Last week in a southern suburb of Paris, three young thugs made international headlines with the sort of crime usually relegated to local police blotters. The threesome broke into a young couple's apartment, and after tying them up, ransacked the rooms and raped the woman. These acts, so vile in themselves, were nevertheless given a dismal twist by the hoodlums. They had not, they announced, chosen this apartment at random - they targeted the home because the couple was Jewish. As one of them explained: "You Jews, you have money."
Two of the alleged perpetrators were quickly caught. To its credit, the government was equally swift to condemn the crime. President Francois Hollande denounced this act of "intolerable violence," while Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that the "horror of Creteil is proof that the struggle against anti-Semitism is an everyday struggle." At a weekend rally in Creteil organized by the local Jewish community, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve joined the government chorus: "The French Republic will defend you with all its force, because without you, it would no longer be the Republic."
The crime revived memories of the appalling murder of Ilan Halimi, a French Jewish youth who was tortured and killed in 2006 by a group calling themselves "The Barbarians." The band, led by a Muslim immigrant from the Ivory Coast, had kidnapped Halimi because he was Jewish, believing that his family could pay a vast ransom. For this reason, Cazeneuve's declaration left his audience somewhat disappointed. From the historian's perspective, the statement also suggests the French Republic is already no longer what it once was. Not because such crimes are committed, nor because louts harbor such beliefs, nor even because this year has marked a sharp rise in anti-Semitic acts in France.
Instead, it is because the Republic's reasoning, captured in Cazeneuve's words, betrays the very same logic that led that those brutal youths to the apartment in Creteil.
Citizenship was supposed to trump ethnic background
This becomes clear when we recall the context in which the French republicanism was born: the Great Revolution. It was during this seismic event that Jews living on French soil became French citizens. As the revolutionaries of 1789 made clear, national identity had nothing to do with one's blood or ancestors, and everything to do with embracing the newly born nation's values, language and laws. It is the individual's rights, and not a particular group to which she belongs, that the First Republic, born in 1791, dedicated itself to defend. As the Count de Clermont-Tonnerre eloquently declared during the National Assembly's debate over whether to grant citizenship to Jews: "We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation, but grant them everything as individuals." They must, he continued, "make up neither a political body nor an order within the State; they must individually be citizens."
In principle, this was to be the case through the succession of five republics that have clattered across the stage of French history since the Revolution. Beckoned by the siren call of the Republic, French Jews gladly defined themselves as individuals - citizens who happened to be Jewish the way others happened to be Breton or blue-eyed. They willingly surrendered the particularities that made them Jewish in exchange for the abstract rights and duties of French citizenship. They even gave up the names Juif and Juive, too closely tied to their ghetto pasts, and instead began to identify themselves as Israélites.
Despite the great advances they made in politics, society and culture, French Israélites eventually discovered that for many of their fellow citizens, they would always remain Jews. From the Dreyfus Affair, when the "Jew Dreyfus" was shipped off to Devil's Island, to Vichy, when French officials stamped the words Juif and Juive on the identity cards of French Jews - thus facilitating their arrest and deportation to Auschwitz - it was other French, and not French Jewry, who redefined these men and women, undermining their self-identification as French citizens.
These spasms of anti-Semitism were resisted and eventually defeated by dedicated and sincere French republicans. When Jean Jaures, the great Socialist tribune, rallied his followers to Dreyfus' cause, he invoked the legacy of 1789. Rather than defining Dreyfus in terms of class or religion, Jaures instead saw him uniquely as a fellow human being: "He is no longer anything more than humanity itself, in the highest degree of misery and despair that can be imagined." Similarly, the 1944 Charter of the National Council of the Resistance saw no reason to single out the uniquely nightmarish experience of French Jews; instead, it declared its solidarity with the families of "all the victims of Hitler's and Vichy's terror."
Changing frameworks of identity
France's current iteration of republicanism, the Fifth Republic, has tried to hold fast to this austere conception of national identity. Its laws barring Muslim girls from wearing headscarves at school and Muslim women from wearing the niqab, or full-length veil, in public, flow from the Republic's belief in the sanctity of a single and secular public sphere. Yet just as history has repeatedly challenged French Jewry's long effort to think of themselves first as French, then as Jews, so too is it now testing the Republic's rejection of communitarianism - the ideological principle that one's identity is no less determined by ethnic, religious or linguistic background than it is shaped by the nation - which is dismissed as little more than American-style multiculturalism that will turn France into a collection of tribes.
No doubt the events in Creteil will stoke the long-simmering debate in France over the virtues and vexations of communitarianism. Yet, as Cazeneuve's phrase reveals, traditional republicanism has already begun to change. In 1980, following the Rue Copernic synagogue bombing, which killed four passers-by and wounded dozens of others, then-Prime Minister Raymond Barre famously declared that the terrorists, though targeting French Israelites, had instead struck "innocent Frenchmen and women."
Are Cazeneuve's well-meaning words, albeit in a bizarrely inverted fashion, an echo of Barre's remark? In effect, the well-meaning minister told his Jewish listeners in Creteil that, without her Jews, France would no longer be France. Yet a republican of Jaures' stamp, upon hearing such a claim, would have corrected him: France would no longer be France without men and women dedicated to the Republic's ideals. Moreover, he would continue, the Republic had to earn that dedication through laws and policies that gave all citizens not just formal rights, but also social and economic rights - rights, though enshrined in the 1944 Charter, that nevertheless strike a growing number of French citizens as little more than a fiction. The Republic is duty-bound to defend its citizens against crimes like that committed in Creteil, but it must also decide whether it does so because the victims are Jews or because they are French.