Jewish life in France: Progress amid ongoing concerns

On March 19, Mohamed Merah, 23, attacked the Ozar HaTorah school in Toulouse in southern France, killing three students and a rabbi.

The young Muslim subsequently died in a shootout with police, but within 10 days of the killing spree there were 90 anti-Semitic incidents throughout France.

In contrast, in early July, French government officials signed an agreement to mobilize their diplomatic, cultural and educational channels “to raise awareness [of the Holocaust] among the new generations, in France and abroad, of the duty and actions of remembrance.”

To outside observers, the signals are mixed. Is France, with its history of anti-Semitism, finally confronting its record of collaboration with Nazi Germany during World War II? Do French Jews feel secure or are they packing to leave the country?

Rabbi Abraham Cooper and Dr. Shimon Samuels, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean and international relations director respectively, spent four intensive days in France recently to see for themselves.

In a packed schedule of meetings in Marseilles, Toulouse, Lyons and Paris, the two men met with high government officials, police commanders, Jewish and Muslim community leaders and Chabad students. Their itinerary was facilitated by David Martinon, France’s consul general in Los Angeles.

Cooper summed up his reactions during an interview.

He was deeply affected, as were the French media and public, by eyewitness reports of the Toulouse school shooting, during which the killer grabbed a fleeing 8-year-old girl by the hair and shot her execution style.

“That act was a game-changer,” Cooper said, as was this statement by the killer during negotiations with police: “I used an Uzi, an Israeli pistol, to kill Israelis. … I killed Jews in France as these are the same Jews who kill innocents in Palestine.”

Cooper observed that Merah, a self-described al-Qaeda militant, “is challenging France from his grave that he is justified in killing French Jewish school kids, since they will grow up to become Israeli soldiers. So, in effect, every Jew anywhere is a target.”

Against this somber background, Cooper found some encouraging signs that top Interior Ministry and police officials of the new French government of President Francois Hollande “are getting it.”

The question now is whether the country’s leadership will summon the will and the public support to respond to this challenge to the government’s authority by Muslim and other domestic extremists, Cooper noted.

He gives high grades to the French Jewish community of some 600,000 for its self-defense organization and general attitude.

“They are not in denial of the threats facing them, but they worry not so much about their own survival but whether their children and grandchildren will be able to thrive in France,” Cooper said.

One positive sign is the agreement signed earlier this month at the French Foreign Affairs ministry between one arm of the French government and a Jewish organization to raise awareness of the Holocaust at home and abroad.

According to a lengthy memorandum transmitted to The Journal by the French consulate in Los Angeles, the joint campaign will employ exhibits, conferences, and translations and distribution of books by Primo Levi, Anne Frank and others, particularly in Arab-speaking countries.

Basically, the agreement forms a partnership between the French Institute (Institut Francais), equivalent to the former U.S. Information Agency (USIA), and the Shoah Memorial, France’s version of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

As their first joint venture, the two organizations invited 120 young people from around the world to participate in a series of meetings and tours focusing on human rights and the Holocaust.

A key facilitator in these efforts is Francois Zimeray, who bears the lengthy title of ambassador for human rights and the international dimensions of the Holocaust.

During a visit to Los Angeles last February, Zimeray, in an interview, asserted that while France has its anti-Semites, it is not an anti-Semitic country.

At the signing ceremony launching the new partnership, Zimeray joined Eric de Rothschild, president of the Shoah Memorial, and Xavier Darcos, president of the French Institute.

The Shoah Memorial opened in 2005 in Paris at the site of the Memorial du Martyr Juif Inconnu (Memorial to the Unknown Jewish Martyr).

While the Shoah Memorial contains mainly archives and exhibits of the Holocaust, it also serves as a “museum of vigilance … a rampart against oblivion, against a rekindling of hatred and contempt for man,” de Rothschild said.

According to Zimeray’s office, France’s Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliation has paid a total of 470 million euros to 40,000 persons deprived of their property under the anti-Semitic laws in force during the Nazi occupation of France.

For more information, in French, about the Shoah Memorial in Paris, visit