Beyond the Republican Model : Antisemitism in France

Par Jean-Yves Camus

The French Jewish community, numbering about 600,000 out of a total population of 63.3 million, is the largest in Europe. The greatest concentration is in the Paris area (300–350,000), followed by Marseille (80,000), Lyon (30,000), Nice and Toulouse (20,000 each). Strasbourg, where 12,000 Jews live, is a major religious and cultural center. In comparison, the foreign population (i.e., holding foreign nationality) amounts to about 4.3 million, while French citizens of foreign origin number 19.7 million (official census figures). The number of Muslims is estimated at 4 million, including 2 million holding French citizenship. When dealing with the issues of antisemitism and Islam in France, one has to remember that the French legislation forbids census questions relating to religious affiliation, does not allow the ethnic origin of people to be mentioned in official statistics, and is quite restrictive about ethnic opinion polls.

According to the statistics of CRIF (Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France, the umbrella organization of French Jewry), the number of antisemitic incidents peaked in 2004 (974 incidents), decreased significantly in 2005 (504 incidents), and another peak had occurred in 2006 with 742 incidents. Those included the most horrible act ever to have taken place in France since 1945, that is the kidnapping, torturing and subsequent murder of Ilan Halimi, a 23-year old Jewish cell-phone salesman, by a multiracial gang led by the Ivory Coast-born Yussuf Fofana, who will stand trial in April 2009. Halimi’s kidnapping took place because the gang believed that if they asked for a ransom, the whole Jewish community would raise money to pay for it. This was a murder motivated by antisemitism, as proven by the fact that Fofana was later indicted on the ground that he wrote numerous violently antisemitic letter threats to the (non-Jewish) judge in charge of the case.

In 2007, the figures again dropped to 361 antisemitic incidents and this trend continued in the first half of 2008, although the definitive figures for that year will only be released in March 2009. However, the whole situation changed at the end of December 2008, because of the mobilization of the Muslim community, the Far-Left and part of the Extreme-Right, against the Israeli military operation in Gaza. It is now estimated that 113 incidents took place between December 27, 2008 and January 26, 2009. It is not only the numbers that matter: in the demonstrations against Israel, many marchers described the Israeli operation as a “genocide” or a “Holocaust” of the Palestinian, they often equated the Israeli policy with that of the Nazis against the Jews, and the demonstrations were followed by incidents of a very new nature, such as in Metz and Strasbourg, where a crowd of several hundred Muslims marched on the synagogue.

Those new developments go against the findings of previous research by CRIF, according to which antisemitic violence was no longer linked to the events in the Middle- East. The Israel/Hezbollah confrontation in summer 2006, for example, did not result in any spectacular rise of antisemitism, a fact that led CRIF to say that antisemitism had become a structural phenomenon, with occasional peaks of incidents occurring when the situation in Israel/Palestine became tense. What is certain, anyway, is that antisemitism is now a permanent feature of Jewish life in France and that antisemitic violence remains at a high level that was unknown before the start of the second Intifada. Nevertheless, opinion surveys show that traditional antisemitic resentment is declining continuously (Mayer 2005). According to a survey published in 2006 and made on behalf of the University of Tel-Aviv by the French opinion institute SOFRES, only 16% think that “Jews have too much power in France” while 67% are of the opposite opinion, and only 6% think that “there are too many Jews in France,” opposed to 83% who do not share this opinion. As a comparison, 92% of those surveyed say that “A French Jew is as much French as any other French citizen,” while in 1946, only 37% said so, a proportion which rose to 60% in 1966; and 83% in 1978[1]. It is also noteworthy that a recent (January 2009) survey showed that the majority of the French did not blame Israel for the military confrontation in Gaza. According to this opinion poll, 18% put the responsibility on Israel and 23% on Hamas, while 28% said that both were responsible and 31% said they did not know[2]. Fewer people put the blame on Israel than in a previous 2002 survey, but the survey suggests that those who feel close to the Left are more prone to blame Israel than conservative voters. In short, there is no evidence that antisemitism is more widespread than before, but the anti-Zionism of the Radical Left and the Extreme-Right, as well as that of a significant part of the Muslim opinion, now amounts to antisemitism.

[1] In 2006, 81% said that they would not mind electing a Jew as President of the Republic, an all-time high figure since 1946, when the first surveys about antisemitism were published.

[2] Survey by CSA Institute (2009).

Téléchargez Jean-Yves Camus, « Beyond the Republican Model : Antisemitism in France », Politics and resentment : antisemitism and counter-cosmopolitanism in the European Union, Lars Rensmann and Julius H. Schoeps dir., Brill, London, 2011, pp.277-306.