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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Perverse Logic of French Politics

Filed under: Europe and Israel, World Jewry
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 479      June 2002

Delegitimizing Jewish Citizenship in France

Today the Jewish community in France finds itself in a completely new social and political situation, which could represent a turning point in its history.

There are a number of external factors that have contributed to the creation of a public image that does not really reflect the daily experience of most Jews. However, they cannot ignore or disassociate themselves from it because of its strong influence. (Internal factors have also contributed just as much to this image, but we will not analyze them here.) This image stems from events in the Middle East that have deeply influenced religion and culture in France.

The situation is best exemplified by the anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish communities of France provoked by North African groups in reaction to Middle East events. There were around 450 anti-Semitic assaults between autumn 2000 and spring 2002. Yet for over a year the media and the authorities implemented an incredible news blackout on discussion of these attacks. This blackout, coupled with the pro-Palestinian bias of the media and public opinion, created a feeling of helplessness and abandonment within the Jewish community. When the community expressed its uneasiness, it faced adversity and misunderstanding. It found itself accused of anti-Arab racism every time it tried to alert global society. The general public in France has remained unaware of the real causes of this uneasiness. Reports of anti-Semitic attacks offered an opportunity for criticism by the press, which condemned the Jewish community for withdrawing into itself. Some Jewish intellectuals even charged the community with being responsible for the situation.

These developments signify a growing instability in the status of Jews as French citizens. As their safety appears to be in greater jeopardy, there is no protest from society at large and the government seems indifferent. The authorities behave merely as spectators, distancing themselves from the tension stemming from what they perceive as an external conflict between “two immigrant communities” that are perceived as foreign to France.

Such an interpretation is made plausible by earlier, similar responses. For example, during the Gulf War in 1991, Francois Mitterand, the President of France, hypocritically congratulated “both communities” for their restraint during that trying period, causing the Jews to be regarded in the same way as the Arab-Islamic community, whose members were once (and still are to a great extent) nationals of foreign countries — recent immigrants.

Unfortunately, this image has become strongly fixed in the public mind and implies the unobtrusive denationalization of the Jewish community of France. This jeopardizes, de facto, Jews’ citizenship. It deprives them of being considered truly French, an attitude morally reinforced by the stigmatization of Israel.1

To understand the causes and the consequences of the present situation and to explain how so many elements are linked, let us review the background and identify the underlying problems.

Our analysis is based on the following argument: even if the current situation was produced by external elements, its social basis is to be found in recent French history and politics. Therefore, the situation has a dual foundation that is both national and international.

The Metastasizing of Human-Rightism

The first riddle to solve is, obviously, how did it come about that the French Jewish community was transformed into a “community of immigrants” who are considered to be of foreign origin and not French nationals. To do so, we have to go back to the 1980s and the end of socialism in France, which the Left (in power) ratified by choosing a “policy of economic and social stringency” which was at variance with the Socialist Party program. This pragmatic turn of events challenged the ideological ideals and hopes that the Left had once represented and which had been the most powerful source of its influence. Hope had always been found on the Left in French postwar culture.

In order to reduce the political anemia produced by such a decision, Francois Mitterand revived the “anti-fascist front” strategy that had previously worked so well for the socialists/communists. Since the appointed enemy, that was artificially created, was the National Front of Jean Marie LePen and its racist ideology, it had to be opposed in the name of well-accepted “human rights.” Juridical in concept, this became an ideological cause that served partisan interests. This use of human rights as a political weapon is what we call “human-rightism.”

Fifteen years of French policy were organized around this axis. During those years, the Right was crushed between the extremes activated by Francois Mitterand and could not achieve power. Democratic forces were invited to join this front, while the Right was hesitant to enter into a coalition with extreme Right forces in the parliamentary elections. (In France, the electoral system is based on a two-ballot majority system which in many constituencies often requires local coalitions.)

The Jewish community was strongly attracted to the debate on human-rightism (to promote humanitarian causes or to claim the right to interfere in the affairs of other states for moral reasons). As the heir to the Holocaust martyrology and the classic victim of anti-Semitism, the Jewish community was called upon to serve as the moral guarantor of such a human-rights policy. At the same time, the Holocaust and the heritage of Vichy began to become part of the political debate. The past victimization of the Jewish community became a precious asset that legitimized the policy of the Socialist Party. The Jewish community and its associations were asked very strongly to support human-rightism, and they responded positively. Associations such as SOS Racisme (Association Against Racism) were born with great assistance from the Union of Jewish Students of France (UEJF). Research has shown that UEJF was dependent on the Socialist Party. These associations played an important part in the creation of a public opinion that replaced its old “third-worldism” with a flamboyant human-rightism.

“Jews = Immigrants”

Following this, the famous SOS Racisme equation “Jews = immigrants” became the slogan of the politically inexperienced youth. This equation involved the ideological synthesis of the Jew, the victim of the Holocaust and Vichy, with the immigrant, the victim of racism and the target of the National Front. Therefore, the emotions created by the Holocaust and the guilt born from association with the German Occupation became part of the image of the immigrant. All the Jewish symbols were ideologically confiscated to serve the immigrant cause. The lessening of the Jew’s national status was the result of this rewriting, in which the Jew was identified with the immigrant: he was viewed as more immigrant than the immigrants, becoming an archetype.

This was the start of a perverse logic, and we have recently witnessed the latest of its developments. The evolution of this logic can be divided into a number of steps.

The Holocaust and Vichyism became the epitome of the racism that had to be fought and of which the Jews were the moral witnesses. Therefore, the stigma of anti-Semitism became in itself a motive to fight against anti-immigrant racism, even though the Jews were not actually threatened at that time. One could get the impression that they were exaggerating when they raised the danger of anti-Semitism without any reason. Then there was also an undue confusion between xenophobia and anti-Semitism — which according to all historians has its own specific tradition.

In fact, this symbolic transformation was much more complex and long-term. Human-rightism used an exaggerated image of the Jew as an example. It depersonalized the Jews, sacrificing their uniqueness and legitimate interests for the good of mankind. By becoming a model, the Jews were excluded first from their own history and then from history in general. The consequences of this did not appear before the 1990s, when that same human-rightism, so sensitive to the tragedy of the Holocaust, began to stigmatize the singularity of the Holocaust and the selfish exploitation of the Jewish community’s identification with it.2

The Question of National Identity and the Headscarf Case

The equation “Jew = immigrant” was inverted with the “headscarf” (hidjeb) case,3 which provided an opportunity for indirect criticism of immigration. Some Islamic girls wanted to wear the headscarf in school, and not take part in certain classes (sports, biology), even though the French school system is supposed to be totally secular. France became divided into two camps, with the anti-headscarf side in the majority. The excessive reaction of public opinion to the headscarf case leads one to think that something else was really happening. It had less to do with the actual headscarf than with the national identity of a France confronted by immigration, and the expression of an identity that was threatening to the nation.

Then an additional factor, religion, was added to the equation by the opponents of the headscarf, which supplied them with the politically-correct opportunity and terminology to demonstrate in the name of anti-clericalism (which was mistaken for secularism) as well as anti-racism. Implicitly and indirectly, they were defending the national character of France. On the strength of the SOS Racisme equation, to make things equal, it was thought justified to devalue, without reason, Jewish symbols at school (kippa, Star of David, respect for religious holidays) that had never caused a problem. Then, to make things even more equal, an opposition appeared against “the united front of religions” (including Christianity), a phantasm that incarnated the alleged threat against the secular republic, so that criticism of the headscarf could not be considered anti-Arab. Jewish intellectuals were strongly encouraged to participate in this as well.

In fact, a subliminal message was sent to the immigrants in the name of the universal equality promoted by the secular republic, ordering them to renounce their national (foreign) identity in order to melt into France. Nobody actually spoke about national identity, although this was the real issue hidden behind the banner of secularism. Perhaps this was because the extreme Right had monopolized national identity.

The equation “Jews = immigrants” may also have blocked any national definition of the problem because, in the past, anti-Semitism and nationalism had excluded the Jews from French national identity. Thus, the synthesized image of the immigrant-Jew would have blocked the legitimate use of national identity because of the influence of the anti-Jewish past of Vichy, as if the past prevented looking at the question of immigration in terms of national identity.

It helps to understand the source of the resentment in public opinion that, in this instance, could have accumulated secretly and unconsciously against the Jews. There was a process that led to the symbolic substitution of the Jewish community for the immigrant community in the terminology concerning immigration, as will be discussed below.

In any case, the question of immigration was set in terms of religion in order to hide a political and national reality. The real problem was that immigration was not dealt with as the national problem that it is: the integration of a large foreign population into a society with a specific morphology and identity, that now has to redefine itself. Instead, it was dealt with as a religious problem.

Politically-Correct Terminology

The synthesis with the symbolic position of the Jews became the moral guarantor for the immigrants, and the fight against anti-Semitism was extended to protect the immigrants against anti-Arab racism. Thus, a terminology that had lost any connection to reality began to be used, and in the end became part of the accepted way of thinking. A language substitution developed which allowed the problem of immigration to be confronted indirectly through the symbol of the Jew.

This was useful in two ways. Since the symbol of the Jew was known and totally integrated into the culture and speech of contemporary France, using it to speak to the immigrants translated what would otherwise seem like an unclear and opaque reality into one that was understandable and familiar. The Jewish symbol played the part of a language of mediation. It was thought that there was no danger in doing so, because discrediting anti-Semitism protected the Jews.

Thus, a double “republican” language that was politically correct began to be used. In fact, from that moment, “republican” meant “national.” It was no longer a question of “Arabs” (as if the term was insulting; just as “Jew” had been used as opposed to “Israelite” in the past), but rather “North Africans,” “immigrants,” “suburbs.” This euphemistic terminology was in itself a sign of the uneasiness felt in dealing with the issues involved. When one spoke of “suburbs,” “rudeness,” “insecurity,” “rebel youth,” or “little savages” (according to former Minister of the Interior Jean Pierre Chevenement), everyone knew what it meant. Indeed, this euphemistic language expressed the will not to use the same language as the worst enemies of the immigrants and extreme Right racism. However, the consequences of using such indirect language made the Jews the safety valve for a problem that has still not been solved in French society: the integration of a large immigrant population. Since French society was unable to face the problem, this accepted use of Jewish symbols as a safe outlet attracted to the Jews what no one had the courage to say to the immigrants.

Reversing Politically-Correct Terminology

Since the second intifada, the disastrous consequences of such a development can be measured at every level. A reversal of the symbolic meaning of the Jew took place. What had been an implied symbolic language convention started to be taken as reality by those who used it. This first occurred with French Islam. The recent attacks against the Jewish community gave an opportunity to actually show how circles within the Islamic community relate to the Jewish community as a rival. According to them, the Jewish community benefits from “privileges” that their community does not have, even though the Jewish community is just as much an “immigrant community.”

In French society at large, the use of politically-correct language has confused a political debate that was built on a misunderstanding. Thus, the nation vs. immigrant conflict was hidden by the republic vs. religion conflict. When this conflict is dealt with in its national reality, priority is given to the republican-communal polarity as a way of avoiding the question of national identity. One has to remember that France has a very centralistic political culture. The “republic” is thought of as unique and all-encompassing, which includes within it only anonymous, individual citizens. Nothing is more illegitimate than an additional communal identity. Here, “communities” means those who see themselves outside of republican law. It is also a euphemistic term for referring to Islamism.

For the Jewish community, this comparison with the “community of immigrants” has removed its legitimacy in the collective consciousness. Placing it at the communal level has removed the national legitimacy that the Jewish community had rebuilt for itself after the war. The place of Judaism in France has nothing in common with the place of Islam. During the last two centuries, the Jewish community went through a process of modernization (the Napoleonic Sanhedrin) that transformed it deeply, a process unknown to Islam.

As for its national roots, the Jewish community is in no way an “immigrant” community. Assuming the memory of a collective fate, it was set up at the end of the war, in the 1950s, in order to put right the wrongs stemming from the national exclusion suffered by the Jews under Vichy and to restore a lost citizenship. The Council Representing the Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) was founded during the resistance movement in 1944, on the same wavelength of legitimacy as the CNR (National Council of Resistance).

According to the editorialists, the “Jewish (immigrant) community” seems to be made up of Jews coming from North Africa, who had settled in France since the 1960s. In actuality, the 120,000 Jews from Algeria, which was the most important community in North Africa in 1962, have been French since 1870, except, of course, during Vichy. This was well before numerous Jews living in France who arrived after World War I. When the Algerian Jews became French citizens, their history was irreversibly separated from that of the Islamic societies in which they lived, where Jews were second-class citizens who were kept in precarious conditions. From that point of view, to assimilate the Jewish community into an immigrant North African community that has recently arrived in France is the worst regression. It is like denying their choice of a century ago: they became French in order to leave the Islamic society where their status was less than desirable.

In parallel, while there has been such an unobtrusive denationalization, the fight against anti-Semitism and the exaltation of the memory of the Holocaust started to appear to certain groups as a sham, hiding shameful intentions, as a diverted and hidden statement of a Jewish communal identity.4

The second intifada has actually introduced an additional step in the history of Jewish symbolism in French politics: in immigrant circles, the symbolism of the Jew has now been turned against itself when speaking with French society. In the France-immigrant relationship, a conventional, politically-correct language is now used, this time in an unexpected way, in the opposite direction. Certain activists within the Muslim community are now using Jewish symbolism to communicate with French society and government.

The Consequences of the Weakened French Nation-State

This evolution can only be explained by introducing it into the geo-political framework of the internal French political situation. Obviously, this evolution has an impact on the different trends in the Right and the Left (for example, Jean Pierre Chevenement, a left-wing nationalist). The process of European unification also influences the internal situation. The structural foundation of the French political community is at stake with the development of a united Europe: a weakening of the state is obviously outlined since the state will be dependent on the European authority (still in formation). The French political community is already dependent on the European authority for legal conformity, and dependent on the European Court of Human Rights where a French citizen can appeal against the state’s decisions.

In France, the state led to the nation. In Germany, on the contrary, the nation and the culture brought about the state. They do not need its centralism, which is the reason why Germany can be more European than France. The centralism of the state is at the foundation of French political culture and it is challenged by the European Union. Political speeches have been delivered that oppose the threat to French independence of the European Union, by Charles Pasqua, President of RPR (Rassemblement Pour la Republique), a right-wing party, or by the radical republican Jean Pierre Chevenement. In fact, those two movements are only two variations of a neo-nationalism that is fighting on two fronts, inside for a united republic (not allowing Corsica or any “community” any autonomy or recognition), and outside against the European Union. Those holding this view feel threatened by regionalism and collective identities inside France. European unification establishes a level of identification above the state. By doing so, it disturbs the state’s primary status and automatically frees secondary entities such as regions and different kinds of “communities.”

This national republican trend practically meets another progressive trend, which fights the so-called negative effects of globalization. This trend does not fight for the republic or the nation, but rather seeks to restore the welfare state. Thus, it is also a fight for the continuation of the state.

The community sees its legitimacy challenged from the perspective of those two ideological and political trends, and it is challenged even more when it is combined with an immigrant population. In a rightist and nationalist setting, the Jewish community has become the object of a symbolic construction different from that of human-rightism: the Jews have come to symbolize the republic, the universality of the state, as opposed to ethnic identities: “Jews = republic” is the rightist counterpart to the slogan “Jews = immigrants.”

The Jew as a Model Citizen

This symbolism had very concrete consequences. “The immigrant Jew” became “the integrated Jew,” a successful model offered to immigrants who are not Jewish. The 190th anniversary of the Napoleonic Sanhedrin raised Jewish symbolism into a republican model to be offered to the immigrants. It was sponsored by the Consistoire (the original statewide authority established for French Jewry), and was celebrated by the President of France. (The entire matter was done with strange haste; it is normal for 200 years to pass before such a celebration is held.) For the occasion, the integration of the Jews into the republic, glorified in the speech of Jacques Chirac, was offered as a model to the immigrants. This haste has numerous causes, but the political situation at that time has to be mentioned: the Left compared the Debre laws restricting the entry of foreigners to the status of the Jews during Vichy.

The same symbolism, “Jews = republic,” was used in the immigration policy of Pierre Joxe when he encouraged the creation of the CORIF (Council Representing Islam in France), which is similar to the CRIF (Council Representing the Jewish Institutions in France), and even the creation of an Islamic “Consistoire.” It was as if he was offering a Jewish model to the Muslims. Such an action could have predictable consequences: it could only bring about jealousy and resentment by the Muslims. They were offered as a model Jews who, according to their cultural and religious heritage, are seen as a minority which should be ruled by Islam, and one which is also identified with Israel.

In France, Judaism had to meet the humiliating requirements of the state in order to receive state recognition. That was Napoleon’s goal when he summoned the Sanhedrin. Nothing similar has been required from French Islam. Yet it is necessary to do so for several reasons: Islam cannot distinguish between religion and politics. It does not have a tradition or a psychology of being a minority. It has known the process of modernization very superficially. Its religious authorities today are appointed and financed by foreign countries (Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco). But France today is not the powerful state that it was in Napoleon’s time.

Vichy — The Unacceptable Past

The tendency of the whole political class to hold up the Jewish community as a model or absolute reference for immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants, has its roots in Jewish martyrology, which has been a source of great legitimization in French politics since the 1980s. The terrorist attack at the Copernic Street synagogue in 1980, and the desecration of a Jewish grave in Carpentras, provoked large demonstrations supported by wide sectors of French society and politics. The reaction to these events provided an example of French thinking with regard to what these events symbolized, and were considered essential for France’s conscience and moral dignity.

This situation has its source in the repression during the German Occupation and the Vichy government as evidenced in the collective memory during de Gaulle’s period, i.e., before the socialists came to power. The almost alchemic reversal of the Jew from outcast to perfect citizen, from exclusion to absolute ideal, is typical of the phenomenon of sacredness, and it explains the ambivalence of a process which glorifies what Jews symbolize and crushes the Jews. Jacques Chirac gave a very colorful example of such a contrast: on one hand, he recognized French responsibility during Vichy. On the other hand, he made a scene during a visit to the Old City of Jerusalem when he criticized his Israeli bodyguards in a deliberate fit of temper. The confused interaction, so important for the French collective identity, between the problem of immigrants and what Jews symbolize in French politics, their being sacred, leads to a marginalization — a negation of the Jews as a specific reality.

As an ideal model, Jewish existence — when it becomes all too visible — is becoming an unbearable profanation of the sacred collective which was symbolized by the recognition of the Jewish condition as victim. At the level of the Jewish community as well as the State of Israel, the defense of legitimate interests can only harm their supposedly sacred character and create a scandal, an abomination. That is exactly what is happening to Israel, which has political interests to defend. That is what happened just before the second intifada, with unfavorable publicity relating to claims for compensation for suffering during the war. The exceptional impact in France of the pamphlet by Norman Finkelstein on “The Holocaust Industry”5 testifies to the blame that the Jewish community has experienced because of its fall from sacredness. This step is linked to another one we have experienced for over a year: the stigmatization of Israel as an expression of the boomerang effect of having made the Jews sacred.

The Real Question

Everyone understands that the present situation is, above all, very French in its meaning and reality, even if it is the result of outside events. It reflects the difficulties encountered by French society and politics when confronted with the natural sociological impact of mass immigration on their structures and routine. That is the reason why the National Front progressed to such an extent and became the axis of the political system. The political operations of Francois Mitterand, who deliberately inflated their importance, could only take place if they were based on this structural factor. Certainly, it is impossible to create a phenomenon out of nothing.

Here a national problem of collective identity is raised. This problem was not faced by offering a clear agreement to a newly arrived population. Rather, the problem was defined in religious terms: namely, the entrance of Islam (as a religion) into a secular society. The reduction of politics to religion shows the poor capacity of the French political culture to face such a situation. Its tendency to reduce the question of collective identity to religion represented the difficulty in recognizing and accepting the national dimension of the problem.

That is the reason why the Jews were asked to socialize the immigrant community. They are already citizens and at the same time they are a community. Their presence diminished the impact of the communal and foreign character of Muslims on the French system. The Jew was reduced to the position of a “good foreigner” who is a well-integrated citizen. Aside from the satisfaction that gave them, it was a sign that Jews were still seen as fundamentally foreigners, a patch on the French nation.

The part played by the Jews as the symbolic mediators in the political community is the axis of the present politically symbolic French system. It created a situation in which the discourse that French society could not have on Islam and the immigrant community could be had on Judaism and the Jewish community. All the collective anguish toward Islam is projected on Judaism as a mirror, and the exclusion of Islam is transferred to the Jewish community. This was proven by the events of October 2000, when dozens of anti-Semitic attacks occurred and French magazines started to criticize the Jewish community in haste and almost in a psychoanalytic way. There was better proof after the terrorist attacks in New York, when the press and the government took the place of the immigrant community to speak in its name, to defend Islam and to dissociate it from Islamism.

On this occasion, by comparison, any discourse on the matter by the Jewish community is absent — it has been repressed. The attacks suffered by the Jews were passed over in silence. At the same time, the incredible journalistic outpouring on the Middle East, which incited the anti-Semitic assaults in the suburbs, was not once muted.

The symbolism of the Jew in French politics may now be entering the next stage in its history. The operation of substitution is complete: the Islamic model has become the example of excellence, while the Jewish community is falling from its pedestal.

The ventriloquist exercise of the press and the government expresses unconsciously and dialectically a serious mistrust toward the Islamic community (which is less and less a community of immigrants). Meanwhile, the highest level of deception is reached when the image of the threatened Islamic community is presented, even when certain of its activists are threatening the Jewish community. No one ever recognized, admitted, or clearly condemned this situation, even the nebulous Islamic authorities.

The consequences of such a distortion of the public and political system of communication can be very serious because this dialectical subtlety, whose development was described here from the perspective of political sociology, is unknown to those who use it (public opinion and immigrants); they can take this switching of images and terminology seriously. In any case, the use of this terminology endangers the Jewish community, causing it to become the scapegoat for the unsolved problems of French society.

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1. The link between the image of Israel and the image of the French Jewish community is objectively shown by the aggressions against it.

2. For an analysis of the ideological and political trend which supports those ideas, see L’ideal democratique a l’epreuve de la Holocaust (The Democratic Ideal Tested in the Holocaust) (Paris: Odile Jacob Publishers, 1999).

3. In 1989, a movement in favor of wearing the headscarf (hidjeb) by young Muslim schoolgirls created a very strong public reaction. A national debate divided France in two. The secular and republican side, condemning the hidjeb, had an overwhelming majority. Afterward, the “Conseil d’Etat,” a kind of Supreme Court, allowed this custom, in principle.

4. See Trigano, L’ideal….

5. La Fabrique (The Holocaust Industry), 2001.