After Toulouse, France asks 'who's a Frenchman'?
Can all minorities live together under the historical definition of being French that supposedly turns a blind eye to origin and faith?
On Simhat Torah in 1980, a terrorist hid a bomb at the entrance to the Copernic Street synagogue in Paris' 16th arrondissement. Four people were killed - an Israeli, Aliza Shagrir, and three passersby: Jean-Michel Barbe, Hilario Lopez Fernandez and Philippe Bouissou, a boy who was riding his bicycle.
Immediately after the incident, Prime Minister Raymond Barre declared: "This despicable terrorist attack was aimed at Jews on their way to synagogue but hit innocent Frenchmen who were passing by." His statement was broadcast live by French television on the evening news and was seen by France's Jews as a symbol of how the state has abandoned them to their fate.
Three decades after that tragic event, France's leaders aren't making such unfortunate remarks. It's not just the non-Jewish Frenchmen who are innocent, it's all the victims of the terror attack. The unequivocal reaction in France after the massacre of the children at the Toulouse school was that these people were murdered because they were Jewish, though their death was a French tragedy. These comments show the two sides of the tragedy: hatred of people in general and hatred of Jews in particular.
Since the murders this week, both Jews and non-Jews have taken to France's streets stressing their common fate. The French children Gabriel, Aryeh and Miriam were shot to death in their school. The French soldiers Abel, Mohammed and Imad were shot to death in the Toulouse area. They are all sons of the republic, people are constantly saying in France. It's an important message that indeed bears repeating.
But the change France has undergone since the Copernic Street attack is even deeper. Alongside the national mourning, other difficult questions must be asked. The rule - from which Barre excluded the Jews - states that France is the republic of all of its citizens and that it doesn't care about their religious affiliation.
When children are murdered precisely because they are Jews, and the person who commits this crime is a Frenchman who has turned to extremist Islam, the challenge is double and even triple: Can all minorities live together under the historical definition of being French that supposedly turns a blind eye to origin and faith? Can the France of 2012 remain true to the universalist message that granted it influence far beyond its geographic and economic borders, while in its midst there are minorities that interpret being French differently from what was accepted until a few decades ago?
In the past few years, especially after the wave of murders in Toulouse, this question is being asked more frequently about France's Muslims, a large community that, according to some estimates, is 10 times larger than the Jewish community. Is the French ethos capable of including them as well, even though they visit the mosque? The fact that the suspect in the murderous attacks on Frenchmen - Muslims and Jews alike - is an extremist Muslim makes this question more pertinent.
How can France reject him and others like him without causing more and more tensions that will jeopardize the basis of liberty, equality and fraternity, the foundation on which modern France was established after the 1789 revolution? This issue is at the heart of the French social alliance.
Beyond the uncompromising struggle against hatred of the other, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, the French should develop a new model - something original and daring - on who is a Frenchman in the third millennium. Unfortunately, it's not clear at all that the current presidential elections will give them a model like that.