Posted Aug. 5, 2002
Will France Clean Up Anti-Semitism?
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
Citing names that live on in infamy as centers for the
deportation, Raffarin went on: "Yes, the Vel' d'Hiv, Drancy,
Compiňgne 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 ů 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
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
"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
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
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 P»tain. "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
"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
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
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