Facing Up to Made-in-France Anti-Semitism
Has the time come for France to award a new appellation d’origine contrôlée? The coveted distinction is reserved for products uniquely tied to the geography of France, like wine from the Côtes du Rhône and cheese from Camembert. Could it also be applied on something less tangible, but nonetheless quite palpable -- namely, anti-Semitism?
One hundred and twenty-five years after the onset of the Dreyfus Affair, which served as the crucible for modern anti-Semitism, we must ask the question, if only because of recent events in France surrounding les gilets jaunes, or yellow vests.
The yellow vests are, of course, the protestors who have taken center stage -- or, more accurately, the center lanes of highways, boulevards and traffic circles -- in France since last November. Heaved into being by the government’s plan to raise the gasoline tax, they have morphed into a many-headed movement. Marked by a widespread sense of ras le bol, or deep dissatisfaction, many of the yellow vests have repudiated not just specific actions of the government, but also the government’s very legitimacy.
As this movement takes root in France’s political landscape, noxious weeds begin to grow alongside it. Beside the hundreds of rioters who delight in defying police, defacing monuments and destroying property, there have also appeared racist and anti-Semitic elements in the demonstrations. The occasional banner lambasting Macron as a “Jewish whore” and declaring that “Macron=Zion” have fluttered over demonstrators, while groups of yellow vests have photographed themselves giving la quenelle, a Nazi-inspired salute invented by Dieudonné, a comedian who has repeatedly been hauled into court for anti-Semitic remarks. After the police lobbed tear gas grenades at a group of rioters in late December in Paris, some of them shouted: “We are being gassed like Jewish sons of bitches.”
Even more alarmingly, several yellow vests surrounded the well-known writer and intellectual Alain Finkielkraut last weekend on a Paris boulevard. As they closed in the easily identified Finkielkraut, far better known than any American intellectual is to the general public, they slung obscenities like “Get out of here, you shitty Zionist” and “France Belongs To Us” at him. Fortunately, riot police arrived, drove a wedge through the group and escorted Finkielkraut to safety. Clearly shaken, he remarked: “I felt their utter hatred and, unfortunately, this was not the first time.”
Leaders across the political spectrum, with the notable exception of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, head of the extreme-left La France Insoumise, immediately denounced the attack. Yet these condemnations, though imperative, will prove impotent. The rebukes, after all, come from representatives of the same traditional political parties and institutions denounced by the yellow vests.
The circling of the political wagons perversely lends credibility to the conviction of many yellow vests that they face a vast conspiracy. One of the movement’s leaders, Maxime Nicolle -- who goes by the handle ‘Fly Rider’ -- alludes to mysterious global plots against an embattled French nation, describing the recent Marrakesh Treaty as a cover for 500 million refugees to slip into Europe.
There is a porous line between conspiratorial and anti-Semitic worldviews. This has long been the case in France, where anti-Semitism has erupted with the regularity and violence of Mount Etna. Just think of the bursts of lava from Edouard Drumont, author of the late 19thcentury’s best-selling Jewish France, and Charles Maurras, the prominent interwar intellectual who declared that Léon Blum, the country’s first Jewish prime minister, was a “man to be shot, but in the back.” Or the billows of ashes from Xavier Vallat, the Vichy minister in charge of Jewish Affairs, who proudly insisted that he was “an older anti-Semite” than was a visiting SS officer and the National Front’s founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who dismissed the Holocaust as a mere “detail.”
Anti-Semitism, in short, has long been the uncanny guest of French history.
Herein lies the potential danger of the yellow vest movement. Though their frustration and fears are real, their frenzy to de-legitimize republican institutions risks re-legitimizing anti-Semitic activities. If there is something rotten in the state of France, there must be a guilty party. If you cannot guess who that might be, you have not been paying attention to the recent past. In a study released last week by the Institut français d’opinion publique, 44 percent of gilets jaunesbelieve in the existence of a global Zionist conspiracy, as opposed to 22 percent of the general population. Moreover, even if the majority of yellow vests are not anti-Semitic, anti-Semites have them to thank for a growing safe space. That safe space has been occupied by violence. Last week, the Interior Ministry stunned France by announcing that the number of anti-Semitic attacks, verbal and physical, had risen by nearly 75 percent, from 311 in 2017 to 541 last year.
While history never repeats itself, it does like to riff on certain themes. For this reason, the outrage and revulsion expressed by France’s political and cultural elites at these instances of anti-Semitism is heartening. No less heartening is the public’s growing disillusion with the excesses, but not the essence, of the yellow vest movement. The coming weeks and months will decide whether the AOC label should expand to French-made products other than cheese and wine.
The views expressed are the author's own.