Jewish Political Studies Review 17:3-4 (Fall 2005)
This book’s title translates as “The Lost Territories of the (French) Republic.” It refers to the breakdown of law and order in various domains of French society. This manifests itself, for instance, in the fear of the police to enter certain areas in and around major cities throughout the country. These no-go areas are largely populated by North African immigrants and their descendants. Many are Arabs, others Berbers.
Brenner (a pseudonym) and his collaborators describe and analyze this breakdown in one segment of French society: parts of the school system where anti-Semitism, racism, and sexual discrimination have appeared and often have not been appropriately dealt with by teachers and the authorities. The “lost territories” increased further under the Jospin government consisting of Socialists, Communists, and Greens, which was defeated in the 2002 elections. Since then, the UMP (Gaullist) government has been trying to recover part of what has been lost. This, however, is difficult because the situation has already greatly deteriorated.
One measure that has been taken is the forbidding of wearing the Muslim headscarf, as well as Christian and Jewish symbols, in the schools. However, in schools with large Muslim majorities other groups have sometimes already been so intimidated that they try to hide their identity.
In addition to three essays, the book contains testimonies by teachers describing many cases of extreme, mainly Muslim, racism. The first edition, which was published in 2002, dealt with the situation under the left-wing government. The second edition also contains additional testimonies. An English extract dealing with anti-Semitism in French schools has been published under Brenner’s real name – Georges Bensoussan, a well-known Jewish historian who has also written on the Shoah.1
Breaking a Taboo
When the book first came out, it helped break a major taboo and started to undermine many prevailing French myths. The politically correct view was that only white people can be racists, whereas Muslims and blacks are victims. This postcolonial mindset has been particularly strong in France. The disadvantage of members of these communities manifests itself nowadays in their relatively high unemployment in France. Brenner does not deny that some of the Muslims are social victims, but points out that this does not place them beyond the law, particularly when their acts have a pogromlike character.
The book shows that in the Muslim community there are many cases of extreme racism that democratic society, if it functions properly, should not tolerate. Currently one of the most outspoken systematic promoters of anti-Semitism in France is a black comedian named Dieudonné. In an appearance on state-owned television, he dressed up as an Orthodox Jew and made the Hitler salute. He now repeats this in appearances for thousands of spectators.
Among many in the Muslim community there are also other extreme antidemocratic attitudes, such as the religious intimidation of other Muslims and in particular, women. It is still commonly believed that radicals, also called Islamists, account for at most about 5 percent of European Muslims. Brenner’s book illustrates, however, that the resulting problems are more widespread. This became evident during the first elections for the representative body of the French Muslim community, the French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM). The Union of Islamic Organizations in France (UOIF), which is close to the radical Muslim Brotherhood, came out as the largest faction.
Disgust for French Society
The testimonies indicate the serious plight of French democracy. Many teachers close their eyes to the violence, intimidation, and racism. Others describe the perpetrators as “hooligans” or “hoodlums,” in denial of the fact that there are elements in the French Muslim community as well as foreign television stations that systematically incite against others. Other teachers try to maintain “social peace” by appeasing the bullies and withholding sympathy from their victims.
The schools’ attitudes broadly reflect those of the left-wing government and the previous political position of President Jacques Chirac. During three years of major anti-Semitic incidents, he denied that there was anti-Semitism in France. Only after yet another arson attempt against a Jewish institution in November 2003 did Chirac decide to change his stance.
The cases described are not limited to Jewish victims. Some Christian pupils are so intimidated by the Muslim majority in their classes that they have considered converting to Islam. Teachers are harassed as well. Some Muslim pupils expressed their joy about 11 September, and Bin Laden is a hero to them. It would be a mistake to think that the hatred focuses exclusively on Jews and Americans; the Muslims’ main disgust is for the French and French society.
Beyond the many stories of violence, threats, insults, and other harassment, there are other major problems in the schools. The testimonies mention teacher-arsonists who introduce politicized views of the Middle East conflict. This should not be too surprising. Brenner notes that in January 2002 when the major anti-Semitic eruption in France had already been going on for well over a year, Socialist Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine implied understanding for the Muslim violence against Jews stating: “One doesn’t necessarily have to be shocked that young Frenchmen of immigrant origins have compassion for the Palestinians and are extremely excited seeing what is happening.”
Fireman and Arsonist
The current French government can best be described as pursuing a fireman-arsonist policy. Since President Charles De Gaulle adopted pro-Arab positions after the Six Day War, French governments have carried out many discriminatory acts against Israel. They have also persuaded other European countries to support highly biased anti- Israeli resolutions at the United Nations. While this continues unabated, the French government simultaneously fights – with insufficient resources – against anti-Semitism. Many experts consider that the two approaches are contradictory and incompatible. In recent years, French Jewish schools have seen an influx of Jewish pupils who want to escape the threats in the public schools with their many North African pupils. The same applies to Jewish teachers. The book mentions some examples of pupils who have left their schools after extreme harassment by Muslims. Although the risk of a Jew being physically attacked in France is tens of times larger than for a Muslim, the myth persists that domestic Islamophobia is more dangerous than anti-Semitism.
Had this book been published in English, its international impact would have been much larger because it exposes in such great detail the smokescreen the French authorities have used for such a long time to conceal the anti-Semitism. In France, Brenner’s work had some impact. Observers say this could not have been achieved had the lead author used his own Jewish-sounding name rather than an uncommon pseudonym.
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1. Georges Bensoussan, “Antisemitism in French Schools: Turmoil of a Republic,” Analysis of Current Trends in Anti-Semitism, No. 24 (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 2004), 46 pp.