France Is Not Antisemitic

November 1, 2002
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by Nonna Mayer

Since September 2000, Patrick Klugman and Malek Boutih — in their book The Antijews: The Book of Antisemitic Violence in France — count 405 antisemitic acts, from offensive graffiti to arson. The statistics of the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (the official police report) record 146 antisemitic acts in the same period (attacks, aggression, and insults) and 773 threats (graffiti, anonymous letters, and pamphlets). However the statistics are calculated, the numbers are astronomical and disturbing.

Do they mark a renewal of antisemitism? Are they symptoms, as Pierre André Taguieff writes in his latest book, The New Jewish Phobia, of a specific anti-Jewish racism, originating in the anti-Zionist, pro-Third World milieu and nurtured by radical Islamic fundamentalist circles? It is necessary to separate deeds from opinions. As frightening and worrisome as they are, these recurrent violent acts against French Jews, their houses of worship, and their schools are the acts of a minority group that embodies a psychological and social profile of being young members of geographically localized immigrant families. The aggressors are the children of immigrant families, originating from “sensitive neighborhoods” – mostly implicated in delinquency and not embracing any particular ideology. They are motivated by a sentiment of more or less widespread hostility toward Israel, exacerbated by the extensive media coverage of Middle East events which, according to them, reproduces the patterns of exclusion and failure that they themselves feel victims of in France. Their acts appear to be generalized to the larger population of young French people.

To measure public opinion, one can analyze the many polls taken since World War II regarding the image of Jews in France. The answers seem to show that the Jewish minority is more and more accepted in French society. In 1946, a little more than one-third of those polled considered that a French citizen of Jewish origin was “as French as any other French person,” whereas in the fall of 2000 the proportion exceeded two-thirds. In 1966, half of the French were hostile to the idea that a president of France could be Jewish, while today that percentage is less than one in ten. Regarding Vichy and the Holocaust, there is an almost unanimous opinion that denial of these events should be punished. A majority of those polled also approve of the declaration by Jacques Chirac on the responsibilities incurred by the French state for these events and agree that the Jews should receive reparation for the pillage of their belongings.

In short, antisemitism is retreating, with the exception of two elements. The stereotype of the rich and overly influential Jew continues to persist. From 1988 to 1991, one French citizen in five thought that “Jews have too much power in France.” In 1999 that proportion rose to 31 percent, and again to 34 percent in 2000. This is not innocent. Those inclined to attribute to Jews too much influence also feel that there are “too many Jews” and doubt how integrated Jews are into French society.

The antisemitism of those who feel that Jews have too much power is similar to ordinary racism and goes hand in hand with the rejection of other minorities. It is part of a globally hostile attitude toward all groups who appear different. The same people who judged Jews to be too numerous (20 percent in 2000) also believe that there are too many Asians in France (62 percent), too many Blacks (86 percent), and too many Arabs (97 percent). These people are the most hostile to the construction of mosques for Muslims, the most opposed to allowing non-European foreigners to vote, and the least interested in the fight against racism. Their cultural and socioeconomic profile is rigorously identical to that of other racists.

The rejection of Jews is most prevalent in poor neighborhoods, among those with little education and among older people, those most worried about their future, and especially those farthest to the right politically. In the fall of 2000, according to a scale of antisemitism constructed from responses to the three questions regarding the image of Jews, only 20 percent of those belonging to the political far left or the Green Party gave antisemitic responses. More than 40 percent of this type of response was generated by the center right, while more than 50 percent of these responses came from those affiliated with the right and far right. Can we conclude that there is no antisemitism on the left? No; there always has been. There is even an old tradition of leftist antisemitism generated from anticapitalism. But there is less on the left than on the right. Has antisemitism grown more on the left than on the right? No. Between 1988 and 2000 those who embraced the stereotype that Jews have too much power rose from 19 to 27 percent of those who declare themselves more to the left, but it rose 30 to 50 percent among those more to the right. Today’s antisemitism is terribly similar to an older version.

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Nonna Mayer works at the Centre for the Study of French Political Life and teaches at the l'Institut d'études politiques in Paris. This essay is adapted, with permission, from an essay in Le Monde, April 4, 2002.

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