Marseille Program Curbs Anti-Semitism


The commencement of the second Palestinian intifada in late 2000 ignited the most extensive outbreak of anti-Semitic violence in France since

the Holocaust. The crimes have been perpetrated almost entirely by the beur — Arab immigrants.

Marseille, France’s second-largest and oldest city, was initially not exempt. Jewish schools were defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti, and swastikas were painted on Jewish homes. On March 31, 2002, Marseille’s Or Aviv Synagogue was reduced to ashes by arsonists.

Yet while in other French cities the violence continues, in Marseille the animus soon fizzled out. This is largely because the city reacted with revulsion to these crimes: Citywide protests against anti-Semitism were immediately organized.

Significantly, Muslims participated in these protests. Islamic leaders were also present for the burial of the synagogue’s charred Torah scrolls and were photographed comforting Jewish religious leaders.

The success of these symbolic actions is particularly impressive when one considers Marseille’s demographics: Fully one-quarter of Marseille’s population is of North African origin, and demographers predict that Marseille will be the first city on the European continent with an Islamic majority. Moreover, its Jewish community is the third largest in Europe.

The most ethnically diverse city in France, then, has paradoxically been the most successful in containing ethnic tension.

A key reason for the city’s calm is an entity called Marseille Espérance. Created in 1990 to stave off ethno-religious conflict between Jews and Muslims, each of the city’s religious communities sends a delegate to the group, which meets regularly to “combat intolerance, ignorance and incomprehension” and “to promote respect for one another.” Whenever tension threatens to erupt, the group makes a public display of solidarity.

Perhaps most significant about Marseille Espérance, however, is that it challenges the core principles of the French republican ideal and the historic concept of what it means to be French.

France’s model of immigration, the so-called “republican” model, demands that immigrants abandon their native cultures and adopt a distinct set of mental habits, values and shared historic memories. These, and not shared religion, race or blood, are held to be the essence of France, the glue that binds French citizens together.

By contrast, the American model of immigration rests upon significantly different principles and traditions. The United States emerged as a federation of smaller states, and there is a looser and more pragmatic relationship between citizens and the center. Moreover, the United States enforces multiculturalism with affirmative-action programs backed by the full weight of the law.

The French government, in contrast, vigorously rejects this kind of cultural separatism, which it terms “communitarianism.” The word connotes the intrusion of unseemly religious or ethnic particularism into the public sphere. Yet communitarianism is precisely the essence of Marseille Espérance.

Marseille Espérance is, in effect, an end-run around the government’s anti-communitarian principles. Since French law forbids the recognition of ethnicity, the city recognizes religions — ethnicity by proxy.

Marseille Espérance facilitates the emergence of personalities who represent whole ethnic groups and who forge links between their communities and the rest of the city. By means of their strong connection to the mayor’s office, Muslim community leaders have been able to effectively promote an Islamic agenda.

They have secured elaborate slaughter facilities for the ritual animal sacrifice of Eid-el-Kebir and grave sites for Muslims in the Aygalades Cemetery. In return, the mayor demands that Islamic leaders keep the extremists in their community in check.

Whatever community leaders and politicians may say — and all will deny it; it is heresy to endorse communitarianism in France — Marseille Espérance institutionalizes and strengthens communitarian politics, and by bringing religion to the forefront of the political sphere, directly contravenes France’s official principle of secularism. And it seems to be working.

To be sure, there is more than one reason for Marseille’s comparative tranquillity. For example, Marseille has benefited from vigorous police work: President Jacques Chirac’s government has taken aggressive measures to combat anti-Semitism.

There is also the unique distribution of immigrant neighborhoods in Marseille. While in other French cities the suburbs form menacing rings of criminality and unemployment around the city, in Marseille, immigrant neighborhoods are distributed evenly throughout the city, and young people, whatever their ethnic origin, congregate in the same place.

But most significantly, Marseille demonstrates that by giving certain groups a formal means to express a reasonable and moderate ethnic agenda, the violent and immoderate elements of that group may more readily be contained by the moderate ones, who have been co-opted into the system.

Of course, Marseille is not some kind of pluralistic utopia. While there is less anti-Semitic tension in Marseille than in other French cities, there is tension, nonetheless. But in Marseille, unlike other French cities, the worst of the tension has been dampened. And in this, Marseille may serve as an important model for the rest of Europe.

Marseille suggests, in other words, that the French republican ideal is dying. It was a noble experiment. But its days are over.

Claire Berlinski is a writer and novelist living in Paris. A longer version of this article appears in the current issue of Azure (