Unchecked anti-semitism

France's adherence to its republican ideals has left it blind it to its most pressing problems.

Published August 3, 2004 1:49PM (EDT)

Followed closely by a battery of mainly foreign TV cameras, a chartered El Al jet took off from Paris this week carrying some 200 French Jews emigrating to Israel.

The event attracted zero attention in France because it was not news: each year for the past couple of years, some 2,000 French Jews have made the same journey (the number is rising, but remains pretty insignificant compared to the size of the community, estimated at 600,000).

It attracted substantially more attention abroad, mainly because of remarks by the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who said earlier this month that French Jews should flee their country for his as a matter of urgency, to escape "the wildest anti-semitism".

France, its politicians, its commentators, even its Jewish leaders, was outraged by Mr Sharon's comments (made, it should be said, to an audience of visiting American Jews who thoroughly approved, the American Jewish community being seemingly convinced that life in France is unbearable for anyone in a skull-cap).

There are probably many reasons why Mr Sharon chose to say what he said, few of which have anything much to do with anti-semitism in France and many more to do with Israel's failure to keep its stream of immigrants flowing.

But, when it responds to provocative comments by Israeli prime ministers and when it beats its collective breast so fiercely about anti-semitism (as President Chirac did this month in a magnificent speech on the racist attacks "soiling" the country, and as the whole nation did a few days later after what turned out to be an imaginary attack on a young woman by six Arab youths), France is missing the target.

That is not to say that France does not have a problem with anti-semitism; it does. There are three main kinds of anti-semitism here. There is the old, ingrained, Catholic kind, those unspoken and unchallenged assumptions that put Captain Dreyfus on Devil's Island and that still produce, in polite conversations at middle-class dining tables, the kind of remarks you would never hear in London or New York.

A new kind is also perceived by the Jewish community, that of the intellectual left, the Rive Gauche penseurs, whose anti-Israeli polemics are interpreted, by extension and by association, as in essence anti-semitic.

And thirdly, there is the nastiest, the most violent and the most visible kind: the anti-semitism of disaffected youths, mainly of north African origin. This is partly unthinking, knee-jerk violence, a half-baked spin-off of the intifada - the number of attacks on Jews in France follows almost exactly the same curve as the bloodshed in the Middle East. Mixed up in the motivation, too, is all the resentment, frustration and envy of an underprivileged group prompted by the perceived advantages of another.

The common consensus is that this last kind of anti-semitism is responsible for almost all of the recent anti-semitic physical and verbal assaults registered against Jews in France: 510 in the first six months of 2004, up from 593 in the whole of 2003.

But this consensus view cannot be backed up with statistical evidence, because in France there are no statistics to show exactly how many attacks on Jews are carried out by angry and disadvantaged Muslim youths. In fact, there are no statistics to show how many Jews there are, or how many Muslims. And that, in itself, is an indication of where the real problem lies.

For it seems to me that the real racial and religious problem in France, the real time-bomb quietly ticking away at the heart of 21st century French society, is not anti-semitism, but France's absolute failure, over the past 50-odd years, to properly integrate its Muslim community (estimated, and only estimated, at 5-6 million strong).

France has created a genuine racial underclass, disadvantaged and discriminated against daily in terms of housing, education and employment, living in those decaying, crime-ridden, immigrant-filled, out-of-town sink estates in which France has sadly come to specialise. And until France understands this, it will not able to address what lies behind its intensifying climate of anti-semitism.

The problem of failed Muslim integration in France is made 100 times worse by the nation's profound inability to recognise it. The very principles of the Republic - the watchwords of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity that have supposedly governed this country for more than 200 years - prevent it from doing so.

For the most sacred article in all France's grand republican and secular creed is the principle that everyone is equal and indistinguishable in the eyes of the state: no matter where they come from, all French citizens are identical in their Frenchness. In the much-vaunted "Republican model of integration", all immigrants go through the Gallic mill, shedding their ethnic and religious differences and emerging as shining new French citizens. In theory.

In practice, this explains why France cannot say, and does not know, how many citizens it has who are of north African origin, or who are Muslim, or who are Jewish. For the purposes of the Republic, it simply does not matter.

It explains too why France does not know how many children of its north African immigrants leave school without useful qualifications, or fail to get a job. (Only unofficial reports are available, for example, to show that unemployment among 20 to 29-year-olds of north African origin is currently up around 40%, against 10% for youths of French origin.)

It also explains why France cannot make any attempt to introduce programmes of positive discrimination; make extra resources - in education, for example - available for specific ethnic groups; encourage companies to hire north African staff; make sure there are Arab presenters on TV and Arab politicians in the national assembly; undertake what is really needed: a massive, society-wide effort to raise the status of an entire community.

To do so would be to reject part of the very bedrock of France, to admit that the Republic has, quite simply, failed 6 million of its citizens. For those 6 million, there may be a fair whack of fraternity, but it is true to say that there is precious little liberty and far, far less equality.

Few French people, of course, and even fewer French politicians, are prepared to acknowledge this horrifying hypothesis. (Typically, one of the very few who has is the hyper-realistic young presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy.) Unless and until they do, France's recent upsurge in anti-semitic violence looks like just the tip of a potentially disastrous iceberg.

It is, in secular France, a heretical notion indeed, that the grand founding ideals of the nation are now obstructing its progress, blinding it to its biggest problems, preventing it from addressing its most critical issues. But that is, I believe, the case. Anti-semitism is, to use a common French phrase, the tree that hides the forest.

By Jon Henley

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