The conflict between Israel and Hamas hits close to home for France's Arabs and Jews. The French Republic might be the casualty.
- By Robert ZaretskyRobert Zaretsky is professor of history at the University of Houston's Honors College. His most recent books are Albert Camus: Elements of a Life, France and Its Empire Since 1870 (with Alice Conklin and Sarah Fishman), and A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.
On July 14, Paris marked Bastille Day with the usual mix of pomp, circumstance, and rocket launchers. Brightly uniformed men astride horses and tanks rumbled down the so-called "patriotic axis," the stretch of the Champs-Élysées from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde, reminding France — and the world — of the foundational event that revolutionized the concept of the nation and citizenship.
The day before, a very different kind of demonstration, marked by tear gas and street battles, unfurled in Paris. Some 7,000 people marched in a declaration of solidarity with the residents of Gaza in a protest organized by various pro-Palestinian movements and far-left groups. The pro-Palestinian march followed a trajectory charged with a different kind of symbolism, beginning at Barbès, a working-class, immigrant-dominated neighborhood of eastern Paris, and flowing toward the Place de la Bastille, whose symbolic power has made it the traditional terminus for protest marches.
The marchers, peaceful and orderly, waved Palestinian flags and carried banners denouncing France’s support of Israel. Many of the women wore the hijab, which remains a contested symbol in republican and secular France. Walking behind a banner declaring "Full Support for the Struggle of the Palestinians," they chatted when not chanting, "We are all Palestinians." But as the march spilled into the vast traffic circle at Bastille, both the tenor of the demonstration and the type of chant changed.
A few hundred young men, identified in the media as casseurs, or hooligans, began to scuffle with police. Pushed back, the casseurs then charged along the neighborhood’s narrow streets toward two nearby synagogues with the clear intention of attacking them. They tried to form in front of the synagogue of Rue des Tournelles, built by French Jews who moved to Paris after Prussia annexed Alsace in 1871. Police repelled the protesters. Undeterred, the casseurs moved on to the Synagogue Don Isaac Abravanel on the Rue de la Roquette, which dates from 1962, the year that nearly a million French Algerians, including tens of thousands of Sephardic Jews, fled to France when Algeria achieved independence.
The youths massed in front of the synagogue’s barred gates, trapping inside several hundred congregants. They alternated between shouting "Allahu Akbar!" ("God is great" in Arabic) and "A mort les juifs!" ("Death to the Jews" in French). The first refrain, even more than the veil, challenges the French Republic’s secular character, while the second has echoed across modern French history, from the Dreyfus Affair to the Vichy regime and the Final Solution. Only several hours later, after the riot police had secured the area, were the trapped Jews able to leave the synagogue.
Subsequent accounts in the French media said that dozens of youths from the French chapter of Meir Kahane’s racist Jewish Defense League (JDL) and Betar, a far-right Zionist group, armed with metal bars and cafe chairs, had deliberately provoked the pro-Palestinian protesters near Synagogue Don Isaac Abravanel. Amateur videos, as well as JDL tweets, point to acts of provocation by these groups. Regardless, the Jewish extremists were a sideshow to the evening’s main attraction: the besieging of a synagogue by a few hundred French youths of North African origin, calling for death to those huddled inside.
In the wake of the pitched street battles, both President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls vowed that they would not allow the "Israeli-Palestine conflict to be imported to France." As a result, the government banned a march planned for July 20 in Paris. In Mali, where he was on an official visit, Hollande was asked about the decision’s wisdom. In plaintive tones, he replied: "What should I do? Allow French citizens to fight one another because they follow different religions?"
The effort to suppress further pro-Palestinian demonstrations backfired. Despite, or perhaps because of the ban, more than a thousand people took to the streets on July 20 at Barbès, the heart of the immigrant neighborhoods in northeastern Paris. When the riot police lobbed tear-gas grenades into the crowd, street battles broke out, cars were torched, and sidewalks were torn up. By the end of the day, dozens of arrests had been made and the crowd was finally dispersed. The next day, in a separate incident in the town of Sarcelles, known as Le Petit Jérusalem for its large population of Sephardic Jews, anti-Semitic youth trashed a Jewish supermarket.
As these events reveal, the notion of closing France’s borders to the importation of the Middle East conflict has little to do with facts on the ground. "The conflict was imported to our country a long time ago. We live this conflict on a daily basis," asserts Pascal Boniface, a political scientist and the author of A France Sickened by the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, a controversial book published this year. Anti-Semitism finds a ready audience, he observes, among young Frenchmen and Frenchwomen whose families came from North Africa and whose grim material circumstances belie the republican ideals of equality and fraternity. Although many of them cannot find Palestine on a map, they nevertheless identity with the Palestinians — and, at the same time, conflate French Jews with Israelis.
Unsurprisingly, this situation has left the French Jewish community in despair. Prominent figures have turned to the past to describe the recent events: Roger Cukierman, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France, compared events at the synagogue to Kristallnacht. "We barely escaped a pogrom," Cukierman said in an interview with Libération. In a widely quoted article, the well-known intellectual Shmuel Trigano described the street battle outside the Isaac Abravanel synagogue as the opening phase in "a new civil war." Under the somnolent gaze of the state and complaisance of the media, Trigano argued, an embattled French Jewish population is the target of a growing number of violent anti-Semitic acts that climaxed at the Place de la Bastille. Like Cukierman, Trigano interprets the mob scene outside the synagogue as a "failed pogrom." Make no mistake, he warns, the near riot had nothing to do with the Palestinian cause and everything to do with hatred of the Jews.
Although protesters hurling anti-Semitic invectives remain a distinct minority, many fear the violent will bear it away. In a July 22 column, Laurent Joffrin, the editor of Libération, underscored the embrace by "some youths, particularly those from the suburbs, of a new form of anti-Semitism, which builds upon the fascist ideas espoused by the traditional extreme right wing." Given the racist worldview of the far-right National Front party, which has substituted the Arab for the Jew as the source of France’s ills, this represents an ironic turn. More unsettling, however, is the grafting of this religious hatred onto the ideological anti-Zionism of radical groups on the far left, like the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (the New Anti-Capitalist Party) and the Parti des Indigènes de la République (the Party of the Indigenous Peoples of the Republic), which identifies the United States and Israel as the "the main political centers where global colonial domination resides."
No doubt the left-wing, pro-Palestinian movement includes many whose anti-Zionism is not a linguistic Trojan horse for old-fashioned anti-Semitism. Indeed, many left-wing groups count Jews among their members. But France’s recent history is larded with radical left-wing populist and socialist thinkers, ranging from Édouard Drumont and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon to Alain Soral and even the comedian Dieudonné, whose anti-Semitic pronouncements rival those of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. The political theorist Pierre-André Taguieff, calling this new form of anti-Semitism "judéophobie," argues that it differs dramatically from older expressions of anti-Semitism. Traditional anti-Semites identify the Jews as the Other, forever and fatally opposed to their world. The new anti-Semites on the left, however, focus obsessively on the Jew because he represents the world — capitalist, imperialist, and Western — they wish to destroy.
Marc Hecker, a social scientist and the author of the incisive French Intifada?: On the Importation of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, insists on prudent use of the term "importation." On the one hand, he acknowledges the growth in anti-Semitic activity in France: Ever since 2000, and the beginning of what he calls the French Intifada, there have been between 400 to 600 anti-Semitic actions every year. On the other hand, Hecker doesn’t see the current dynamics in France as a direct importation of Israel-Palestine’s and he isn’t willing to label the conflict a civil war. There remains a crucial distinction between acts spawned by "a form of politicized delinquency" and a civil war that "presupposes the organizing and training of great numbers of people willing to die for a cause," Hecker says. Those who have announced the start of such a war, he believes, are less attached to reality than fantasy. (The same holds for the comparison to Kristallnacht, a choreographed event organized and overseen by the Nazi state.)
Since the Second Intifada in Israel and the occupied territories began in 2000, a growing number of beurs — young Frenchmen and Frenchwomen whose parents immigrated to France from former colonies in North Africa and who belong to the 5 million French Muslims who now live in France — identify with the Palestinians. This is especially the case with the so-called jeunes de la cité, the youths living in the desolate and decayed banlieues, or suburbs of Paris and other cities, where unemployment and violence are endemic while state, civil, and commercial institutions are largely absent. (As a recent study reveals, the unemployment rate among those 18 to 25 years old in these suburbs is nearly 50 percent. The failure rate at schools far outstrips the national average.) As a result, against the backdrop of the grim apartment complexes and abandoned storefronts, the rallying cry of "We are all Palestinians" resonates with growing force.
At the same time, French Jews increasingly identify with Israel. There has been a dramatic uptick in the number of French Jews leaving France for new homes in the Holy Land. Just last week, in the midst of the Gaza crisis, 400 French Jews moved to Israel. More than 3,000 have immigrated to Israel since the beginning of the year, and Israel’s minister of immigration expects the number will top 5,000 by the end of the year. These numbers remain small relative to the approximately 500,000 Jews in France, and other factors are undoubtedly at play. But the trend may well increase in the wake of recent events and growing social tensions.
Many observers, both French and foreign, worry about the consequences of this fracturing of French society along communitarian lines. France is, far more than most other countries, a society of immigrants. But as political theorist Michael Walzer notes in his book On Toleration, France "isn’t a pluralist society — or at least it doesn’t think of itself, and it isn’t thought of, as a pluralist society." According to the credo of French republicanism, national identity is a political, not a biological, fact: A citizen becomes French by speaking the French language, accepting French laws, and participating in France’s common life. The Republic in principle respects and protects the right of the individual, not the group or community, to practice its religion and follow its traditions. This reasoning lies at the heart of French republicanism, memorably expressed in 1789 by the Count de Clermont-Tonnerre during the debate over whether to grant citizenship to Jews: "We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation, but grant them everything as individuals."
There is much to be admired in this rational and abstract definition of citizenship, which has its roots in the French Revolution and continues to shape the nation’s self-understanding. It is both sympathetic and severe, welcoming all who wish to become French but at the same time demanding they shed their earlier cultural or communal identities. Just as the Republic is conceived as "one and indivisible," so too are the French people considered one and indivisible — at the cost of individual citizens giving up their earlier identities.
But the gap between the republican ideal and present-day reality can no longer be ignored. The glaring forms of economic, social, and political exclusion suffered by French citizens of North African background, as well as immigrants from other parts of Francophone Africa, makes this all too clear — even before the recent riots. As French authorities have repeatedly said, the violence aimed at French Jews is intolerable. But such events will themselves repeat until the language and goals of French republicanism reflect a changed France. A "Marshall Plan" for the suburbs, as some politicians have called for, will not rid France of anti-Semitism. But it would, at the very least, begin to meet the challenge of persuading the youth of the suburbs to substitute "We are all French" for "We are all Palestinian."