France's Jewish community: In a state of fear

French Jews voted overwhelmingly for Emmanuel Macron, but are concerned he will pander to the country’s large Arab minority and fail to protect them.

Newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron parades in a military vehicle in Paris after his inauguration, May 14 (photo credit: MICHEL EULER / AFP)
Newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron parades in a military vehicle in Paris after his inauguration, May 14
(photo credit: MICHEL EULER / AFP)
PARIS-- CENTER-RIGHTIST Emmanuel Macron, 39, who was voted in by 66% to 34% over the farright Marine Le Pen, is France’s youngest national leader since Napoleon Bonaparte more than 200 years ago.
Exit polls indicated that France’s half million Jews, Europe’s largest Jewish community, voted for Macron by about 90% to Le Pen’s 10%, but he was not their first choice. Their preferred candidate was former right-wing premier François Fillon, whose platform was especially strong against Islamic fundamentalism. However, Fillon, the initial favorite to win the election, became mired in a sudden corruption scandal that resulted in his elimination after the first of two rounds of voting.
Macron, who will be the European Union’s youngest head of state, has never held elected office before and only created his “En marche!” (Onwards) movement a year ago.
“His rise has been absolutely extraordinary,” marveled conservative politician Jean-François Copé, a son of Jewish immigrants from Romania and Tunisia, speaking on TV. “Every political figure has had to surmount obstacles, but what this man has accomplished is equivalent to having crossed the Red Sea dry-footed,” said Copé, jokingly comparing Macron’s achievements to those of the biblical prophet Moses.
But, for many French Jews, the vote took place under a new pall of uncertainty and anxiety after the murder in Paris on April 4 of an Orthodox-Jewish French physician, Dr. Sarah Halimi, 66.
Although not related, the most sadly celebrated victim of the wave of antisemitism that has affected France since the early 2000s was also named Halimi. Ilan Halimi, a young telephone salesman was tortured to death in 2006 by the self-styled “gang of the barbarians” led by a black African- Muslim immigrant and hardened criminal.
Sarah Halimi was thrown to her death from the window of her fourth-floor apartment in the often rough Belleville area of northern Paris after a neighbor, 27-year-old Kada Traoré, also a Muslim Frenchman of black-African origin, broke into her home in the middle of the night Lawyers for Halimi’s family say Traoré, who may have been high on drugs at the time, and who has a long criminal record of violence and drug dealing, savagely beat her before throwing her out of the window. The lawyers say witnesses heard Traoré shouting “Allah Akbar” (God is great), a Muslim rallying cry as he acted.
What has jarred French Jews is that the national media has been nearly entirely silent about the murder, and that there was practically no coverage whatsoever, except in Jewish media, of a subsequent protest march by 1,200 Jews in Halimi’s neighborhood. Participants said local Arab youths provoked them from windows with death threats, and several Arabs were beaten as a result Many Jews are convinced that the authorities asked the media to put a lid on the reporting of the killing in order to avoid inflaming the sectarian situation shortly before the first round of the presidential election on April 23, and also not to encourage votes for Marine Le Pen.
A leading (non-Jewish) expert on the contemporary French-Jewish community, social scientist Jérôme Fourquet, tells the The Jerusalem Report, “If you are an ordinary French citizen not specially interested in Jewish issues, and if you’re not Jewish, there is virtually no chance that you would ever have heard anything about this case.
“This reinforces the feeling of French Jews that they are not heard as they should be, and it also reinforces their anxiety about their safety,” he says. “The event did fuel Jewish support for Fillon who had a very strong anti-Islamic platform, and who, according to my calculations, got more than 50% of French-Jewish votes in the first round of the election, whereas nationally, he got 20.1%.” Only the top two past the post got to stand in the run-off and they were Macron with 24% and Le Pen with 21.1%.
Fourquet, who is one of the best known experts at the IFOP polling group, has authored a book on past French-Jewish voting patterns, and he conducted an exit poll during the current presidential election in sample voting stations with high numbers of Jewish voters.
“I have absolutely no doubt that if the murderer of Sarah Halimi had blonde hair and blue eyes, the whole of France would have swamped the streets in protest,” said Jewish lawyer and community activist Gilles- William Goldnadel who represents Halimi’s family.
Traoré was arrested on the spot and is being held for a psychiatric examination, the findings of which will determine if he is sane enough to be tried.
Goldnadel denounced what he said was “the systematic ‘psychiatrization’ of radical Islamic antisemitic murderers” and what he said were regular attempts to avoid controversy over the ever-explosive issue of immigrant communities in France.
The judicial authorities have met French-Jewish community leaders and told them that there was no doubt about Traoré’s involvement, but that there currently is no evidence one way or the other that he acted out of antisemitic motives.
REFERRING TO three recent crimes in which the perpetrators were ultimately shot dead by police, Goldnadel told a French-Jewish radio station, “The minute that a radical Islamist murders a young Jewish girl, or that a truck runs down dozens of passersby on the boardwalk in Nice, or that a priest has his throat slit in his own church, there is immediately a media decision, and, alas, sometimes also one by the judicial authorities, to say that these acts were the work of madmen.”
“Obviously, blowing oneself up or throwing a Jewish woman out of a window are acts of insanity, but to try to pass it all off as psychiatric problems to avoid ideological and judicial debate is totally unacceptable,” he said.
Referring to an outcry by the national press against Le Pen during the recent election campaign over a statement she made minimizing French responsibility in the deportation of Jews to Nazi extermination camps during World War II, Goldnadel said, “It’s nice to shed sincere, or crocodile, tears over the poor Jewish victims of the Shoah, but that is a very heavy price to pay if the consequence is that today one ignores the ordeals of living Jews. Everyone wants to do everything for the Jewish dead of the Shoah, but nothing for today’s Jews when their killers appear to be ‘victims of society’ (i.e. of immigrant or Muslim origin).”
Goldnadel’s words were echoed by “Maurice Benayoun” (not his real name), deputy mayor of a middle-class Paris suburb with a population of 40,000. He is also a leader of the town’s Jewish community, made up nearly entirely of Sephardi Jews who came to France in the 1950s and 1960s when their homelands in Arab North Africa became independent from France.
“Everyone in our community is in a state of shock, especially at the way the Halimi case has been kept completely silent by the press, and possibly by the authorities who didn’t want it to influence the election. But that’s a mistake because it causes even more panic and anxiety among Jews,” “Benayoun” tells The Report.
“What happened to Sarah Halimi could have happened to any of our own mothers or sisters or brothers. Among the 300 Jewish families in my community, there are many people in the medical professions, including some of whom have their professional offices in Belleville and who knew Madame Halimi well,” he says.
“We are French and we share the preoccupations of the French public. But, as Jews, we also have specific interests, and the main one is that of the security of our families against those who threaten and attack us as Jews.”
“Our main preoccupation is with antisemitism by local Arabs. The French press and public still does not seem to have understood that old-style European antisemitism has been replaced by an antisemitism brought to France by Arab immigrant populations as part of their culture. When I was a boy in Casablanca [Morocco], one of the worse insults among Muslims was ‘Don’t be like a Jew’ or ‘You’re a Jew.’ This now exists here in French schoolyards where little Arab children, although born here, have introduced in French these expressions which they have learned at home,” he says.
Antisemitic acts in France dropped by 75% from last year in comparison to the years immediately preceding, when the number of such acts sometimes reached more than 1,000 a year, including an average of one act of physical violence every other day of the year. Anti-Jewish violence in France, which had been nearly unheard of since the end of World War II, flared with the start of the second intifada uprising by Palestinians against Israel in 2000, when French-Arab youths identified with the Palestinian cause.
Jewish community leaders say the near totality of anti-Jewish violence here is the work of French-born children or grandchildren of immigrants from France’s former North African territories of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.
There are an estimated six million Muslims in France and their relationship with the population at large is highly volatile. A study last year by the respected Institut Montaigne think tank found that 28% of French Muslims, including 50% in the 16-24 age group, are at odds with French society. French Muslims, often the descendants of illiterate and penniless farmers in North Africa, have been stuck at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder in France. They constitute a majority of the country’s penal population, and the unemployment rate of their young people is four times the national average, the result, they say, of discrimination.
But “Benayoun” is wary of the potential voting power of France’s Muslims even though they traditionally abstain at higher rates than the general public.
“I voted for Macron in the runoff round of the election as did most Jews. He looks like a decent human being, he’s apparently ‘a good boy,’ but we wonder whether he will have the strength to defend us when we are attacked.
Will he have the willpower to withstand the pressure of his voters, including the Arabs? We’re a small community compared to the Arabs here ‒ 6 million of them, half a million Jews. We must remain vigilant and CRIF [the political leadership of the French-Jewish community] has to be on its guard,” he says.
“Benayoun” says that even in his well-todo home area there are problems. “Our synagogue is close to some high-rise, low-income council flats where many Arabs reside. We have had a series of incidents in which projectiles, rocks, bottles or whatever, have been thrown at the building. We’re thinking of moving the synagogue to a safer area. But the truth is, I’m glad I also own an apartment in Ashdod [south of Tel Aviv]. You never know what the future holds,” he says.
MACRON MADE all the right political noises to reach out to France’s Jews, including a highly publicized visit to the French Shoah Memorial in the last days of the election campaign, a visit to Israel in 2015 and pledges to oppose the anti-Israel BDS campaign and any move to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state.
Macron’s party, on May 12, immediately suspended one of its candidates for next month’s parliamentary elections when it was discovered that his Facebook page was full of outbursts against “Israel, the hoodlum, racist state.” But Macron is not expected to change French foreign policy in general, which is aligned with the European Union and NATO.
Alain Finkielkraut, son of Polish-born Jewish death-camp survivors and France’s best known living philosopher, said he feared French Jews would suffer from what he predicted would be attempts by Macron to reach out to and appease the country’s restive Muslim population. Referring on Jewish radio to the choice between Macron ‒ whom he distrusts ‒ and Le Pen, Finkielkraut said, “A disaster saved us from a catastrophe.”
Many French political scientists say the country’s future will depend on whether Macron, who first made his name as a dynamic Economy and Industry minister under his predecessor President François Hollande, can turn around the country’s economy. He quit the cabinet last August to launch his presidential campaign after being unable to introduce business-friendly legislation that he saw as an answer to the country’s perennially high unemployment rate, now running at 10%, or 6 million people, who sometimes participate in violent protests.
Roughly speaking, Macron is backed by the better educated, who hold regular jobs and live in big cities and those prosperous areas of France that have adapted to globalization.
Marine Le Pen, and her opposite number on the far left, Jean-Luc Melanchon, who came fourth in the first round of the presidential election with 19.58%, are backed by the less well-educated, the unemployed and people living in small towns and in northern and eastern France where industries have been shut down for years.
Le Pen, who got 10.6 million votes, or 34% in the election, up from 6.4 million, or 17.9% of the vote in the last presidential race in 2012, is expected to run again in 2022.
According to social scientist Fourquet, she got about 10% of the Jewish votes this year compared to 13.5% in 2012. Fourquet says the decline was because Jews drawn to Le Pen saw that Fillon’s policy vis-à-vis Islam was the same as Le Pen’s, but he was a more respectable candidate, whose party was untainted by suspicions of antisemitism.
“The problem of relations between Le Pen and French Jews has to do with the fact that although many Jews trust her [to be free of antisemitism], there do remain around her, and in her National Front (FN) party, some people who are unacceptable,” says Michel Thooris, who is especially well placed to know.
Thooris, a young police officer on longterm leave, is head of the Union of Patriotic French Jews (UPFJ), which is associated with the National Front and which backs Le Pen.
“The Jewish vote for Le Pen is numerically small but it is highly symbolic. Our action in the ‘de-demonization’ of Le Pen has been essential to her campaign,” he tells The Report.
But Thooris complains that the FN had turned down his application to stand for the party in the June parliamentary election.
“Everyone will interpret this decision by the FN to cast aside the only leading Jewish figure in the party as connected to the reputed presence in its ranks of persons said to be antisemites or revisionists,” he says.
Although FN vice-president Louis Aliot, who is Le Pen’s domestic partner and who had a Jewish grandfather, says the party systematically excludes antisemites, the French press regularly reports that Le Pen entrusts the logistics of her campaigns to former university classmate Fréderic Chatillon, who was once head of an openly antisemitic student movement and has since become a supporter and sometimes confidante of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Social scientist Fourquet’s findings have also shown that FN voters tend to express anti-Jewish opinions more than backers of most other French political groups.
France will hold nationwide parliamentary elections on June 11 with a runoff round on June 18. Macron needs a strong majority if he wants to impose the reforms which he says can pull the country out of its economic doldrums.
“We certainly hope the new government will also take our security concerns into consideration,” says “Benayoun.” “The sweeping under the carpet of Sarah Halimi’s murder by the outgoing administration has deeply shaken French Jewry and we hope things will change.”