The Fixer

French-Jewish intellectual Jacques Attali - once the all-powerful advisor to Francois Mitterrand - reveals how he aims to save the world.

Assaf Uni
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Assaf Uni

Jacques Attali is fed up with talking about anti-Semitism in France. "There are more important things to discuss than my view on a nonexistent problem," he told me last week in an interview conducted in the headquarters of his consulting firm. Attali, an economist and a prolific writer who has a weekly column in a number of media outlets, was the most important adviser to perhaps the most important French president, Francois Mitterrand. Nowadays he is president of the world's largest nongovernmental organization (NGO) for microcredit. Attali is an Algerian-born Jew who moved to France with his family when he was 12. Next week he will take part in the Second Israeli Presidential Conference: Facing Tomorrow, in Jerusalem. He asserts that all the talk about anti-Semitism in France is dangerous - if not altogether organized -propaganda by Israel.

Is there no problem of anti-Semitism in France?

"Zero! None whatsoever. It's a lie. It's a pure lie. Not true. There are some well-known anti-Semites, but it is not a problem at the national level."

There is a trend among French Jews to immigrate to Israel, and many of them say it's due to an anti-Semitic atmosphere.

"I think it is not true. I think it is propaganda, Israeli propaganda."

But don't the numbers prove it?

"There are some French Jews who take a two-week holiday in Tel Aviv and then they are back to Paris or elsewhere. There are French Jews who buy apartments in Israel the same way the British buy apartments in the south of France: for vacations. For the past decade, Israelis have engaged in some kind of wishful thinking that the situation in France is a disaster and that people are immigrating to Israel. It is very dangerous propaganda, to make people believe that the situation in France is terrible. It's ridiculous! I am an example of the fact that it is not true. I came from nothing and I advanced - worldwide but also in France. France has the most modern Jewish community and the most modern Arab and Muslim community. It is absolutely crucial for there to be success in relations between Jews and Arabs in France. It's crucial to Israel and to the whole world for the two communities to get along. These relations are of strategic importance: if they cannot live in harmony here, they cannot live in harmony anywhere."

But right now it doesn't look so promising.

"That is not true. There are a lot of discussions. Of course there are some disputes, but there are a lot of meetings and discussions."

That's at the political level, not the street level. You and I would not put on a skullcap and go wandering in certain Paris suburbs. I know people who take off their skullcap out of fear, even in the metro.

"Maybe that's true, but no one ever told me they do that."

Don't you think there is a problem of anti-Semitism among the Muslim community in France?

"Absolutely not. They are absolutely adamant to avoid it, wherever and whenever. Of course they are against the Israeli policy in the territories. Of course you can't say there is no problem at all. You can always find crazy people in every part of society. But it's not a political problem; it is not growing, and in fact it does not exist. If you look at the numbers you cannot prove it."

Of course you can. During Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, Molotov cocktails were thrown at synagogues and Jewish institutions in France and anti-Semitic graffiti was sprayed on walls. The number of anti-Semitic incidents leaped threefold, according to statistics of the European Jewish Congress. "Look," Attali interrupts, "I am not here to defend France. I am here to tell you my opinion: bullshit, peanuts, lies. This is not what you and I should be talking about. I am disappointed. We should talk about larger issues. There are more important things to discuss than my views on a nonexistent problem. You are an Israeli journalist and all your questions are about that."

These are only some of the questions.

"But it is a problem which does not exist. I say very bluntly: I am disappointed to be talking about a caricature of France. And I am not here to defend France."

Ilan Halimi's mother told me the reason her son was killed was because no one believed there is anti-Semitism in the suburbs.

"I respect her, and I do not want to comment on what she said in grief."

Jacques Attali was born to a Jewish family in Algiers in 1943. They lived in a kind of French enclave, he says. "I never had a Muslim in my class. I know there are those who will not agree with me, but Algeria when I lived there was pure apartheid." His father, a successful perfume merchant, and his mother spoke Arabic, which was spoken in their families. "But in our house we spoke only French - they refused to let us speak Arabic - because of the idea of social progress."

In 1956, even before Algeria's war for independence escalated to the violent plateaus it would attain, his father decided to move the family to Paris. The desire for social advancement placed Jacques - and in large measure also his twin brother, Bernard (a former chairman of Air France and Air Canada) - on the fast track to success. Attali speaks six languages and holds four academic degrees from France's most prestigious institutions of learning. He once said that ordinarily it would take 21 years to obtain these degrees, "but I did it in seven years."

At a young age he joined the team of the Socialist Party leader Francois Mitterrand, accompanied him to the Elysee Palace in 1981 and became the French president's all-powerful adviser for a decade. Everyone who met with Mitterrand had to go through Attali's office - physically - and the president hailed his activity and his productive mind: "Of every 10 ideas of his, I take one," Mitterrand once said.

"I was with him for more than 10 years," Attali says. "Not a day passed without us talking or meeting."

Do you miss him?

"Yes, of course. I was very close to my father, so he was not a father-surrogate, but we had a special relationship."

It was not until after Mitterrand's death in 1996 that Attali said he had been disappointed by the president's unwillingness to address France's record in World War II, notably the attitude toward its Jewish population and Mitterrand's own past as an official in the Vichy administration - an element of his biography that the president tried to hide.

Mitterrand, says Attali, took a great interest in Judaism and the two often spoke about Jewish subjects. "He said 'the only Jews I resent are those who don't realize it's such a blessing to be born a Jew.' We were on a plane once, and all his advisers wanted to talk about some strategic issue, but he wanted to talk about the cost of the Machpela cave and the whole story about the loan Abraham took. We discussed it for two hours." Attali, who wrote a biography of the late French president, once termed him "the last king of France."

Attali was there in the French administration when the Iron Curtain came down. In 1991, he was the initiator and founder of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which sought to create market economies in Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism, either by investment in the private market and encouragement of government privatization, or by means of education for a free-market economy. Attali moved from the socialism of his early years to social democracy, making him the man who was supposed to disseminate capitalism throughout the former Soviet empire. However, two years after his appointment as the bank's president, he resigned under a cloud, in the wake of reports about some peculiar financial decisions he had made. There was criticism of the bank's wastefulness, such as a spending one million euros to replace the marble in the lobby of its London headquarters.

More recently, Attali became one of the many former left-wing figures in France to work with President Nicolas Sarkozy, as the head of a committee that drew up a reform plan for the distribution of international aid. Throughout the last decades, Attali has been active in NGOs that fight hunger in Africa and poverty around the world. The luster of that activity was somewhat dimmed by the court case against him (and another 41 defendants from the French political elite) in the so-called "Angolagate" affair. Attali is accused of assisting a company owned by Pierre Falcone and Arcadi Gaydamak that is suspected of engaging in illegal arms trade with Angola; Attali completely denies involvement in the affair, and the prosecution is not asking for a prison term. The verdict is due at the end of the month.

Attali has published 49 books, including discussions on the politics of music, a biography of Karl Marx, children's books, economic articles, plays and poems. His Internet site (also available in English: looks like the site of a small publishing company. Last year, Attali was 89th on the Foreign Policy/Prospect list of the 100 most influential intellectuals in the world.

For Attali, megalomania is not a bad word. "I think there are three qualities that people believe are weaknesses, but which I believe are strengths: hypochondria, paranoia and megalomania," Attali says with a smile. Afterward, he will explain that at a personal level, his family helps him control his own megalomania, and that self-awareness and self-irony are also important.

Now he talks about this in reference to Israel. "All three, but mainly paranoia, are badly needed if you want to survive. Not only for Jews. For anyone who wants to survive. And as Jews, we are all paranoid. And that's fine, as long as it's not too crazy. It's useful."

Isn't that one of the disturbing conclusions of Operation Cast Lead - that innocent Palestinians were killed in the name of Israeli paranoia?

"Paranoia is good when it has boundaries. Israel's real risk today is being contaminated by [the values of] its enemies. The real danger is due to the fact that Israel's enemies need to destroy its moral values in order to triumph. When you have enemies that do not respect the rules of the game you are forced to abandon your morals, and that's the real danger. The fact that Israel is a moral nation in a wild and non-moral region may lead to a situation in which it sinks to the level of its enemies."

There seems to be a feeling in Israel that this is a rough time to be an Israeli: Iran may be developing nuclear weapons, the Goldstone report casts doubt on the Israeli army, and Obama is pressuring Israel with Europe's backing. How do things look from Europe?

"Well, first I would like to say that I don't represent anyone but myself. If you want to know what people in France think, go to the street and ask someone. I am a worldwide nomadic person. I would say that it has never been easy to be Jewish. And by the same token, it was not going to be easy to be a Jewish state. I don't see this period as more difficult than things were for Israel in the 1960s or 1970s. In each of these decades you can find problems much more serious than the current ones.

"Israel is almost irreversible," he continues. "It would take a worldwide catastrophe to make Israel disappear, and I do not see that happening. But the fact that it's impossible doesn't mean that we should not be very cautious and vigilant and not apply what is called in English 'deep intelligence' in regard to our enemies. I see only one truly serious problem: Is Israel still Israel? It's a very well-known Jewish question: Does Israel exist, has it ever existed as a utopia? As a Zionist nation, yes, but is it Israel as it was in the idea of Jewish history? And if Israel is only a Zionist idea, is it a nation like any other?

Do you think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is driving a wedge between the Jewish diaspora and the Israelis?

"The real problem is the threat of the disappearance of the Jewish communities abroad, and not the existence of Israel. One strategic point about Israel's survival - which for me is obvious, but which no one wants to discuss - is that Israel has to have Jews around the world in order to survive, not only because of demographics but also for economic reasons related to globalization. But Israel has a very poor strategic understanding of who is a Jew. As long as you say that being a Jew is only according to the halakha [Jewish religious law], the current trend - mixed marriages, melting pot - will end up destroying the Jewish people.

"The survival of Israel needs 200 million Jews around the world, which means it's a question of conversion. This question is not really addressed. We should have a much broader definition of who is a Jew, and active conversion. We should accept anybody who has one Jewish parent or was raised in a Jewish family or wants to live as a Jew. And if you apply the Law of Return to people who are distantly Jewish, that will change the picture significantly."

But why is it important to have a strong diaspora?

"If we do not even try to preserve it, the whole Jewish community will disappear. In today's world it is an essential component of the global economy. France has three million Frenchmen living abroad, China has 100 million Chinese. This confers an advantage. It is also essential for Israel demographically."

It's all part of his involvement in microcredit, a method developed by the Nobel Peace laureate Muhammad Yunus to generate small loans to develop businesses or create income for poor people around the world. PlaNet Finance, the not-for-profit organization of which Attali is president, operates in 80 countries and is a huge success, he says. It is coming soon to Israel, jointly with the Latet (To Give) organization. Yunus is president of the board of directors.

"Microfinance," Attali says, "is connected to my Jewish view of the world. As you know, according to Jewish thought the world was given to us imperfect, and the whole concept of tikkun olam holds that we must repair the world's imperfectness. The greatest imperfection in the world today is poverty and I spend a great deal of my time trying to fix it. Helping people get out of poverty is the most important task today, far more than ecology. In Judaism there are eight rungs of tzedakah [charitableness] - the lowest is to give in order to show off, the seventh is to give a loan to a poor man so he can start a business - that's microfinance. The eighth is to take a poor person as a partner in your business. I am at the seventh level."

How many hours do you sleep at night?

"Three hours."

Is that all?

"When people ask me that, I answer that the quality doesn't depend on the quantity." That may be good for work, but not for a physical need like sleep.

"Actually, these days I sleep four hours."

Where does all this activity come from: the dozens of books, the weekly columns, the international projects?

"First, I don't know. But if I had no readers I would not continue. If my first few books had not been successes, I am not sure I would have gone on. I have an internal engine. I have 21 manuscripts in my computer in different stages."

So your world view is "tikkun olam."

"It's megalomaniac to say that."

But that's a good quality, you said.

"Within certain limits, and with enough self-irony. My two children are good at keeping this under control."



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