Is France Hopeless?

One morning in April 2002, CNN Frankfurt bureau chief Chris Burns stepped into Emanuel Weintraub’s Paris apartment near the Eiffel Tower, took a look around, and said, “We thought you’d be packing. Where are the suitcases?”

Weintraub told the disappointed reporter that he wasn’t going anywhere. He’d already survived Nazi Poland and was enjoying his retirement from the civil service as an executive committee member of Representative Council of Jewish Organizations in France, or CRIF.

But Weintraub did understand the concern. All over France, anti-Semitic acts were on the rise: Jewish cemeteries desecrated, swastikas painted on synagogues, children called “sale Juif!” — dirty Jew — on their way to school, and in some cases there were physical attacks. Reported incidents rose from 60 in 1999 to 603 in 2000.

In America, the headlines declared a new wave of anti-Semitism. Follow-up stories told of unprecedented numbers of French Jews immigrating to Israel, whose prime minister, Ariel Sharon, declared last July that French Jews must, “move to Israel, as early as possible.”

As America and France tussled over the right course of action in Iraq, the country took a pasting in the American mind. But for American Jews, the image problem was far, far worse.

Along with the anti-Semitism, there was the barrage of anti-Israel coverage in the French media. A large swath of American Jewry began looking at France with emotions ranging from disappointment to disgust. Trips were canceled, a major Jewish organization called for a boycott of French goods and L.A. Jewish activists gathered in front of the French consulate and emptied bottles of Bordeaux down the sewer. As far as most Jewish leaders can tell, the feelings haven’t changed.

“What I hear from a lot of people is, ‘Why go there when you could go to Italy?'” said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, western regional director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). “The food and wine are just as good, the weather is warmer, and they don’t hate us.”

Although I never went as far as wasting good wine, I was among the disappointed. The Journal had been running regular columns tracking the flare-ups in attacks, the growth of a grass-roots Jewish vigilante movement, the reports of increased aliyah. Then, a few weeks ago, a call came from the office of France’s new consul general in Los Angeles, Philippe Larrieu. Jacques Chirac’s center-right government had come to power in May 2002, Larrieu said, replacing Lionel Jospin’s coalition of Socialists, Communists and Greens. This government was taking a pro-active approach to racism and anti-Semitism. The consul general said I should go see for myself.

So I went.

The Foreign Ministry sponsored my trip, picking up the tab for the airplane, hotel and guide. The ground rules were I could interview whomever I wanted and write whatever I wished, but I would interview someone and write something. The ministry’s goal was to demonstrate the government’s resolve to face the country’s social problems. My goal was to find out whether France is a dangerous place to be a Jew.

Over the course of nine days I interviewed dozens of people in Paris and Marseilles: Jews, Arabs, government and nongovernmental organization (NGO) officials, your average Jean in the rue, breaking only to eat a nice piece of grilled fish and drink a glass of Cotes du Rhone. (The food and wine were on my tab, and, I’ll add, worth every shamefully weakened American dollar.) In Los Angeles, I interviewed several more people.

My chat with Weintraub came near the end of my visit, in the smoky bar — is there any other kind in Paris? — of the Hilton Hotel. His simple statement summarized much of what I had learned. “There was a real panic,” he said, going back to the days when the CNN crew came knocking on his door. “We had a government with an ostrich policy, pretending nothing important was going on. The situation hasn’t changed as much as the government has changed. We still have anti-Semitism, but the government takes it very seriously.”

I asked him for his proof. “That day,” he said, “was the last time I was on CNN.”

In a country of 500 cheeses, no one had more than three explanations for the flowering of anti-Semitism: the left, the far right, the Muslims.

The far right, epitomized by Jean Marie Le Pen, has long been a source of Jew-hatred. I visited Paris on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and Le Pen, a member of the National Assembly, grabbed a lot of ink by declaring that the Nazi occupation of France was pretty humane, considering. White supremacist thugs, like the one who recently attacked both a Jew and a Muslim, also belong in this camp.

The left, in its unrelenting disparaging of Israel, can’t be implicated in actual attacks. But the rampant anti-Zionism of the mainstream has inflamed anti-Semitism, or at least allowed a swath of French society to downplay it. In France, said one Jewish activist. Zionism is a dirty word, and President Bush and Ariel Sharon, “are just thugs.”

Finally, the Muslims. There are between 3 million and 6 million Muslims in France. Most of the recent attacks, the graffiti, the shouts of “dirty Jew,” have come from young Arabs, directed at young Jews. Why?

The fact that attacks went up 85 percent in the months after the second intifada points to one obvious link.

“This is not anti-Semitism,” one official said. “This is intifadism.” Young Muslims are spurred on by inflammatory, one-sided images of Israeli soldiers and Palestinians on Arab television channels. Their anger is inflamed by extremist Muslim clerics throughout the country.

Dr. Dalil Boubakeur is the go-to guy for journalists looking to get the “Muslim perspective” on the situation in France. Vanity Fair, The New York Times, the Jewish press — every reporter makes the pilgrimage to Boubakeur’s elegant, Oriental palace of an office in the Grand Mosque of Paris. I, too,enjoyed sweet tea and hospitality as the titular head of the French Muslim community spoke about those who inflame French Arab youth against the Jews.

“The intifada created a reaction of anti-Jewish acts,” he said, “an amalgam of Jews and Israel, and it is stupid to lump them together. It’s ugly Muslim people who do this. They consider themselves the sole representatives of the Muslims. They provoke aggression, which provokes an anti-Arab backlash.”

Boubakeur said there are perhaps 30 to 40 extremist mosques in France, and the government is cracking down on them. But he said that in the run-down concrete suburbs, or banlieues, these preachers have enormous influence.

I asked Boubakeur how much influence he, the president of the Council of French Muslims, has with the Muslim youth of the banlieues. He squeezed his thumb and forefinger of his left hand together and held the circle up to one eye. “Zero,” he said. “Zero.”

It occurred to me more than once that on a trip sponsored by the current French government, I was hearing person after person give credit for addressing anti-Semitism to — the current French government. Suspicious, yes, but everyone said so. On a small street in Marseilles I stopped a Chabad rabbi and began chatting in Hebrew. Leon Madar came from Israel by way of Tunisia. He opened a school for 70 students in the city’s outskirts. “The situation has improved in the past two years,” Madar said. “This government is trying to do something.”

Emmanuel Charron, an earnest young adviser to Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, laid out what steps his government had taken. It has added extra security to sensitive areas, such as synagogues. In February 2003 it passed the Lellouche Law, which makes the motive of a racist attack integral to the definition of a crime and imposes heavier sentences for hate crimes. It convened a cabinet-level ministerial committee on anti-Semitism, which meets each month. The committee reviews recent incidents and sentences meted out to offenders and recommends policy. This is the group that finally decided to pull the plug on satellite broadcasts of the Hamas-sponsored television station al-Manar.

The government has trained prosecutors and judges in sentencing guidelines and given them specific instructions on sentencing requirements. It has pursued the establishment of an international code of ethics on the Internet, to reduce hate sites.

Judges in France are independent, and many Jewish groups have derided the light sentences given to attackers. But Charron said that, too, has changed. Recently, a 23-year-old man who put Nazi graffiti on a Jewish graveyard was arrested and sentenced to one year in prison.

The government more closely monitors hate speech emanating from radical clerics in French mosques. Last April, French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin expelled to Algeria an imam who said that wife beating is allowed by the Quran.

In schools, there is increased Holocaust education, including field trips to concentration camps. More guards and security monitoring devices have been posted at the entrances to schools, since many attacks against students occur on the way to and from school. Teachers themselves now receive instruction in dealing with racist remarks.

NGOs have also stepped forward. In the southern port city of Marseilles, a coalition of religious and cultural representatives called Marseilles Esperance meets regularly to diffuse tensions, and the city has remained relatively calm. Salah Bariki, a liaison for the organization, said Marseilles Esperance is successful because it gives a kind of civic power to religious communities — something unheard of in modern French history.

Muslim feminists are also a positive force. They are behind the organization Ni Putes Ni Soumises — Neither Whores Nor Submissive — which educates the youth of impoverished areas and defends Muslim women’s rights.

“The fundamentalism that stigmatizes Jews also stigmatizes women,” said Safia Lebdi, the group’s vice president.

Myriam Salah-Eddine is the first elected municipal representative in France of North African Muslim origin — a mouthful, but also a milestone. In her office at City Hall, Salah-Eddine told me successive French governments have failed to integrate a generation of Muslims younger than herself.

“Now the frustration has increased, and the result is you see 12-year-old girls wearing headscarves and being influenced by extremists,” she said. The key, she said, is to create a “French Islam,” tolerant and respectful of women’s rights. Merging French and Muslim values would go a long way toward easing the “identity crisis” afflicting Muslim youth, and the anti-Muslim feelings that, she said, infect French society.

You simply can’t get three sentences into a discussion on anti-Semitism in France without segueing into the issue of Arab integration. After all, why should kids whose parents or granparents were from Algeria or Morocco, who don’t even speak Arabic themselves, who couldn’t tell the West Bank from the Left Bank, attack French Jews?

The problem, just about everyone said, is that these Muslim youth have not been integrated into French society. They themselves face racism and discrimination, and they take their frustration out on “foreigners” like them — the Jews — who have adapted to French society with astounding success.

“In the last 15 years, there has been one Catholic Church built in France, and 1,560 mosques,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous told me. “I think that says it all.” Imagine the challenges, he added, if the United States suddenly had to absorb the equivalent — some 40 million Muslims.

To the French, anti-Semitism is a symptom of a deeper problem afflicting French society, and the struggle against it is part of an even greater struggle. President Chirac summed this up when he told a group of rabbis, “An attack on a French Jew is an attack on all of France.”

In short, secularism — laicite — is holy writ in France. A country torn by centuries of warfare between Protestants and Catholics found a solution in a radical separation of Church and state. Privately, you may pray as you want. But the public square is off limits to religious expression, where everyone is French and “communitarianism” — the assertion of one’s cultural or religious heritage, the antithesis of secularism — is a nasty word.

Blandine Kriegel is one of Chirac’s cabinet ministers. I met her in the Elysee Palace, a west wing away from Chirac’s living quarters. She is a steely, diminutive woman, a well-known philosopher — France seems to churn them out like triple cream brie — whose father was a famous member of the Resistance.

“Jews are caught up in a larger fight, more than they are the target,” she told me. “This is a fundamental assertion of the values of France against those who want to undermine the country.”

Kriegel has spearheaded a new integration policy that will absorb 170,000 immigrants a year, mostly from North Africa, with French-language training and civic lessons.

“In the past decade we only emphasized cultural diversity, which enriches daily life in matters like food and culture and art, but the problem we are facing is that in recognizing cultural diversity, we have to make sure our common culture is strengthened.” Kriegel, not surprisingly, led the fight for the so-called “Headscarf Law,” which as of September 2004 banned the wearing of “communitarian” symbols — headscarves, kippot, big crucifixes — in public schools.

Enforcement, education, integration — is it all working? The most recent statistics show a decrease in anti-Semitic incidents in the last quarter of 2004, but an overall increase for the year compared to 2003.

The number of Jews leaving for Israel is greater than ever, but the numbers themselves are open to question. According to the Jewish Agency, 1,979 French Jews made aliyah in 2003, while 2,215 made aliyah in 2004. (Other figures are 300-500 immigrants higher.) But French Jews themselves downplay the significance of these numbers: many are students, many are religious Jews who would have gone to Israel in any case, and many return to France within five years.

More common is the migration of Jews from heavily Muslim areas around Paris to central Paris, especially to the 6th and 19th arrondissements. Also, according to Weintraub, many Jewish families are pulling their children from public schools and placing them in Jewish schools. Enrollment in Jewish day schools is up by 10,000 pupils, and an additional 1,000 Jewish students have chosen Catholic, rather than public schools.

More distressing to Weintraub is the fact that his 15-year-old granddaughter, a bright product of those schools, sees little future for herself and other young Jews in France. He said she and her peers speak constantly of moving to Canada or the United States. Government efforts may come to fruition in two to five years, he said, “but one doesn’t live in the future. Facts are facts, and facts are stubborn.”

And facts — the facts on the ground — continue to be distressing.

At the Grand Synagogue of Marseilles, a receptionist told me she was crossing the street to work a few weeks earlier when “three Arabs in a truck” stopped to yell and curse at her.

“My daughter takes the public bus,” said Moshe Toledano, the synagogue’s associate rabbi. “The little Arabs are very aggressive toward her.”

The synagogue bulletin board has advertisements for apartments in Israel, but the rabbi knows only one family that has moved.

“Let’s say the situation is of concern, but is nothing like Germany before the war,” he said.

French officials said they understand that despite the change in policies, Jews still face daily trials.

“It is like turning the direction of a ship while the people on the decks are fighting,” the Foreign Ministry’s Ladsous said.

As for integration as a solution, it has its discontents.

“Integration is very important, but it will not prevent radicalization,” said historian Patrick Weil, a frequent lecturer on the issue. “Bin Laden was wealthy, he was integrated.” French Arab anti-Semitism, Weil said, cannot be discussed separate from the racism and discrimination that even “integrated” French Arabs themselves experience.

Weil said he favors the approach of the popular and ambitious former Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who has encouraged religious interest groups to organize, to become partners in civil society as in the United States. The government is looking closely at the success of Marseilles Esperance, and Sarkozy has even advocated a kind of affirmative action to advance Muslims into French society.

“You can take steps not by breaking traditions, but by expanding society and opening it up to minorities,” Weil said.

The Foreign Ministry did buy me one meal, a sort of end-of-trip debriefing lunch with several top diplomats at a serious restaurant across from the ministry’s 18th-century headquarters. After the second glass of Brouilly, I decided to try to sum up what I had learned; that is, to tell the French what was wrong with their country:

1) In Middle East policy, there is an unhealthy and imbalanced obsession with Israel and the Palestinians. Thanks to the current leadership and Yasser Arafat’s death, the government is only just beginning to demonstrate a glimmer of the intellectual and moral nuance toward the Mideast conflict. Whether this filters down to the media and the street is another matter. In Marseilles, I visited a lower-class neighborhood and found it plastered with posters calling upon Israel to “Free Marwan Barghouti,” as if a Palestinian activist in jail is the biggest problem these struggling, French-born sons and daughters of Algerian immigrants face.

2) As for France’s image abroad, it can’t very well exhume the corpse of Jacques Cousteau, the last Frenchman to evince warm, fuzzy feelings in Americans (Julie Delpy evinces warm, fuzzy feelings, but not on a mass level).

“You need another Cousteau,” I told the officials. My suggestion for the new face of France: Myriam Salah-Eddine, the Muslim feminist and Marseille city council member. She and young Muslims like her may be few in number, but they are the country’s best hope.

3) Finally — not that these officials asked — I said it was time to move beyond the anti-communitarian myth. This idea that one must cede a good chunk of one’s Muslim, Jewish or other identity to an ideal of Frenchness is, to borrow a word, passé.

It is funny, I told these officials, that when the Education Ministry needed help with a Holocaust curriculum, it turned to the Amercian Jewish Committee. When the Interior Ministry and CRIF needed help fashioning a response to the outbreak of anti-Semitism they turned to the AJC, the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center for advice. These organizations — which the French dismiss as “lobbying groups” — assert communal interests and provide an outlet for ethnic and religious identity. Instead of importing the fruits of a communitarian society, France needs to refashion the Republic into one. The French Jewish philosopher — what else? — Michael Sebban, author of searing novels on the current anti-Semitism, put it succinctly: “The Fifth Republic is dead,” he said. “French society is a communitarian society. It’s a fact.” Sebban, by the way, said he has all but decided to leave France — for Los Angeles.

On the way out of the restaurant, one of the diplomats fell into step beside me and told me a story. The son of a diplomat, he grew up abroad and as a child spoke poor English and poor French.

“My teachers in the Unites States offered me extra help,” he recalled, “and treated me as someone special. But in France, my teachers punished me for my accent.” He was trying to say that the problem we Jews see as anti-Semitism and the Muslims see as racism is something deeper and more entrenched in the French psyche. The French are in some ways very open minded, he told me, but disdain difference.

Jews have been entwined in French life and history since time immemorial. Whether they will ever be fully welcome is a matter of dispute, or perhaps a matter of lowered expectations.