ARE THE FRENCH 'A SH*TTY LOT'?
Suzanne Lowry examines the English view of
France as an arrogant, cowardly and, above all, anti-Semitic nation
Paris SWASTIKAS daubed on walls, and windows broken at a synagogue in a Paris suburb; a Jewish primary school set ablaze in a Molotov-cocktail attack. In London, the French ambassador is denounced for deprecating the importance of Israel.
These random events during the recent season of goodwill have raised the old spectre that haunts secular. Republican France. Is there something viscerally antiJewish in the society? Is France, for all its vaunted adherence to the ideals of liberte, egalite et fraternite, indelibly tainted with anti-Semitism?
From England the glib answer is usually, yes. Remember Dreyfus? Listen to JeanMarie Le Pen's sick puns about gas ovens, or the revisionist historians such as Robert Faurisson, who claim that the Nazi gas chambers never existed. Above all, consider the Nazi Occupation, when the French people collaborated with the conqueror and kowtowed to the puppet regime in Vichy more than they resisted it. And they have never faced up to their actions properly, especially not the rounding-up and deportation of 75,000 Jews from France to the death camps.
Such responses were bandied about again in London, after the French ambassador's words were widely reported. I heard a distinguished writer express concern over France's anti-Semitism and the apparent inability of its citizens to come to terms with their wartime history. Susannah Herbert, like me a former correspondent in Paris, wrote in the Sunday Telegraph of antiSemitic chatter at Parisian dinner tables, and recalled meeting French Jews who seemed still to fear being identified as such.
Perfidious Albion cherishes its stereotypes about France and the French. The country is held to be pretty wonderful (pity we lost the Hundred Years' War); the people less so: 'Love France, shame about the French' is a standard mantra. Stylish and clever, perhaps, and they certainly know how to run a restaurant. But they are also seen as treacherous, arrogant, rude, overexcitable, peevish and cowardly: 'a shitty lot,' as a London editor once put it to me. This is an acceptable kind of tribal slagging to which the French can and often do respond with equal gusto.
Allegations of anti-Semitism are a different matter, as was evident last week when the French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, proclaimed on the radio that France was 'absolutely not an anti-Semitic country' and that it was 'odious even to suggest it'. His Israeli opposite number had alleged that France is now the most anti-Semitic Western country.
The usually tight-lipped Vedrine is the ambassador's boss, yet the spat was not over undiplomatic indiscretion, but rather the increasing number of anti-Jewish outrages, such as those at the synagogue and school in Creteil at the end of the year. This suburb has a 20,000-strong Jewish community, the largest in the Paris region but nothing like as large as the North African immigrant community whose fervent young Muslims have been bringing the intifada into their own backyard.
The result is what intellectuals have named ludaeophobia', to distinguish it from plain old-fashioned anti-Semitism. Pierre-Andre Taguieff has written a study of this phenomenon called La nouvelle Judeaphobic. He blames its appearance on out-ofcontrol delinquency in the suburban immigrant ghettos and on the lefty intellos who embrace a fervent Talestinophilia' and demonise Israel. Jewish leaders fear that this anti-Zionism will bring a resurgence of the kind of hatred endured by their generally highly assimilated communities during various periods in history and culminating in the horrors of the Occupation.
In almost a decade as a correspondent
here, I have witnessed the uproar that automatically follows the least hint of antiSemitism. Ironically, the loudest noise has tended to come from left-wing intellectuals. In 1990, for example, a Jewish tomb was desecrated in Carpentras, Provence; a macabre incident in which — to the extreme distress of his widow — an elderly man's recently buried body was dragged from its resting place. The outrage was immediately assumed to be the work of far-right supporters of Le Pen's Front National, and there were nationwide demonstrations led by the most senior politicians including President Francois Mitterrand himself, marching under the slogan 'Plus jarnais car ('Never that again!') In the end, a long investigation found the culprits to be young, drugged-up aristos with a warped idea of fun. but a point had been made.
Furious running 'debates' about revisionism ended up by touching the country's most admired individual, Abbe Pierre. The octagenarian priest, who founded a national charity for the homeless, opined in 1996 that the estimated number of dead in the Final Solution had been greatly exaggerated. Another outcry ensued, though the old saint's popularity appears to have survived. Even the Dreyfus affair was not quite dead. The official army newspaper published an article in 1994 that seemed to question the unfortunate Jewish captain's innocence. The minister of defence promptly got the author sacked and the minister of culture overruled an army refusal to allow a film version of the 'Affair' to be shot in the Ecole Militaire. But it was Vichy and its collaboration in Nazi-inspired anti-Semitic policies that got the most play; the rediscovery in 1991 of the Fichier — the infamous 1940s card-index files containing names and addresses of all the Jews in Paris made to register by the Germans, so that it would be easier for Rene Bousquet's French police force to round them up and herd them on to cattle trucks headed east. The colour-coded cards with their lost names were undeniable and poignant evidence of those terrible events.
In 1996 the newly elected President, Jacques Chirac, made a formal apology to the Jews of France for the crimes committed against them by the French state during the Occupation. His use of the expression Petal' francais was significant. It was not the Republic that had sinned; it was that other, retrograde France — very Catholic, ultraright-wing — that had briefly been given its head under Petain and Laval that was the perpetrator of evil. This notion of two Frances, for ever in conflict, survives, even though secular Republicanism seemed to have won when Church and State were separated in the 19th century.
France has some right to be proud of its attitude to what has always been quite a small Jewish population. In 1791, it was the first European country to grant Jews citizenship a century before full emancipation in Britain. Despite much anti-Semitic writ
ing — notably by 19th-century 'thinkers' before, during and after the Dreyfus case — a belief in French tolerance stuck, and this explains why many foreign Jews fleeing the Nazis poured into France in the 1930s. The wave of anti-Semitism that followed can be explained by the panicky belief that the immigrants were far greater in number than they were. The Germans believed that there were close to a million; in fact, there were only some 200,000 to add to the French Jewish population of about 150,000. A tiny number.
This doleful period of French history — 'the dark years' as they are often called — fascinates the British, not least because it provides such an obvious soft spot to prod in the French ideological armour; an antidote to all that rhetorical posturing about the Rights of Man and les valeurs Republicains. But it is a mistake to think that the French still deny or blank out the events of the 1940s. Au connuire, although details of what happened to the Jews in France — the round-ups, deportations, despoliations — have only relatively recently been popular fodder in England (in novels such as Charlotte Gray, by Sebastian Faulks, now also a much-hyped film), they have been a major preoccupation in France for almost 30 years. The collective examination of conscience began in 1971 with the appearance of Max Ophuls's film Le Chagrin et la Pitie, and continued with the work of historians such as Henri Rousso — Vichy, a Past That Passes Not — and the American Robert 0. Paxton's Vichy France, Old Guard and New Order, as well as a host of others. Added to these was the work of investigative journalists such as Eric Conan, who in the mid1970s helped to unmask Rene Bousquet and revealed the full horror of the French death trains and the complicity of the French police in filling them.
The public has been force-fed grim and apparently unending details and anecdotes revealing who did what to whom and when. As a cultural backdrop to the great show trials of Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, the murderer Paul Touvier and the collaborating fonctionnaire Maurice Papon, the murder of Bousquet before he could be tried and revelations about the late President Mitterrand, there have been scores of films, novels, memoirs and analyses, plus a stream of news stories. It would have been impossible for any literate person with eyes and ears not to have taken in some of this. And still it goes on — as probably it must On the same day that Vedrine was on the radio, I turned on the television and found myself watching a popular film made only last year called Two Women in Paris starring Gerard Depardieu's daughter Julie and Romaine Bohinger. Set during the Occupation, it tells the story of two young women — one Jewish, one not — living on the same staircase, and the futile effort of the latter to save the former (who believes that she is safe because she is a French citizen). In a moving last scene, played in slow
motion, the Jewish woman is dragged from her apartment with her small daughter by the French police, and turns for a last, agonised look at her blonde friend left behind. Throughout the movie, the role of the French police is crucial.
Carmen Callil, now writing a book about one of the arch-villians of Vichy, Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, commissioner for Jewish affairs and the man chiefly responsible for enforcing the anti-Jewish legislation, is appalled by much of the story that she is uncovering, but also thinks that 'France had terribly bad luck — first with the refugee crisis in the Thirties and then with the incompetence of the generals who were responsible for the defeat that gave a window of opportunity to Petain & co. and a strain of thought that is always there, lurking up a dark staircase somewhere.' She points to the malign influence of an element in the Catholic Church at the time. 'The French strain of anti-Semitism is very Catholic and Mediterranean. But it did not have the backing of 90 per cent of the population, as in Germany. France has the ideal of the Republic, and you can't take that away from them.' And there is a positive side. Even the Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld has noted the contradiction: in spite of Vichy's policies, more Jews were saved pro rata in France than in any other occupied country.
Perhaps with all the exposure and expiation, residual anti-Semitism might have faded out at last; in any case, racial animosity in most European countries now focuses on other ethnic minorities. In France the population of five million or so North Africans is certainly much larger and more visible than the Jews ever were; there is undoubtedly strong anti-Arab, anti-Muslim feeling in main areas. The spread of Islamic fanaticism is much feared in the wake of 11 September, while the Israel–Palestinian conflict inspires young Muslims to attack schools and synagogues.
In Creteil last Sunday nearly 1,000 people, including the Grand Rabbi of Paris (as it happens an opponent of Arid l Sharon's policies towards the Palestinians), gathered to protest against attacks on Jewish people and property. Parents voiced especial disquiet at the growing number of taunts and the harassment of children in playgrounds and on the way to school.
The new and bitter twist is that this aggression comes from within the North African immigrant community. Three Maghrehian Muslims have been charged with the assaults on the school and synagogue — the last in a line of offences that began 15 months ago with the launch of the second intifada in Palestine.
A leading member of the Jewish community declared at the meeting, 'France is not an anti-Semitic country, but a new wave of hatred has been unleashed.' He wanted to warn the authorities about 'the danger to Republican values', and the demonstration ended with a traditional Jewish prayer for the Republic. Amen to that, and to Jacques Chirac's assurance that no anti-Semitic acts will be tolerated, from whatever source. However, this new ludaeophobia' seething in the disaffected urban strongholds of French Islam may prove difficult to contain.