How French Society Views the Jews

, December 15, 2009

No. 51

Interview with Shmuel Trigano

  • The way a country’s population views the Jews largely determines their position in its society. This is often far more important than the Jews’ own behavior. The French perception of the Jews is different from how the Jews see themselves. To a certain extent, everyone lives in his own mental sphere.
  • In France in the 1980s, rather suddenly the Holocaust replaced almost all of the Second World War history in collective memory. Thereafter the image of the Jew as the victim, the person with whom one should commiserate as a matter of principle became dominant. Today this role hardly survives.
  • Other roles for the Jews that have developed are as a positive model for the Muslim immigrants, an instrument for the authorities to maintain social peace, a witness to the tolerance of Muslims, or as whitewashers for French problems such as anti-Semitism.
  • The media’s obsession with Israel and the Jews is well evident on French television. It is not by chance that it was a French public television station, France 2, that created the al-Dura affair. The media’s anti-Israeli narrative leads to enmity against the Jews, who are placed in the role of the representatives of Israel. As a result, criticizing Israel and Jewish tribalism has become a key element of a successful career for some Jewish members of the cultural elite.

“The way a country’s population views the Jews largely determines their position in it. This is often far more important than the Jews’ own behavior. French society and the Jewish community often live in different mental spheres. In recent years, to be involved in Jewish life has become synonymous with communautarisme – a term with a negative connotation – and withdrawal. This was not the case before. French public opinion now sees the Jewish community as ambivalent toward national citizenship.”

Shmuel Trigano is professor of sociology at the University of Paris-Nanterre and a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is also director of the College of Jewish Studies at the Alliance Israélite Universelle.

He remarks: “The Jews in France have a symbolic role that results from their lengthy past in European civilization. This role was greatly influenced in the previous century by the Shoah and more recently by the large immigration of Muslims.

“In the immediate postwar years, an obscuring of the Shoah took place. Initially Gaullism ruled, which promoted the myth of the ‘resisting France,’ as if the majority of Frenchmen had actively opposed Vichy. The country’s authorities and elites had to conceal the fact that the Vichy government had come to power democratically as a result of a vote by the French parliament.”

The Jew as Victim

“That situation changed radically in the 1980s. Suddenly the Holocaust replaced almost all of the Second World War history in collective memory. That made the ‘Jewish question’ an extremely sensitive one. It started with a scandal over statements by Louis Darquier de Pellepoix. He had been commissioner for Jewish affairs under the Vichy regime. By fleeing to Spain Darquier escaped French postwar justice, which had condemned him to death.

“In 1978, he told the weekly L’Express that only lice had been gassed in Auschwitz and that the Jews were lying about what went on there. Thanks to this interview and the reactions it sparked, the Jews suddenly became the subject of both media and public debates.

“When Darquier gave his interview, the new perceptions of the Jews had not yet crystallized. That would happen only in the 1990s. The image of the Jew as the victim, the person with whom one should commiserate as a matter of principle became dominant in that decade. This image has been managed by state – rather than Jewish community – institutions such as the Museum of the Shoah Memorial and the Foundation for the Remembrance of the Shoah.

“What is nowadays remembered in this victim image is the human condition as it expresses itself in Jewish suffering. That is an ambivalent role. To be acceptable to the larger society, the suffering must be greatly de-Judaized. Many public personalities or educators say that transmitting the Shoah to the current generation requires stressing and valorizing its universal aspect. That means exposing barbarianism, inhumanity, and suffering in general.

“During the 1968 student riots in Paris, the slogan ‘We are all German Jews’ was used to defend one of the student leaders, Daniel Cohn Bendit, a German Jew. It meant, indirectly, that one identified with the victims of a  Nazi state. Twenty years later the saying  obtained a new connotation: ‘We identify with universalist, assimilated German Jews but not with Zionists and Jewish communautarians.'”

The Muslims: New Victims

“Since the second half of the 1980s, the role of the absolute victim in France has gradually mutated from the Jews to the mainly Muslim immigrants. Their condition is often publicly compared with that of the Jewish victims in the past. In the 1980s, one started to hear that when fighting against the extreme-Right racism of Jean Marie Le Pen and the general anti-Arab racism, one was combating anti-Semitism.

“This is the implicit meaning of the slogan ‘Jew equals immigrant.’ It was promoted by SOS Racisme, a movement established in 1984 under the direct influence of President François Mitterrand and his Socialist Party. A key contribution to it was made by the UEJF, the French Jewish student organization. One of its members, Julien Dray – nowadays a prominent Socialist politician – became the linchpin of SOS Racisme.

“The so-called Debré laws of 1997 – named after the interior minister, Jean Louis Debré – regulated the immigration and the status of foreigners. In demonstrations against these laws, some participants dressed up as camp prisoners. They wore striped pajamas and carried bags on their backs as if going toward the trains that would deport them to concentration camps. Those demonstrating and their supporters associated the fate of the immigrants as victims of French racism with that of the Jews as victims of the Shoah.”

A Model for Immigrants

“Thus developed yet another role for the Jews: as a positive model for the Muslim immigrants. French society perceived the Jews as an example of people who had successfully integrated into the country. This implied that the Jews were seen as immigrants. Yet the great majority of them were French citizens, including those who had come from Algeria. It was yet another example of the ambiguous position of Jews in French society.

“The Jews’ adaptation to French society through religious reform was used as yet another example for the Muslims. When the Socialist politician Pierre Joxe was interior minister (1988-1991), he attempted to create an organization of Muslims similar to the CRIF (the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France), the umbrella body of the country’s Jewish organizations. It was to be named Le Conseil Représentatif de l’islam de France (the Representative Council of Islam

Prof. Shmuel Trigano

Professor Shmuel Trigano is professor of sociology at the University of Paris-Nanterre . He is director of the College of Jewish Studies at the Alliance Israélite Universelle, editor of Pardes, a journal of Jewish studies. Prof. Trigano is also the founder of L'Observatoire du Monde Juif, a research center on Jewish political life.