- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 21, 2002

Memories of World War II are never far away here. At the end of the track leading to the farmhouse where I have been staying, the graves of a handful of Canadian soldiers are scattered amidst the tombstones in the tiny village cemetery. Off the coast at Arromanches, an attractive little resort near Caen, you can still see what is left of Mulberry, the gigantic harbor created from concrete slabs that were towed across the English Channel during the D-Day landings. A short drive further west, thousands of white marble crosses, arranged with geometrical precision, stand guard at the U.S. cemetery above Omaha Beach.
Visitors are asked not to step off the paths onto the immaculately mown lawns, but some cannot resist the all-too-human instinct to move a few paces closer, to read just one name on one grave. Some of them, you cannot help but notice, bear the Star of David. The past is not another country, not here.
The Star of David has been prominent in all the French newspapers lately, not just because of events in Israel, but because France seems to be undergoing a new wave of anti-Semitism. In the Greater Paris area alone, police have reported 10 to 12 anti-Jewish acts each day since the Easter weekend. In Alsace, in the east of the country, graves in a Jewish cemetery were daubed with swastikas. Over Easter, synagogues were attacked in Lyons, Marseille and Strasbourg. Just a few days ago, in the Paris suburbs, a football team from a Jewish association was attacked by a gang of masked youths carrying iron bars.
France has been here before, of course. Memories of the Vichy regime, not to mention the Dreyfus affair, are never far from the surface. The garrulous Jean-Marie Le Pen, far-right candidate in this month's presidential elections, scored around 12 per cent in the last opinion poll that I saw, just half a dozen points behind Lionel Jospin, the decidedly uncharismatic prime minister and Socialist Party candidate. Magazines pose the question, "Is France antisemitic?" President Jacques Chirac took a break from campaigning: "When a synagogue is burned, France is humiliated. When a Jew is attacked, France is attacked."
But there is a difference this time. This time much of the violence is being perpetrated by young, disaffected North Africans intent on playing out the Middle East conflict on their own streets and housing projects. Absorbing images of the Intifada relayed on the TV news bulletins, they have declared a war of their own, using French Jews as targets.
Conventional wisdom insists that what we are seeing is essentially just another form of vandalism. According to this school of thought, unassimilated young Muslims who have grown up in the suburbs that are hidden away from the tourist version of la belle France are simply indulging in the type of antisocial behavior common to the MTV generation across the West. (The suburbs "la banlieue" do not evoke the same rosy glow that we know in America or Britain. In France the word conjures up visions of grey concrete and high-rises.)
Others are less sanguine. Social scientist Pierre-Andre Taguieff, author of a controversial book "La Nouvelle Jude/ophobie" ("The New Judeophobia"), argues that the malaise runs much deeper. He points, first of all, to the findings of a Louis Harris opinion poll last year which posed the question to the population as a whole: "Do the Jews have too much power in France?" In 1991, 20 per cent replied "Yes". By last year the figure had risen to 34 per cent.
Mr. Taguieff certainly does not take that as any sort of proof that France as a whole is hostile to Jews: The polls, he says, indicate that the hard core of anti-Semites remains at the level of around 10 per cent. But anti-Jewish sentiment, he believes, is growing more open by the day. And what troubles him even more is that North African youths are turning to an all too familiar brand of Islamic fundamentalism, propagated by extremist clerics and fanned by the anti-Israeli stance of most of the French media.
Internet chat rooms play host to surfers who talk of burning Torahs or proclaim "Vive la Gestapo". As one Arab youth told a journalist from Le Monde: "I'm not racist against the Jews but the massacres I see on TV stir up a hatred in me against the Jewish community." French Jews can be forgiven for not quite seeing the fine distinction that the young man was trying to make.
Mr. Taguieff, just for the record, is not Jewish, although that has not saved him from receiving scores of threats from extremists. As he explained in an article in Le Figaro: "The extent of Islamic fundamentalism in the suburbs which incites acts by giving them a pseudo-religious legitimacy has been considerably underestimated by sociologists and the authorities. Police officers have told me that they have been given order 'not to throw oil on the fire,' which inevitably makes them very discreet."
In France "traditional" anti-Semitism has long been the preserve of the far-right. Mr. Taguieff detects a new threat from the "anti-racist" left. Which is not the kind of thing the left likes to hear, naturally, so Mr. Taguieff now finds himself under attack from that camp as well. He argues that the nave, pro-Palestinian sympathies of young Muslims are being exploited by leftists who, having given up on the dream of a communist revolution, are now betting on the triumph of a "New Third World-ism." Since the proletariat has sold out to shiny cars and "Baywatch," the left looks to a new mythical figure who will save the world. Step forward the Palestinian martyr.
"I spent twenty years fighting against the extreme right," says Mr. Taguieff, "and when I firmly denounced anti-Jewish sentiments, nobody questioned my motives in the slightest. But when I pose the problem of the Judeophobia of the left or the extreme left, many people find my views incomprehensible, not to say scandalous. Nevertheless, there clearly exists a new Judeophobia linked to a perversion of anti-racism, perfectly illustrated by the so-called anti-racism conference in Durban during which the slogan went round "One Jew, one bullet."
And France's response so far? For all of Mr. Chirac's stirring rhetoric, the political elite remains defensive toward any suggestion that secular republican ideals are in jeopardy. They have more mundane priorities too: There are those huge French business interests in the Arab world to worry about, not to mention the vicious civil war being waged by Muslim fundamentalists just across the water in Algeria. Nor do they want to provoke a backlash against ordinary French Muslims (one of the ironies of the current situation is that North Africans suffer greater discrimination here than do Jews).
There is no easy or painless solution in prospect. No wonder so many French opinion makers prefer to while away the time by hammering those awful warmongers in the White House.

Clive Davis writes for the Times and the Sunday Times, London.


LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide