France is in a fight for its soul. Discontent, even outright hostility, among some sectors of its population has morphed in recent years into tragic violence. Threats and terrorist acts especially targeting the Jewish community had been growing for years, but the fatal terror attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the Hypercacher kosher market and police that left 17 Jews, Christians and Muslims dead on the streets of Paris last January crossed a threshold.
Recognizing that the attacks were on France itself, the government vowed to respond with assertive determination.
Only a few weeks before the January attacks, Gilles Clavreul was appointed Inter-ministerial Delegate against Racism and anti-Semitism, a high-level position reporting directly to the prime minister.
No other European government has a similar position, indicating just how seriously France takes the danger. The January terrorist attacks prompted the government to craft and implement a multifaceted action plan, which Prime Minister Manuel Valls presented in April.
“We must always treat our enemies seriously,” Clavreul said, when we met at AJC during his visit to New York last week. “Never underestimate the perversity, the strength of their will. They are committed, devoted.”
Clavreul’s title might suggest that the various ethnic and faith groups comprising France’s population face similar discrimination. For Clavreul, indeed, they are all French citizens.
“What we have are citizens – Jews, Arabs, Blacks, Christians – they are first and foremost French citizens. Each French citizen has the right to live safely, to practice his own religion, to be protected by the French government,” he said.
But he does appreciate the special concerns of the Jewish community, and wholeheartedly agrees with both the prime minister and President Francois Hollande that assaults on Jews are attacks on all of France. “Today, anti-Semitism kills,” Clavreul said.
Moreover, the realities on the ground, the escalating anti-Semitism, are leading many Jews to consider leaving the country, as thousands already have.
That any French Jews feel unsafe and want to emigrate is personally “painful,” Clavreul said. “The idea that some of our French compatriots, Jews, do not see their place in France, we cannot accept,” he said. “It is a cut that will hurt the whole body” of France.
Since January, security has been heightened, and this will remain a government priority and expense for some time to come. More than 700 Jewish schools, synagogues and other sites, and 1,000 mosques, are under French police protection.
The government’s action plan includes community mobilization, strengthening the legal system to prosecute and punish purveyors of hate speech, training educators to teach about secularism and French civic values, and stepping up efforts to confront hate on the Internet through the creation of a special governmental unit.
“No doubt the process of implementing the plan and effecting real, substantive changes will be long and difficult, but for the sake of France defeating anti-Semitism will be essential,” said Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, my Paris-based colleague who directs AJC Europe and has been working closely with Clavreul since his appointment.
Clavreul heads a staff of nine, with another 21 people placed in various government ministries. With a budget of 100 million euros for three years, the current focus in this early phase of the plan’s implementation is on establishing local commissions throughout France to initiate projects in schools that reinforce civic values. A large communications effort will be launched soon to communicate the messages through TV, radio, print and social media.
“Changing consciousness and bringing people back together will take time,” he said. “There is no reason to give up. It is a generational matter.”
The younger generation is a particular concern due to the influence of the Internet and social media.
“I’m not sure whether the population over 40 years old realizes how fast the world has changed, how different the younger generation acts and reacts in a globalized world, where information is very accessible and the Internet and social media are vehicles for hate, for disinformation and conspiracy theories,” Clavreul said. “The days when learning began on the first day of school have been replaced by a new reality that when school begins the question is how many webpages, Facebook posts and tweets have our kids been through?”
Policing the Internet and social media is a priority in the government’s plan. A special unit will be created before year’s end. The ones who understood best the power and reach of the Internet and social media “are the radicals,” he said. “For now they are the real Internet professionals. We must combat them, suppress the spread of hate, of Holocaust denial. We must turn off the faucet.”
Why is France the only EU country to establish the kind of position Clavreul holds? “We have a long history, an attachment to the value of liberty, the value of tolerance,” he said. “This is our DNA and this is the best French message to the world.”
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.