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France: Country Struggles With Incidents Of So-Called 'New Judeophobia'

  • Joel Blocker

In the run-up to this spring's presidential and parliamentary elections, France continues to be shaken by personal attacks against Jews, as well as on communal institutions such as synagogues and schools. French Jewish organizations say the government is playing down the importance of the hundreds of anti-Semitic incidents. Others believe their importance is exaggerated. RFE/RL's Paris correspondent Joel Blocker reports on the controversy over what is now being called France's "New Judeophobia."

Paris, 7 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In the 18 months since the second intifada began in the Middle East, more than 300 major anti-Semitic incidents have been reported in France, and police say at least as many more were probably not registered with the authorities.

The incidents range from the painting of slogans such as "Death to the Jews" on the walls of Jewish communal buildings and cemeteries to the harassing and beating of individual Jews and the burning of synagogues. There have been no deaths reported to date.

France today has some 600,000 Jews, the third-largest such community in the world, after Israel and the United States. It also has an immigrant community of about 6 million, most of them from North or sub-Saharan Africa -- that is, one out of 10 residents in a country whose population is close to 61 million. Islam is the country's second-largest religion, Judaism the third-largest.

Although leaders of the country's Muslim and Jewish religious communities maintain good relations, that is not true of the two ethnic communities themselves -- especially among young people. There have been numerous clashes between them on the streets of Paris and elsewhere in France.

Jewish analysts put the blame on increasingly radicalized and anti-Jewish Muslim youths -- and on the unwillingness of French officials to admit to and deal with the phenomenon.

Shimon Samuels is head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris. He told our correspondent: "Well, one of the problems is that the [French] authorities are in denial. Some believe it's because of electoral needs, that they don't want to recognize the fact that the problem is emanating from the radicalization of the Muslim community in France, who are the main perpetrators of the 300 attacks in the past year against Jewish schools, synagogues, and individuals. We are trying hard to convince the authorities that they must face up to this reality."

Samuels also says anti-Semitism exists at the lowest levels of the French police, who he says simply don't want deal with the problem. He says the attacks on Jews are not taken seriously by many officials, who have what he calls a "fixation" on traditional far-right French anti-Semitism. He recalls a meeting he had a few weeks ago with Interior Minister Daniel Vaillant, who Samuels says continues to put the blame for anti-Jewish violence on skinheads, the far right, and old-style anti-Semitism.

"That's not the problem today," Samuels says. "The death of the Jews by (Osama) bin Laden and his sympathizers is."

A few years ago, Samuels recalls, he was invited by Muslim clergymen to join an umbrella group of antiracist organizations in Europe because, Samuels says, "we shared the same threat from the extreme right." That has changed, he says.

"Today, those same groups are telling me that we also share the problem of Muslim fundamentalism. They tell me of the import into France and Western Europe of young, radical imams from Algeria, [of] money coming from Iran, [of] incendiary material entering the country."

Pierre-Andre Taguieff, who has written several books on racism and anti-Semitism, is a scholar at France's CNRS, the National Center for Scientific Research. It was Taguieff who earlier this year popularized the term the "New Judeophobia" with a provocative book by the same title. The book analyzes the recent wave of anti-Jewish acts in France and elsewhere and has been hailed by both supporters and opponents as breaking new ground on the subject. A review in the daily "Le Monde" said that, however one reacts to Taguieff's arguments, there will be from now on "a before-Taguieff and an after-Taguieff."

In an interview with RFE/RL, the analyst explained his notion of the difference between the old anti-Semitism and the New Judeophobia.

"I employ the term 'New Judeophobia' -- borrowing it in fact from Leo Pinsker, one of the first Zionist theoreticians in Russia -- to distinguish clearly between what seems to me on the one hand the emergence of a new worldwide anti-Jewish ideology and on the other hand what one can call anti-Jewish racism -- [that is,] anti-Semitism in the strict sense of the term, [based on] the supposed existence of a Semitic race and an Aryan race. The old anti-Semitism, with its racist base, is largely behind us. It survives here and there only in small neo-Nazi groups. The newness of Judeophobia derives from the fact that it is centered on diabolizing the state of Israel, of course, but -- more generally -- on [diabolizing] Zionism and, even more generally, [diabolizing all] Jews."

Taguieff believes that neither the French government nor the country's media have come to grips with the New Judeophobia. He says that officials and journalists are, by and large, still stuck in the old left-right distinction under which anti-Semitism was always associated with the French far right. But today, Taguieff emphasizes, Judeophobia is at least as strong on the left as it is on the right -- and, probably, he says, even more so.

Other French observers -- and, analysts say, much of the French government itself -- do not regard the wave of anti-Jewish actions with the same seriousness as do Samuels and Taguieff.

Pierre Mairat is the president of MRAP, the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Among Peoples, a group that defends the rights of largely African immigrants. He says the recent anti-Jewish incidents in France involve no ideology but are simply a temporary reaction to events in the Middle East and to the French Muslim community's identification with the Palestinian cause.

In addition, Mairat says, the anti-Jewish incidents -- in terms of numbers -- come nowhere near the discriminatory actions directed against new immigrants from North or sub-Saharan Africa.

"This discrimination, these racist acts, take place in several domains -- racism in hiring for a job and in being promoted, in education, where young North Africans have enormous problems in being selected for desirable courses or for on-the-job training, in cultural areas -- for example, a North African or black not being allowed to enter a nightclub. The same thing is true for finding a suitable place to live."

Mairat goes on to say that, unlike in the 1930s, French Jews today are almost completed integrated into many sectors of society -- "in the media, in liberal professions [such as law and medicine], in education, in cultural life." He notes that, in contrast to the new African immigrants. French Jews experience little or no ostracism.

The major problem, he finds, lies elsewhere -- with the exclusion of tens of thousands of young African immigrants from the mainstream of French society.

All three analysts agree that the reaction of French authorities to the past year and a half of violence and conflict has been inadequate. Taguieff says that in several recent interviews, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine has "explained away" the violent behavior of young French North Africans by saying he "understood" their anger because they identified with the Palestinian cause.

"What else can you expect?" Vedrine was quoted as asking at one point.

Vedrine's sharp tone was no doubt in part a reaction to Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who recently called France "the most anti-Semitic country in Europe." The Israeli government has since offered potential French immigrants to Israel the same exceptional benefits they provide to Russian Jewish immigrants. This triggered an angry statement by the French Foreign Ministry complaining of Israel's "outrageous" interference in French internal affairs.

Last week, reacting to the growing controversy, French President Jacques Chirac -- who is a candidate for re-election -- read out to television cameras a minute-long statement that began: "France is not an anti-Semitic country." But Chirac went on to acknowledge the sharp increase in anti-Jewish violence since September 2000 and promised increased security for the community.

That led Taguieff and others to ask: How can Chirac claim that France today is not increasingly anti-Semitic, or Judeophobic, while at the same time pledging to step up measures to protect the Jewish community? That "inconsistency," they say, highlights the government's dilemma less than two months before the scheduled first round of the presidential election (21 April).