Jean-Marie Le Pen’s first round victory over the socialists in the French presidential election struck many as the final confirmation that virulent anti-Semitism has returned to France. Charles Krauthammer proclaimed an anti-Semitic renaissance in France, noting that, historically speaking, it is the fifty year lull in anti-Semitism following the holocaust that is anomalous. A New York Times editorial similarly warned against the revival of an “ancient hatred” in France and Europe and criticized the “resurgence of the violent hatred that caused the holocaust.” Although these observations reflect France’s checkered history of anti-Semitism, they provide little insight into French society today. Recent anti-Semitic violence has little relation to the traditional, right wing anti-Semitism that underpinned the fascist French regime during the Holocaust. Instead, the recent incidents stem from new sources that reflect the changing nature of French society. In particular, it demonstrates the growing tension between the large Jewish and Muslim communities in France and the growing frustration of the economically disenfranchised Maghrebin (North African) youth.
The confusion of American observers about French anti-Semitism is understandable. The month preceding the electoral success of Le Pen saw a spike in attacks on Jewish places of worship and property, including the firebombing of a suburban Marseilles synagogue. The perceived anti-Israel sentiment of the French government was summed up in a supposedly off-the-record comment by the French ambassador in London, Daniel Bernard, to the effect that Israel was a “s—y little country,” that did not merit putting the world “in danger of World War III.” Around the same time, an internal Socialist Party memo, disclosed in the press, recommended a firm pro-Palestinian stance to garner French-Arab votes. In December, the Israeli government condemned France as the “worst Western country” in terms of anti-Semitism and worried that the 600,000 Jews there might be in “great danger.” The surprise electoral success of Le Pen, who seems to have successfully unified most of the diverse strands of French rightists’ traditions, cemented the image of a newly anti-Semitic France. Le Pen is a genuine anti-Semite in the traditional mode. He is known for his trivialization of the holocaust and his ethno-centric nationalism and has repeatedly accused his rival, President Jacques Chirac, of being “owned” and “held hostage” by the Jewish organization B’nai B’rith.
Despite the coincidental timing of these developments, much distinguishes anti-semitic expression in France today from traditional French anti-Semitism. French Jews are now seen by more than two-thirds of those polled as fully French; Jews hold important positions in all aspects of public life and can openly practice their religion. The perpetrators of today’s anti-semitic incidents are not natives protecting an ideal of “Frenchness” from Jewish contamination but members of another immigrant minority group whose own place in French society has been frequently questioned. The 400 or so anti-Semitic incidents documented in the last year and a half have mostly been attributed to youth of Maghrebin origin living in the economically depressed neighborhoods that ring large French cities, the banlieues. In the housing projects of these areas, immigrant youth feel trapped, as education and employment opportunities are slim.