Jewish Political Studies Review 19:3-4 (Fall 2007)
The affair of a falsely reported anti-Semitic attack on a woman in a suburban Paris train station in 2004 greatly affected how French politicians and media deal with anti-Semitism. Initially, all voices condemned the incident as the “victim” gave dramatic details. The increase in anti-Semitic acts since 2000 lent credence to the supposed aggression. The revelation that the story had been fabricated was met with almost total political silence. The media focused on apologies to nonintegrated communities, the supposed source of the invented assailants. Three years later, in 2007, a real anti-Semitic attack in Marseilles did not receive any public attention. The precedent of the fabricated 2004 incident appears to have significantly harmed the fight against anti-Semitism.
Public attitudes toward anti-Semitic incidents in France have greatly fluctuated in the new century. From autumn 2000 when the new major wave of French anti-Semitism erupted, till the demise of the Socialist government in June 2002, the official attitude was to deny or minimize the severe verbal and physical assaults on Jews. Thereafter, the new UMP conservative government increasingly condemned anti-Semitic attacks.
The high point of official censure of such incidents came in July 2004 with the “RER D affair” (RER D is a Paris subway line), as the press referred to it. A young non-Jewish woman falsely claimed that she had been attacked in an anti-Semitic incident on a suburban train in the Paris area by members of minority communities. Before the incident was discovered to be a fake, it was widely denounced by many French politicians. This case not only had negative fallout for the politicians who censured it but also for the Jewish community in view of the substantial decrease and toning down of reactions to anti-Semitic incidents thereafter.
A comparison between the RER D affair and an April 2007 anti-Semitic attack in Marseilles during the recent French presidential election campaign reveals major differences in attitudes of official actors. The RER affair sparked important political and media reactions and strong condemnations of anti-Semitism until it was proven false. It also received wide international media coverage. The Marseilles attack was hardly discussed in regional newspapers though its anti-Semitic nature seemed to be evident.
The Marseilles Attack
On 26 April 2007, Audrey Brachelle was attacked by two young men, whom she described as Middle Eastern looking, in the parking lot of the La Rose train station in Marseilles. The assault began as a simple robbery and became an anti-Semitic incident when the assailants noticed the victim wore a Jewish Chai necklace. They hit her in the head, cut her hair, slashed her T-shirt with a knife, and drew swastikas on her bare chest.
There were few reactions in the media. The regional press insisted that the police had first to find out the truth. Articles also mentioned the embarrassing RER precedent in 2004, which taught journalists and politicians to be careful about unconfirmed information. The victim’s case will probably never receive proper attention.
The RER Assault Described by the Victim
Understanding the 2007 situation requires examining how the RER case affected political and media behavior toward anti-Semitism. On 9 July 2004, a young woman who became known as Marie L. declared to the police that she was assaulted on a Paris suburban train between the stations of Louvres and Sarcelles with her thirteen-month-old baby by six young men whom she described as Arabs and blacks.
The attack, according to Marie L., consisted of sequential steps. It started as a simple robbery, the assailants telling her to keep looking down the whole time. Then she said the assailants, after searching her wallet, found an ID indicating she used to live in the wealthy XVIth district in Paris. She said one of them shouted: “Only Jews live there!”
The assailants then allegedly beat her, cut her hair, and ripped her clothes with a knife. They then drew three swastikas on her stomach and knocked over the stroller with her baby in it. Marie L. concluded her testimony by asserting that twenty witnesses who were sitting nearby did not even react during the assault.
Indignation and Condemnation: Officials, Institutions, and the Media
As soon as the affair was publicized in the media many senior politicians, as well as media and associations or institutions dealing with human rights, racism, and anti-Semitism, made strong condemnations of what had happened. These reactions started on 10 July soon after an announcement at 7:40 p.m. by the AFP (Agence France-Presse) that “6 men of Arab origin violently assaulted a 23-year-old woman thought to be Jewish in a Paris suburban train.”
Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin was the first government official to condemn the aggression at 9:55 p.m., followed at 10:10 p.m. by President Jacques Chirac who said he was “horrified by this odious attack and that everything should be done to find the perpetrators of this shameful act in order to be tried and sentenced with the severity required.”
The expressions of indignation continued until 12 July. On 11 July there was a succession of statements from high-level politicians and organizations: Philippe Douste-Blazy (the then minister of health), Bertrand Delanoë (the Socialist mayor of Paris), Marie-George Buffet (the first secretary of the Communist Party), LICRA (the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism), the president of the SNCF (the French National Society of Railways), François Bayrou (the leader of the UDF centrist party), Ségolène Royal (the Socialist politician and later presidential candidate), and others. Roger Cukierman, then president of CRIF, the umbrella organization for Jewish institutions in France, suggested on French radio that “imams should start spreading the Good Word.”
On 12 July, the Communists organized a march against “barbarism, anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia” in Paris with about three hundred participants. Meanwhile the press was unanimous in condemning the attack with headlines such as: “RER: Revolting Attack” (Le Parisien), “The Train of Hatred” (Le Figaro), “Assaulted in Front of Passive Passengers” (Libération), “Wretched and Idiot” (France Soir), and “Attack on the RER Causes National Emotion” (La Croix).
Nicole Guedj, deputy minister for victims’ rights, was meanwhile in constant contact with Marie L., whom she described as being in shock. Guedj’s government position was created in 2004 and existed until 2005 under the authority of the Justice Ministry. The press presented her as the emotional representative of the government whenever there was a new victim. Therefore she was a key player in the RER affair, the more so as she had been actively involved in the Jewish community.
Doubts ex Machina
As the police investigation proceeded, inconsistencies in Marie L.’s testimony began to appear, especially after 12 July because of information received from Synergie, a police trade union. She initially stated that she had told her story to a certain staff member of the train station, but it was soon discovered that this person did not exist. Furthermore, no witnesses called the emergency phone number especially created to gather testimonies.
The only testimony collected was that of a young man who said he saw the “victim” enter the train with ripped clothes. Finally, no clues could be found on the station security cameras, as neither the stroller thrown on the platform nor any group of six fleeing the scene was seen. Police also were puzzled by the victim’s attitude during her deposition, feeling that she was very insecure and unstable. On 13 July, Marie L. finally admitted she had invented the whole story.
Marie L.’s Profile: Lies and Symbolism
As soon as the truth was established, the police as well as the media became more interested in Marie L.’s background. How could this “wannabe Jewish victim drive France crazy”? This young woman had planned every detail having ripped her clothes, hurt herself with a knife, cut her hair, and enlisted her boyfriend to help her draw swastikas on her stomach.
When questioned, the boyfriend told police he had complied because he was in love with her. Moreover, the baby had a head injury but it was not established how this had happened. The credibility of Marie L.’s version was enhanced by the fact that two medical examinations confirmed her injuries.
On 13 July, a close friend of Marie L.’s family gave an interview in Le Figaro revealing that she was certain Marie had made up the story, even before the police investigation confirmed it. She explained that the young woman’s story was no surprise to her and described her as a persecution maniac. She had already made five or six complaints to the police for robbery or rape. The friend said Marie tended to live through others vicariously and present herself as a victim. Madame X, as the article referred to her, also mentioned the similarities between an actual anti-Semitic attack and Marie’s testimony. In the actual incident, a man was initially attacked in a simple robbery but when the Star of David he was wearing emerged from his shirt, the assailants started insulting and beating him. The victim required hospitalization for a substantial time.
Even though Marie L.’s deposition was based on falsities, it is interesting to consider its symbolic content, which consists of several elements. According to her, the assailants made her look down the whole time to enhance the humiliation of the attack. She said they were Arab and black people, perceived within French society as nonintegrated minorities. At that time there was an even greater impact since on the eve of the “assault” President Chirac delivered a strong speech against racism and anti-Semitism.
Two other symbols involve the “victim’s” body. She claimed that the assailants cut her hair with a knife, which could have many meanings or historical implications, all somehow related to the idea of impurity. Finally, the swastikas are the strongest indication of an anti-Semitic attack whoever actually drew them. According to a philosopher, Marie’s version of the story is no coincidence: what she describes is the mirror of her fears and probably represents concerns shared by French society.
Social Significance of the RER Affair
The content of Marie L.’s testimony reflects many realities and perceptions of French society. Commenting on the attack on 10 July, Noël Mamère, a Green Party parliamentarian and its presidential candidate in the 2002 elections said that “when societies are ill, the Jew is always presented as the scapegoat of our own fears.” Marie’s fabrication confirms the importance of common clichés about Jews. By telling the police her assailants assumed she was Jewish because she previously lived in a wealthy area of Paris and that one of them had said “only Jews live there,” she expressed the commonly held belief that Jews are prosperous and live in closed communities. Moreover, the story she made up also shows that she thinks Jews could be persecuted for that reason.
The interesting point is that her version was initially validated by official institutions including the police, the president and the government, the media, and many civil society representatives. Her story indicates that Arab and black minorities represent a threat to any French citizen in the form of random attacks in public places and gang attitudes.
The great impact of what she described stemmed from the fact that all of it is conceivable in today’s France. This is no surprise. The historian Marc Bloch explains that errors, lies, and distortions of history are common and are more prevalent at certain times. When society is more ready to hear them, their impact becomes greater. As a result, such historical errors “become the mirror in which collective consciousness contemplates its own countenance.” Thus, French society was able to receive and react to Marie’s story because it was close enough to the society’s perceptions on such matters.
The strong condemnation by many institutions and personalities shows that anti-Semitism is both a critical and emotional theme in France’s public discourse. There is a clear need for quick and forceful statements against it; otherwise it might harm the French ideology of integration. But this, as underlined by the RER affair, can foster rapid reactions without confirming the information. Although in this case medical examinations supported the “victim,” the fact that the story relied solely on her testimony was not taken into account.
Bloch also maintains that lies or spreading inaccurate information in society implies the expectation of profit for one of the actors involved. As noted, on the eve of the “event” President Chirac gave an important speech about increasing anti-Semitic and racist acts in France. Marie’s “attack” became an opportunity to illustrate how relevant the issue was.
The RER affair and its aftermath point to some developing trends in French society concerning anti-Semitism. On the one hand, the faked incident harmed the fight against real anti-Semitism. It reinforced the mistaken belief that increased media focus on anti-Semitism is the result of Jewish manipulation. The incident also seemed to enable politicians and the media to show how righteous they are in competing for the moral high ground. On the other hand, the results of the RER affair comforted Arab and black communities. When the truth emerged, all newspapers apologized to them and emphasized their plight of exclusion from French society.
The long-term perception can thus be summarized: Jews get too much credit and sympathy-which is unjustified from the viewpoint of French society-whereas Arabs and blacks, not being integrated, are victims of the system. This in turn leads to a two-part conclusion. First, Jews are now considered an integrated community in France that can provoke jealousy among nonintegrated communities. Second, Arab and black victimization is a tool for the supporters of France’s integration ideology to claim that these communities are discriminated against and for those communities to conceal anti-French feelings.
The 2007 Marseilles incident indicates that the purported RER attack has led the French political leaders and media to take a much more cautious approach to condemning events as anti-Semitic, even when that is clearly the case.
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. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “The Autumn 2005 Riots in France: Their Possible Impact on Israel and the Jews,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2006, 25.
. Caroll Azoulay, “Chronique de l’antisémitisme ordinaire,” 27 April 2007, available at http://www.guysen.com/. [French]
. “Jewish Woman Attacked in Marseille Train Station,” Jerusalem Post, 4 July 2007.
. Yair Ettinger, “Ahead of Elections, France Refrains from Calling Incident Anti-Semitic,” Haaretz, 29 April 2007.
. “Y a-t-il eu agression antisémite?” 27 April 2007, available at http://www.laprovence.com/ [French]; “Police Very Cautious about Marseille Aggression,” 27 April 2007, available at www.ejpress.org.
. Ettinger, “Ahead of Elections.”
. “Violente agression antisémite dans le RER,” LeFigaro.fr, 11 July 2004. [French]
. Michel Zlotowski, “Non-Jewish Paris Woman Suffers Anti-Semitic Attack,” Jerusalem Post online, 11 July 2004.
. Jacky Durand et Patricia Tourancheau, “Violentée devant des passagers passifs ,” Libération.fr, 12 July 2004. [French]
. Piotr Smolar, “Récit d’un emballement parti du sommet de l’Etat,” Le Monde.fr, 15 July 2004. [French]
. Philip Carmel, “After Fake Anti-Semitic attack, Jews See Sympathy Turning into Criticism,” Global News Service of the Jewish People, 13 July 2004.
. “Dans la presse: violente agression du RER: les réactions,” CRIF, 12 July 2004. [French]
. Durand and Tourancheau, “Violentée devant.”
. Eric Aeschimann, “Des politiques champions dans la course à l’émotion,” LeMonde.fr, 14 July 2004. [French]
. “Nicole Guedj avocate,” 23 January 2004, available at http://www.fil-info-france.com/. [French]
. AFP, “RER D: ‘contradictions’ dans le témoignage de la victime (syndicat Synergie),” LeMonde.fr, 12 July 2004. [French]
. “Les six éléments qui ont fait basculer l’enquête,“ Leparisien.com, 14 July 2004. [French]
. Stéphane Albouy et Frédéric Naizot, “RER D: questions autour d’une agression,” Leparisien.com, 14 July 2004. [French]
. “French Woman Admits Making Up Train Drama,” The Star, 14 July 2004.
. Daniel Ben Simon, “Wannabe Jewish Victim Drives France Crazy,” Haaretz, 14 July 2004.
. Jacky Durand, “Fausse agression du RER: la dernière version de Marie L,” Libération.fr, 15 July 2004. [French]
. Interview of Marie-Christine Tabet by Gildas des Roseaux, “Marie-Léonie a l’habitude de raconter des histoires,” LeFigaro.fr, 13 July 2004. [French]
. Albouy et Naizot, “RER D.”
. Interview of François de Singly, “Cela témoigne de la dimension pessimiste de la modernité,” LeMonde.fr, 21 August 2004. [French]
. Catherine Coroller, “Une escalade ‘préoccupante,'” Libération.fr, 12 July 2004. [French]
. Durand et Tourancheau, “Violentée devant.”
. Bruno Mattei, “Un miroir tendu à la République,” Libération.fr, 20 July 2004. [French]
. AFP, “Affaire du RER. A savoir,” Libération.fr, 14 July 2004. [French]
. Ben Simon, “Wannabe Jewish Victim”; “La faute et le défi,” LeMonde.fr, 15 July 2004. [French]
. Marc Bloch, Apologie pour l’histoire ou le métier d’historien (Paris: Armand Collin, 1999), 105. [French]
. Ibid., 96.
. Cécilia Gabizon, “Forte hausse des actes xénophobes et antisémites,” LeFigaro.fr, 9 July 2004. [French]
. Caroline Cordier, “Les associations communautaires redoutent un recul de la mobilisation contre le racisme et l’antisémitisme,” LeMonde.fr, 14 July 2004. [French]
. Eric Aeschimann, “Des politiques champions dans la course à l’émotion,” LeMonde.fr, 14 July 2004. [French]
. Mustapha Kessous, “Amertume de jeunes Noirs et Arabes d’Aubervilliers après le mensonge de Marie L,” Lemonde.fr, 15 July 2004 [French]; Jean Chichizola, “La fausse affaire du RER D indigne des responsables musulmans, ” Lefigaro.fr, 15 July 2004 [French]; Ahmed Boubeker, “Les éternels coupables,” Libération.fr, 19 July 2004. [French]
. Farid Laroussi, “Le ravissement de Marie L.,” Lemonde.fr, 19 July 2004. [French]
. Boris Thiolay, “Juif, et alors?” L’Express.fr, 6 June 2005. [French] .
. Catherine Coroller, “Deux communautés indignées,” Libération.fr, 14 July 2004 [French]; Jean-Michel Thénard, “Le piège,” Libération.fr, 15 July 2004 [French]; “Notre histoire,” Lemonde.fr, 17 July 2004. [French]
. Gerstenfeld, “Autumn 2005 Riots,” 7-10.