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Special Report
Will France Clean Up Anti-Semitism?

Posted Aug. 5, 2002
By Kenneth R. Timmerman


In a moving speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of the infamous roundup of French Jews in 1942, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin spoke hard truths to his fellow countrymen. For two generations, the French have cloaked themselves in the memory of a resistance movement against the Nazi occupation that was neither widespread nor terribly glorious. Now, said Raffarin, it was time for the French to own up to the truth and make amends.

"The French state, in organizing these systematic roundups, plunged into collaboration and betrayed the founding principles of our nation," Raffarin said at a July 21 ceremony at the Square of the Martyrs, a Paris memorial built where a bicycle stadium was turned into a transit camp for captive Jews.

Citing names that live on in infamy as centers for the deportation, Raffarin went on: "Yes, the Vel' d'Hiv, Drancy, Compigne and all the transit camps, these antechambers of death were organized, managed and protected by Frenchmen. Yes, the first act of the Shoah played itself out here, with the complicity of the French state. Seventy-six thousand Jews were deported from France. So few ever came back."

On the night of July 16-17, 1942, the records show, 13,152 Jews were rounded up and taken to the Paris bicycle stadium, the Velodrome d'Hiver, or Vel' d'Hiv, and subsequently deported to Nazi death camps. And yet, even today, defensive French officials insist in interviews that the French government protected French Jews during the occupation. "There were only [sic] 76,000 Jews deported from France because the French government, even under Vichy, made an effort to save the essential part of the French population," one official tells Insight. And never mind that only 2,500 of the 76,000 Jews deported from France survived.

Raffarin saluted the memory of the Free French, who heeded the call of Gen. Charles de Gaulle from his exile in Britain to rise up against the German occupant and the French collaborationist government in Vichy. But he also spoke out forcefully and unequivocally against the rage of anti-Semitic attacks that in recent months have ravaged French synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, and which have struck fear into the hearts of French Jews for the first time in 60 years.

"Attacking the Jewish community is to attack France, to attack the values of our republic where there is no room for anti-Semitism, racism or xenophobia," Raffarin said. He pledged that his government, which came to power in the wake of the presidential and parliamentary elections this spring, would "take all necessary measures" against the perpetrators of "these acts that insult our country."

Intellectuals and Jewish organizations have sharply criticized the French government during the last 18 months for failing to take action against the most extensive wave of anti-Semitic attacks since the Holocaust. Until late April, that government was headed by Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, who was humiliated during the first round of presidential elections when he was edged out by far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. French society from left to right rallied behind President Jacques Chirac in the run-off election to defeat Le Pen and, ultimately, gave Chirac a clear majority in the parliamentary elections that followed.

Chirac's new interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, donned a bulletproof vest immediately after he was appointed and visited violence-prone housing developments in the predominantly Muslim suburbs of Paris. He warned Muslim leaders in France that fresh violence would be met firmly and that the French police would keep close tabs on local mosques to ensure that they stopped preaching violence against Jews. He and his subordinates met repeatedly with French and visiting American Jewish leaders and pledged to prosecute the perpetrators of anti-Semitic attacks. "When we met with Sarkozy in early July, Rabbi [Abraham] Cooper told him he was not a breath of fresh air, but a blast of fresh air," says Shimon Samuels, the European director of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Earlier meetings with Sarkozy's Socialist predecessor, Daniel Vaillant, were tepid at best, Samuels tells Insight in Paris. "Vaillant didn't get it. He said it was just a few Muslim hoodlums attacking Jews, not anti-Semitism." A similar message was repeated by Socialist Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, who told a Wiesenthal Center delegation in June 2001 that the attacks were "only acts of suburban hooliganism" and denied that his government tolerated such attacks or that its harsh anti-Israeli rhetoric encouraged them.

Chirac undercut his own prime minister during a July 29 meeting in Paris with Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres by suggesting that criticism of France's belated reaction to anti-Semitic attacks was "an insult" and part of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy involving U.S. Jewish groups taking orders from Jerusalem.

The current wave of anti-Jewish attacks in France began in late September 2000 at virtually the same time that the Palestinian Authority and associated terrorist organizations, under Yasser Arafat's direct orders, launched the still ongoing campaign of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians that the Palestinians call the "second intifada," or uprising. The anti-Semitic attacks in France quickly turned violent. In the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers, a car drove full speed into a crowd of Jews leaving a synagogue after a prayer service on Oct. 1. Molotov cocktails were thrown against Jewish schools and synagogues. On the night of Oct. 10, just after the end of the Yom Kippur holidays, two synagogues were attacked inside Paris, while synagogues in two suburban towns were firebombed and totally destroyed.

Michel Mimouni, who was president of the Jewish community in Trappes, west of Paris, recalls vividly what happened that night. "At 11 in the evening, I was woken up by a phone call from the police. 'Monsieur,' they said, 'your synagogue is burning.' I couldn't believe it."

He drove the one-and-one-half miles through a pouring rain to the synagogue, where firemen were battling flames licking through the charred timbers of the roof. "I saw the synagogue burning like a heap of straw and I burst into tears," Mimouni says. "Not even during the Nazi occupation were synagogues attacked in France. The last time a synagogue was burned was in the Middle Ages!"

The next morning, the police told him they had found two gasoline cans with wicks inside the ruined building that had been used to set the fire. An eyewitness from the neighboring housing development identified six North African youths who had left the synagogue just as the fire began. The police arrested them, but ultimately let them go claiming they didn't have enough evidence to prosecute.

And so it went for nearly 18 months. The Representative Council of French Jewry (CRIF) has catalogued more than 1,000 violent threats against Jews and overt anti-Semitic acts. During the last three months of 2000 alone, physical violence included 44 firebombings, 43 attacks on synagogues and 39 assaults on Jews as they were leaving places of worship. And yet, for all of it, the French police made just a few dozen arrests.

An Interior Ministry report late last year concluded that the violence was the work of "petty criminals," not anti-Semites. "There was no rejection of the Jew," the author of the report, Khadija Mohsen-Finan, told the New York Times after interviewing nearly 500 young Muslims. "So far, the number of incidents has been small." French Jews were merely overreacting, she added, echoing public statements by leading Socialist politicians. "Are there verbal attacks? Sure. But that goes both ways," she said.

The "verbal attacks" Mohsen-Finan dismissed as "inconsequential" included such incidents as bands of young Muslim youths gathering in front of synagogues as Jewish worshippers emerged, chanting "death to the Jews." They also included anti-Jewish graffiti painted on the doors of Jews living in suburban housing complexes, bottles thrown from balconies at Jews leaving synagogues, insults shouted at Jews in the subway and on city streets and physical attacks against Jewish youths playing soccer at public fields.

This spring violence against French Jews reached new heights. Major synagogues were burned in Paris, Marseilles, Lyons and Strasbourg, and Jews regularly were attacked in the streets. When the French government still did nothing to quell the violence, the Wiesenthal Center issued a travel advisory warning American Jews against traveling to France. The American Jewish Congress (AJC) took out full-page advertisements in newspapers urging U.S. filmmakers and distributors to boycott the Cannes Film Festival. Chirac, in the middle of what at first appeared to be a difficult re-election campaign, furiously protested that France was not anti-Semitic.

"President Chirac was upset," AJC President Jack Rosen told Insight in an interview during a recent trip to Paris, where he was visiting again with French officials. "He and others in the French government realized that the public scrutiny exposed them and that they needed to react." Steps were taken after the presidential election to deploy 1,200 riot troops to protect synagogues and other Jewish institutions.

French officials tell Insight that the initial decision to protect Jewish institutions was taken in March by the outgoing Socialist government, and that the troops were deployed shortly before the first round of the elections. But if so, they had no explanation for why it took so long even to begin the crackdown.

A senior Israeli official who deals regularly with European governments warned that the wave of anti-Semitic attacks in France was not just the work of troubled Arab youths. "There are those in the French government who permit these acts to occur, who create an atmosphere of tolerance toward anti-Semitic acts," he said.

Retired Gen. Michel Darmon heads the France-Israel Association. He places the blame for the attacks squarely on Socialist officials such as former foreign minister Vedrine. "The French Foreign Ministry is not just anti-Israel, but anti-Semitic," he tells Insight. "France has a crushing responsibility for continuing the Middle East conflict, because they actively encourage the Arabs to the worst forms of anti-Semitism. The French message is that hate speech is legitimate."

A prominent member of the Socialist Party central committee, Pascal Boniface, wrote a scathing "letter to an Israeli friend" in the French daily Le Monde that appeared last August. The letter said the Jews had only themselves to blame for the anti-Semitic attacks because of their "blind" support of an Israeli government "considered by more and more people as unjust, if not odious." Boniface strongly was criticized for his comments, which widely were considered anti-Semitic and included urging party leaders during the recent election campaign to abandon the 700,000-strong Jewish community in favor of the 5 million Arab immigrants.

The downside to his proposal, which was leaked to the press, came on election day when Jews voted massively against the Socialists and the Arabs stayed home.

Thierry Keller is the treasurer of SOS Racism, a left-wing group seeking dialogue between Jewish youth groups and second-generation Arab immigrants, or beurs. Keller agrees that French anti-Semitism did not die with Adolf Hitler and Marshal Philippe Ptain. "The fact that young beurs are carrying out these attacks is very convenient for the anti-Semitic Catholic elites. The beurs are inadvertently doing their dirty work for them," he says. Keller was brought up Catholic.

"Anti-Semitism is re-emerging because the old taboos against attacking Jews in public have been lifted. This legitimizes those who make intellectual arguments against Jews and makes it an open season for Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic attacks," Keller says.

National Front leader Le Pen has been condemned several times in French courts for anti-Semitic statements and Holocaust denials, but his favorite target in recent years has been the more than 5 million Muslim immigrants living in France, who account for roughly 10 percent of the population. Le Pen's upset victory in the first round of the French presidential elections this spring led to massive demonstrations against racism and an abrupt (if temporary) end to anti-Semitic attacks.

A senior deputy to Le Pen, Dominique Chaboche, called the wave of anti-Semitic attacks "very limited acts. We're talking about a few fires, a few slogans, a few insults," he tells Insight. "It's intolerable that French Jews are Jews first, and French second. When we criticize Jewish control of the media we are called anti-Semites. It's not true. Just because I don't like [painter Marc] Chagall doesn't make me an anti-Semite."

Asked several times about reports that his party questioned the existence of the Nazi gas chambers, Chaboche insists that it was "perfectly legitimate" to question the facts of the Holocaust. "You can't forbid people from thinking. I don't understand why the Holocaust is the only period in history where it's not allowed to do historical research. So to challenge the existence of the gas chambers, to research their existence, is perfectly legitimate."

A French official who interacts daily with French and international Jewish groups acknowledges that the attacks did generate a "big emotion" in the Jewish community. But, he says, "Anti-Semitism does not exist in France!" The violent acts that get reported in the newspapers, he goes on, were just the acts of "a few hooligans, a few North Africans and blacks, who want to show off to their friends. It is criminal, but nothing more. These acts are now being prosecuted severely with heavy sentences."

Since late March, another senior French official tells Insight, new instructions have been given to courts and state prosecutors to crack down on those found guilty of anti-Semitic violence. A detailed compilation of these cases, made available by the official, shows 41 separate prosecutions between March 30 and July 2. In most cases, however, those found guilty of anti-Semitic violence received suspended prison sentences or probation, or were simply let go.

Many of the individuals caught firebombing synagogues in April still are awaiting trial. How they are treated by the French courts will provide the best yardstick for judging the sincerity of Prime Minister Raffarin's pledge to crack down on an anti-Semitic violence that has been tolerated for 18 months by the French political establishment from right to left.

But the latest statements by Chirac (who also refused a U.S. request to include the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon on the list of international terrorist groups) augur poorly. Said Rosen, "For Chirac to say that Hezbollah is not a terrorist organization because they have social programs is tantamount to saying that Hitler's Nazi regime wasn't all that bad because they also had social programs."

Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.