Why France Doesn't Care About anti-Semitism

The challenges facing French Jews are but a microcosm of greater ills in the country.

AP

While 2014 was a bad year for the Jewish community in France, 2015 promises to be even worse. Last year saw a rise in the number of anti-Semitic incidents, Jewish emigration from France to Israel grew, and the extremist National Front party gained strength, according to a presidential poll. None of these facts bode well for French Jews, yet France doesn't seem to care.

Although survey data would suggest the majority of France citizens are not anti-Semitic, what is becoming clear is that fighting anti-Semitism has ceased to be a national priority. This is because the French have begun viewing anti-Semitism as part of a more general wave of xenophobia, and, as a result, the authorities have become less inclined to devote their attention to addressing its unique traits. In what could be considered an acknowledgement of this fact, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said, following a violent anti-Semitic attack in which a woman was raped for simply being a Jew, that France must make the fight against anti-Semitism "a national cause" – something it has failed to do thus far.

But anti-Semitism is not "just another form of racism." It stems from larger social and political malaises, and it is aggravated by larger structural issues in France.

The extreme right – including National Front – benefits from the corruption, rivalry and paralytic loss of innovation that has been fragmenting France's mainstream political elite. A vicious cycle has developed, whereby the extreme right capitalises from the failures of the mainstream parties, who in turn move rightward in an attempt to regain voters' support. The Roma, another classic scapegoat, have also borne the brunt of this. During his days as interior minister, even Manuel Valls, who himself was born in Spain and immigrated to France, backed the deportation of Roma on the grounds that they were incapable of integrating into French society. This sentiment echoed one evoked in the past against Jews.

Populism and xenophobia are abounding in France. In his latest book, "Le Suicide Français" ("French Suicide"), Eric Zemmour, a journalist of Jewish-North African descent, hijacks popular discourse, encapsulating a new trend that aims to redefine racism as a form of palatable protest. This is something that comedian M’bala M’bala Dieudonné has equally capitalized on. Zemmour’s argument follows the lines that France is committing suicide by not standing up to minorities and foreign influences. The rise of anti-Semitism can thus be viewed as part of a more general rise of anti-European, Islamophobic and populist movements that rally against difference in favour of populist nationalism.

Poverty and neglect of the suburbs have also contributed to anti-Semitism. Residents of the suburbs are increasingly left out – both physically and emotionally – from mainstream French society. In the suburbs of Paris, residents are physically disconnected from the city when public transport finishes for the day. Unable to access the center until dawn, residents of the periphery are condemned to a sort of curfew, making them feel like they are on the edge of society. This is coupled with the sense of rhetorical differentiation that the descendants of immigrants, who live in poorer suburbs, are subjected to – they are consistently referred to as immigrants despite being second- or third-generation French citizens, and are subjected to constant ID checks. The alienation these residents experience surely nurtures a sense of resentment toward authority and to those perceived as wielding social power. Furthermore, French Jews are perceived as having managed to escape poverty and as receiving preferential treatment from the authorities. The Jewish community thereby becomes a tangible target at which to express this resentment.

We saw this in July, during Israel's conflict with Gaza, when youths descended on a synagogue in Sarcelles. Interestingly, of the many synagogues in the city (nicknamed "Little Jerusalem") the one targeted by rioters was protected by police. Attacking this synagogue therefore became more than an expression of anger over Israeli aggression toward Palestinians in the Gaza Strip; it was a strike against symbols of power, control and the state – and encompassed an element of the anti-Semitic conspiracy that Jews wield power.

There is also the issue of emigration. Republicanism promised a neutral state, but above all a blind state unable to collate data on different communities. By not measuring religion in its census France is unable to effectively measure Jewish emigration, allowing the authorities to avoid addressing the issue. In addition, as more and more French emigrate each year (up to 2.5-million French reportedly live abroad, with that number rising about 2 percent annually), the upswing in Jewish emigration from France to Israel, as measured by the Jewish Agency, is simply viewed as a microcosm of a larger exodus.

The rightward shift in mainstream politics, alienated and disaffected youths, a rising sense of xenophobia and the French exodus have all overshadowed the issue of anti-Semitism in France. Facing these challenges, the French authorities have bigger fish to fry than the frightening prejudice against Jews.

Esti Judah is a researcher, translator and journalist based between London and Paris. She is currently a post-graduate student at the London School of Economics and a European Studies graduate from Sciences Po Paris and King’s College London. She tweets at @EstherJudah.