January, the young men who had vandalized a synagogue in Creteil, outside Paris, were convicted of "general violence" and given a sentence of three months--suspended.


The Jewish attacks--it should be plain by now--are the work of the Muslim minority in France. Let no one doubt the delinquency, though. These neighborhoods are becoming single-race areas, inhabited by North African immigrants and their second- and third-generation descendants. They are zones of drug-dealing, political apathy, unemployment (which stands over 35 percent in such places), and violence. Hence law-enforcement agents, mayors, and politicians refer to the most violent among them as zones de non-droit ("lawless areas"), where even the police won't go, except maybe in daylight hours to remove a body. Public powers are resisted with force, and not just the police, who have been targeted for killing by organized "anti-cop brigades." Even firemen, long a beloved class of public servants in France, have been assaulted in housing projects surrounding Paris.

Law enforcement is under-equipped to handle such a challenge. France is supposed to be "the most policed country in Europe," with 130,000 officers--but most of those, thanks largely to a strong union, are employed in administrative or non-beat tasks, with only 10,000 or so available for duty at any given time. According to an expose in Le Point this spring, units from chilly Normandy are even detailed to the C te d'Azur to help "reinforce" the beaches there. When police do succeed in making arrests, liberal judges often set criminals free, and 37 percent of sentences passed are not even carried out, according to Andre-Michel Ventre, secretary-general of the police chiefs' union.

In fact, it would be accurate to describe "suburban" as the French equivalent of the American adjective "inner-city," except for one difference. France's HLMs and other "sensitive neighborhoods" have become missionary fields for professional re-islamisateurs--proselytizers, usually financed by Saudi Arabia (which occasionally uses Algerian foundations as a pass-through for its funding) or Iran, and sometimes by fundamentalist groups in London. These seek to woo young people of Islamic background to a radical political understanding of Islam.

It is such proselytizing that has led to what French people call la benladenisation des banlieues, the most famous alumnus of which is Zacarias Moussaoui. But he's not alone. The "Arab" suicide bomber who--to protest Arab countries' "preventing their people from launching jihad against the Jews"--blew up a truck full of explosives in front of a synagogue in Tunisia on April 11, killing a dozen German tourists and six others, was a Franco-Tunisian named Nizar Nawar. His family lives in Lyons, where his uncle, too, was arrested in connection with the attack. One of the four terrorists on trial for trying to blow up Strasbourg's synagogue last year has long lived in France. September 11 saw West Bank-style rejoicing incidents in some Arab neighborhoods. There was also a spectacular terrorist incident a week before. On September 2 in the town of Beziers, a hoodlum named Safir Bghouia attacked a group of police with a shoulder-held rocket launcher, phoned in death threats to local officials, machine-gunned the local police constabulary, and executed the town's deputy mayor, before he himself was shot dead the next day, dressed in white and howling that he was a "son of Allah."

With London its only rival, Paris is the media and intellectual capital of the Arab world, much as Miami is capital of the Hispanic world. As a result, beyond terrorism, the weight of fundamentalist Islam--and the anti-Semitism that goes along with it--is making itself felt in ordinary French life. According to the literary scholar Eric Marty, one professor of literature at the University of Paris was unable to teach the works of Primo Levi (including the Auschwitz memoir If This Is a Man), because his Arab students booed him out of the classroom. "Kenza," a young beurette who was on the French reality-TV show Loft Story (a sort of NC-17-rated equivalent of Survivor), complains that she got kicked off the show last season because "television is controlled by the Jews." A friend of mine was working out at his gym near Strasbourg and got to talking with a friendly beur about British prime minister Tony Blair. "Don't believe anything Blair says," the man told my friend. "Don't you know his real name is actually Bloch?" (Bloch is a common Alsatian Jewish surname.)

That is not the whole story of Arabo-Muslim France, of course. Claude Imbert, editor of Le Point, admits that French immigration was badly handled under the Socialist presidency of Francois Mitterrand, but remains "a resolute partisan of immigration." He notes that beurs are among France's most dynamic entrepreneurs. "They're the only ones who have the American-style careers we need," he says. "Taking a pizza delivery with one car and turning it into a big company--that sort of thing." There are others who have courageously stood up against the Islamist wave, like Rachid Kaci, a mayoral aide in Sannois who appeared at a Jewish colloquium east of Paris in mid-April to say, "You have my total solidarity to fight by your side against this new fascism." Kaci urges an Islam cut off from foreign influences, following somewhat the message of Tunisian novelist Abdelwahab Meddeb's cri de coeur, The Sickness of Islam.

And others are seeking to make Islam more open to all Muslims, and more transparent in its sources of funding. That includes Strasbourg's mayor Fabienne Keller, who has put on hold a hard-line, Saudi-sponsored mosque project that was approved by the outgoing Socialist mayor (and Jospin's culture minister) Catherine Trautmann, despite the involvement of foundations that now appear on the U.S. government's terrorist blacklist. In general, France is seeking to create an Islam that is in harmony with the country's secular traditions, which is wholly admirable. Unfortunately, that kind of Islam is going to have to be invented, since it has never existed in 1,300 years. It may, indeed, be a logical contradiction. And it is certainly something that the more radical among France's 6 million to 9 million Muslims--who make up close to half the population of the young in the country's cities, and have a birthrate that outstrips that of non-Muslims by 3-to-1--have no reason to work for.

Which brings us to the real reason the French don't think they have a problem with anti-Semitism, and the reason they're wrong.


Pierre-Andre Taguieff, director of research at the Center for the Study of French Political Life (Cevipof), has just published a book called "The New Judeophobia" ("La Nouvelle judeophobie, Mille et une nuits," 234 pages, 12 Euros), which lays it out. The ideology on which the new anti-Semitism rests is largely imported. It has its roots in the anti-Western paranoia that all Americans will recognize (without being able to explain) from the banners carried in the Iranian revolution. It is a hybrid of apocalyptic Islam and pre-Nazi Western anti-Semitism of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion type. Taguieff resists the term "anti-Semitism." First, because, as Bernard Lewis has shown, "Semitic" is a linguistic and not a racial term, allowing people to play inane word games with what is happening in France. ("The jeunes / Hamas / Hezbollah can't be anti-Semitic," one reads almost daily in the French press. "They're Semites themselves!") Second, because anti-Semitism is a racial ideology, and today's Jew-hatred is not really a racial ideology. That is why, Taguieff argues, it is so often found in tandem with anti-Americanism.

Taguieff's book is brilliant, and extraordinarily well sourced, and will convince any reader who is not already dug in on Middle Eastern questions. It has also infuriated the French intellectuals at whom it is aimed, because Taguieff's claim is that the two pillars of the new anti-Semitism are anti-Zionism and Holocaust denial. He's right, but this requires some explaining.

The first infuriates the French because they are largely anti-Zionist, to the extent that the word can be used to mean antipathetic to Israel's interests and sympathetic to those of its enemies. Whereas Americans sympathize with Israel in the Middle East conflict by a margin of 41-13, according to a recent Economist poll, the French sympathize with the Palestinians over Israel by the widest margin in Europe, 36-19. What's more, the Middle East conflict has become an absolute obsession among the left-wing intelligentsia, of the sort you'd have to sit in a Socialist party hangout in Strasbourg on a Friday night to believe.

Doesn't the citizen of a free country have a right to back whatever side he wants in a foreign war? Of course he does. "Even among Jews," as William Goldnadel says, "You don't have to be a self-hating Jew to view the destiny of the Jews as living in the Diaspora." That's not Taguieff's target. What he is talking about is "mythic anti-Zionism," which treats Zionism as absolute evil, against which only absolute warfare can be raised. In this understanding, Zionism constitutes not just racism but the ne plus ultra of racism.

This is a vision that the French--particularly given the French left's obsession with race, and their history of romantic attachments to Third World guerrillas--are in danger of embracing. The philosopher Alain Finkielkraut notes that, in France, "support for the Palestinian cause is not shaken but reinforced by the indiscriminate violence of Palestinians." In particular danger of embracing this Manichaean view of the Arab-Israel conflict are those who support Third-Worldism, neo-communism, and neo-leftism, whom Taguieff lumps together as the "anti-globalization movement." The Chomskyites, . . . the people who think Empire is a good book. If you ask them why, of all the dozen conflicts the Muslim world is waging against the civilizations it borders on, this one obsesses them (why not Chechnya? why not Sudan? why not Nigeria?), they can give you an answer that stops just this side of anti-Semitism. Israel-Palestine is the one where the "capitalist" world of the West (and, by implication, the Jews who run it) meets the underprivileged victim peoples of the South. Jews thus get to pay the price for the West's depredations since the Middle Ages, most of which they were on the receiving end of.

That, of course, is the great obstacle to this discourse of Jews-as-victimizers: The Jews have been through rather a lot. And that is why denial, or at least minimization, of the Holocaust is an indispensable part of the ideology. Abbe Pierre, a popular priest who became a national hero, lamented in 1991 that "Jews, the victims, have become the executioners." He even embraced the Stalinist-turned-Muslim-radical Roger Garaudy when he was accused of Holocaust-denial. At a pro-Palestinian demonstration at Les Halles in late March, marchers carried a Star of David with a swastika over it, shouting Jihad, Jihad, Jihad. If you walk across the pont des Invalides, you can see, in yellow print on black background, a poster that urges that Ariel Sharon be sent to the Hague to be tried on war crimes:

It's hard to say which is the strangest imposture in the poster: to see "Zionism" ranked next to "Extermination" among crimes, or to see Israel accused of doing in the West Bank what the Nazis did in France. ("Deportation"--whatever that may mean in the context of an anti-terrorist operation in the West Bank--is a word that maintains a terrible resonance for the Jews of France.)

At times the superimposition of Nazi German motifs on Israel takes on aspects of a religious vision. Claude Keiflin, a political reporter for the Dernieres Nouvelles d'Alsace who covers Middle Eastern matters for the paper, asked me during an interview, "How could the Jewish people, after having undergone the Holocaust, be putting numbers on the arms of their Palestinian prisoners?"

"What? . . . You mean tattoos?"



"Okay, not engraved in the skin, but, still . . ."

France has laws against Holocaust denial. The current climate shows them to be bad laws, not just because they make free-speech heroes of those who are basically mentally ill, but because they can be violated in spirit with impunity. Such a violation was committed by Jose Bove in the first days of April, when he was expelled from Israel following a visit to Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah. Bove, who rose to fame for vandalizing a McDonald's in southern France as a protest against American influence, is not merely the informal leader of the younger French left, the "hero" of the Seattle riots, and the guiding spirit of many of the anti-Le Pen protests that are now raging in Paris; he is also the most charismatic leader of the anti-globalization movement in the world.

It was thus alarming to see Bove, after a pro forma denunciation of anti-Jewish violence, informing viewers of the TV channel Canal Plus that the attacks on French synagogues were being either arranged or fabricated by Mossad. "Who profits from the crime?" Bove asked. "The Israeli government and its secret services have an interest in creating a certain psychosis, in making believe that there is a climate of anti-Semitism in France, in order to distract attention from what they are doing."

Since Bove didn't actually say Jews weren't killed in the Holocaust, it may seem excessive to some readers that B'nai B'rith accused him of negationnisme, or Holocaust denial. But B'nai B'rith is right. They have simply thought about the roots of Holocaust denial a bit more thoroughly than others. For anyone who inhabits Western culture, the Holocaust made that culture a much more painful place to inhabit--and for any reasonably moral person, greatly narrowed the range of acceptable political behavior. To be human is to wish it had never happened. (Those who deny that it did may be those who can't bear to admit that it happened.) But it did. If there's a will-to-anti-Semitism in Western culture--as there probably is--then the Arab style of Judeophobia, which is an anti-Semitism without the West's complexes, offers a real redemptive project to those Westerners who are willing to embrace it. It can liberate guilty, decadent Europeans from a horrible moral albatross. What an antidepressant! Saying there was no such thing as the gas chambers is, of course, not respectable. But the same purpose can be served using what Leo Strauss called the reductio ad Hitlerum to cast the Jews as having committed crimes identical to the Nazis'. They must be identical, of course, so the work of self-delusion can be accomplished. We did one, the Jews did one. Now we're even-steven.

You can see the attractive force in such an ideology. Author Alexandre Del Valle fears that anti-Semitism could also be a binding force, leading to a "convergence of totalitarianisms," of Islamism and the Western anti-globalist left. Elisabeth Schemla, a longtime editor at France's center-left opinion weekly Le Nouvel Observateur who now edits the online newsletter www.Proche-Orient.info, says, "The anti-Semitism of the left is more dangerous than that of the right. They have power in the media, the universities, the associations, the political class." Schemla worries that a third of the candidates in the first round of the presidential election were strongly motivated by the conflict in the Middle East. As such, it is not the strong showing of LePen that is the most alarming development in the first round of the election, but the record-high score of the three Trotskyite parties on the hard left.

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