Anti-Semitism in France is a strange and elusive beast. It seems to shift and mutate, changing shape with each new generation. Today, you might find it lying just below the surface of José Bové’s otherwise legitimate struggle against cultural hegemony, beneath the worthy concern for France’s disenfranchised Arabs, or lurking behind the Parisian intellectual’s critique of American foreign policy. You might also discern it behind the widespread and vociferous contempt for the current president.
Nicolas Sarkozy talks without difficulty about his father’s Hungarian origins, frequently referring to himself as the son of an immigrant. He never, on the other hand, invokes his mother’s Jewish roots, describing himself as Catholic “in culture, tradition and belief”(1), as if to do so in a society whose anti-Semitism is ever-present and unresolved were just too much for him. This avowed affiliation, however, is not universally respected. The politician, Georges Frêche – who was expelled from the socialist party in 2007 after a series of racist remarks (including a cracker about the number of blacks in the French squad) – chose to make a speech shortly after Sarkozy’s victory hailing the French nation for electing a Jew as president. During the campaign, Le Pen also frequently referred to Sarkozy’s soi-disant judaism in an attempt to stem the flow of National Front voters to his rival.
Back in October, 2005, during one of his legendary visits to a rioting suburb, Sarkozy was, as usual, bombarded with abuse from angry youths, many of whom were of North African origin. The French TV crew covering the incident decided not to report the exact wording of their insults. Claiming poor sound quality, the editor chose to subtitle the real chant, ‘Sarkozy, Filthy Jew!’ as ‘Sarkozy, Fascist!’
That a producer/reporter would run the risk of making an edit so politically loaded and so clearly tendentious is as baffling as the strange denial that surrounds Sarkozy’s Jewish heritage. The media clearly plays a continuing role in upholding the myth of France as a liberal, enlightened and tolerant nation. I’ve often met with incomprehension or resentment when I have dared to compare France’s immigrant suburbs to America’s black and Hispanic ghettos, or indeed Britain’s inner cities. Still obsessed with the idea of equality through rapid and miraculous integration, France will not own up to the seriousness of the problems she is facing.
(1) La République, les Religions, l’Espérance, Nicolas Sarkozy (ed. Cerf)