French Ironies and Jews
Can France be considered an anti-Semitic country when Alain Finkielkraut, a French Jew of Polish origin, has just been elected to become one of France’s Forty Immortals in the Académie Française (French Academy)? The paradox is ironic: official recognition by France of a Jew being a vital part of French culture, while there are frequent demonstrations of angry French anti-Semites shouting “Jews out of France.”
For centuries France has been the setting for bitter political and ideological disputes of all kinds. Logically, it is difficult to explain all the reasons, although as Charles de Gaulle has said, a nation that has two hundred and forty six varieties of cheese is virtually impossible to govern. One of the most painful and heated of the controversies extending throughout more than a hundred years of French history, and still continuing today, concerns the presence and rights of Jews in France. Anti-Semitism in France, in both practical and rhetorical form, has been vigorous, divisive, and deadly, as revealed by the prejudice and injustice of the Dreyfus Affair and the dishonorable actions of the Vichy regime in its participation in the Holocaust during World War II showed.
The situation could have been otherwise. Though a Polish prince in 1264 issued a document granting Jews personal freedom and legal autonomy, it was the edict of the French Constituent Assembly passed on September 27, 1791 that can be considered the first real act of modern Jewish emancipation. With the decision to grant civil equality to the 40,000 Jews then living in France and to allow them to enjoy the privileges afforded all citizens, the French decree became the model for Jewish emancipation elsewhere in the Western world.
However, those privileges were not always implemented in practice and anti-Semitic discrimination has been a constant trait in French history. Paradoxically, it was exactly 149 years after emancipation, on September 27, 1940 that the first anti-Jewish measure, the so-called First Ordinance, of the Nazi occupiers of France was issued. That ordinance was followed by French anti-Semitic laws and acts of discrimination against Jews taken by the “French State,” the official name of the Vichy regime, led by Marshal Pétain during World War II.
A number of public opinion surveys in recent years show the extent of anti-Semitic attitudes in France today, a country that has the third largest Jewish community on the world. Comprised of 500,000 persons, the Jewish community is some one per cent of the French population. The surveys suggest that about 24 per cent of the French population harbor anti-Semitic attitudes, compared with 27 per cent of Germans, and 8 per cent of citizens of British citizens. About 35 per cent of the French believe that Jews have too much power in the business world, and 29 per cent too much power in international financial markets.
France has been plagued by an increase in the number of incidents of beatings and assaults of Jews. Between January and May 2014 there were 140 recorded. The Jewish community has suffered in the past by harassment. In 2006 Ilan Halimi, a 21-year-old Jewish young man, was abducted and brutally murdered by a number of Muslim immigrants in a suburb of Paris. In Toulouse in 2012 seven people, including three children and a rabbi, were murdered in a Jewish day school in an act committed by a young Muslim. Hate speech is also widespread. Millions of viewers have seen the videos of the comedian Dieudonné whose attempts at humor rarely disguise a fundamental anti-Semitism.
It is generally recognized that a considerable part of the rising anti-Semitism stems from the Muslim community. Yet it also is still present in the extreme right-wing politics that is the legacy of the Vichy years. It was starting to hear the veiled reference to Nazi extermination camps in a remark of the 85-year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the National Front (FN), and member of the European Parliament, In criticizing a Jewish performer, Le Pen said there was a “batch in the oven” for people like him. He was rebuked by his daughter, Marine, now leader of the FN, who called it a “political mistake,” and disavowed any policy of anti-Semitism.
In view of the increased violence against Jews, the rhetoric of the more extreme Muslims, and the electoral victory of the FN that gained 25 per cent of the vote in the recent European Parliament election, it is not surprising that the exodus of Jews, 2,254 between January and May 2014, to Israel has increased.
Yet, recent political and cultural developments in France challenge the view that France should be classified as an anti-Semitic country. One is the presence of individuals of Jewish descent, such as Jean François Coppé, Manuel Valls, and Nicolas Sarkozy, in prominent political positions as government ministers or even President of the Republic. More pertinent to this present discussion is the election in the first round of voting on April 10, 2014 of Alain Finkielkraut to the prestigious French Academy, the group limited to 40 “Immortals.”
Finkielkraut, the 64-year-old philosopher, essayist, and public intellectual, was born in Paris. He is the son of a Polish Jew who was deported to Auschwitz but survived, and found refuge in France. Finkielkraut has long been a controversial figure, whose strong ideas are sometimes not immune from polemical statements in print or on his many television appearances.
Even though not religious, Finkliekraut has never been shy in proclaiming his Jewish origins and his concern for the survival of Jewish identity in Europe. He stresses the need for retaining the memory of the Jewish experience, including memory of the Holocaust that was unilateral aggression against Jews. He strongly attacked the so-called World Conference on Racism (Durban Conference) of 2001 for the outbreak of racist hate against Jews that emerged during the conference.
In the considerable number of intellectual debates in which he has been politically engaged, Finkielkraut has declared his support of Zionism in general and the State of Israel in particular. He has publicly asserted on many occasions the right of Israel to exist and to defend itself. At the same time he is not anti-Palestinian and has favored the creation of a Palestinian state. Yet he articulated very clearly, in a court case in May 2006, that anti-Israelis had propounded a false analogy between the fate of Palestinians from 1947 until the present day and the catastrophe experienced by Jews under Nazism.
In a more general way, he has been strongly critical of Islamist extremism, and increasingly he has commented on the extent and consequences of the continuing immigration of Muslims into France. He calls for a peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. His view was that suicide bombers are not acts of resistance.
He has become an even more controversial figure with the recent publication of his latest book, L’Identité malheureuse (The Unhappy Identity), concerned with the issue of French and European crisis of identity. Finkielkraut’s argument is unambiguous. Muslim immigration into France and Islamist behavior are leading to French and European loss of belief in their own culture, or what he calls identity deficiencies. The very concept of democracy is in danger in Europe because it has become a continent of immigrants. Though expressions of this kind, particularly the criticism of Muslim immigrants, have been labeled by his opponents as “Islamophobia,” he points out that those immigrants have led to parallel societies being formed in France that distance themselves from each other, and break the cultural unity on which Western civilization rests.
Finkielkraut, a self-styled humanist, is critical of modernism, multiculturalism, relativism, and anti-racist ideology. He is concerned about the wearing by women of the veil in public places and in educational institutions. French people are becoming foreigners on their own soil. The consequence of these demographic changes is national disintegration and difficulty for the survival of French national identity.
It is touching that this Jew, the child of Polish parents, proudly defends Français de souche (ethnic French people) and despairs that they are, because of Muslim communities, moving out of the Paris suburbs. They are becoming a minority in their own country. At the same time, Finkielkraut argues that Muslims are refusing to be integrated into French society or to adhere to French values and rules.
Not the least of the ironies in Finkielkraut’s election is that his first act in the Academy is to deliver the ceremonial eulogy in honor of his predecessor Félicien Marceau. This Belgin-born novelist was attached to the Rex political party in Belgium that supported Hitler and as a collaborator he delivered radio addresses during the war in favor of Nazi Germany. Alain Finkielkraut is not the first Jew to be admitted to the French Academy: Pierre Nora, Simone Veil, and Michel Debré (of part Jewish origin) among others are already there, as were Claude Lévi-Strauss and François Jacob in the past. But his admission is a striking affirmation of French admiration for a controversial figure who is not only an upholder of Republican values and a critic of base instincts and hatred but one who is proud to assert the rights of Jews in France and in Europe. This is part of the effort to prevent the decline of Western civilization.
Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.