Yesterday’s profanation of a Jewish cemetery in Lyon has, once again, put French race relations into the news in bad light. There’s a good reason for that. French race relations aren’t much to brag about. I notice, however, that for all the bloggers – not to mention Ariel Sharon – who think France is a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, there hasn’t been much comment over recent profanations of Muslim cemeteries and mosques.
Le Monde, conveniently enough, offers a page for each. Les principales profanations de tombes juives en France and Chronologie des actes contre des cimeti?res et des lieux de culte musulmans.
The comparison is quite interesting, since it suggests that while there’s always been a certain amount of anti-Semitic hooliganism in France there has been a sharp recent upsurge in anti-Islamic attacks. But then, the choice of events and time periods may be deceiving. I am, however, suspicious that heavy reporting of relatively few anti-Semitic acts – many (perhaps most) of which are the work of native xenophobes – are being used to justify measures against an Islamic community that is far more often the victim of nativism and xenophobia than its perpetrator. One finds ample anecdotal evidence of French discrimination in employment, in housing, in access to schools, and in informal racial profiling against Frenchmen of Middle Eastern and North African origin. There are few claims of comparable discrimination against Jews in France.
I notice, for example, that Haaretz’ AFP extract speaks of “a string of similar attacks on Jewish cemeteries in France”, but never mentions the attack on a Muslim cemetery in Alsace just four days ago. I notice the mention of Ministry of the Interior statistics which claim more attacks on Jews than other ethnic groups, but I am suspicious that France’s Jewish community might be much more active in getting attacks classified as anti-semetic than the Muslim community is in responding to anti-Islamic violence.
French law generally forbids the government from acquiring statistics about ethnicity. I have to confess to a certain scepticism about the accuracy of statistics acquired by the state in contravention to its own policy, especially, when the state’s own reports show just such scepticism:
From La lutte contre le racisme et la x?nophobie, page 29:
Toute analyse de l’?volution de la violence ? connotation raciste/x?nophobe et antis?mite/antijuifs se heurte ? des difficult?s de recensement, notamment du fait de l’absence d’exhaustivit? des donn?es connues.
Any analysis of trends in violence of a racist/xenophobic and anti-Semitic/anti-Jewish nature is confronted with difficulties in acquiring data, most notably the lack of completeness of the known data sources.
I also notice how even a left-wing newspaper like The Guardian, taking its story from the Associated Press, makes a link between Muslims and the recent cemetery desecration: “Despite a series of government measures, anti-Semitic attacks have increased in recent years in France, frequently coinciding with rising tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.” Yet the recent attacks are almost all suggestive of French Neonazis and similar groups, rather than Muslim youth.
French AFP coverage, for example here at Le Figaro, doesn’t say anything about Muslims or the Middle East. Libération has an article expressing concern about Neonazi gatherings in Alsace. Neonazi activism has always been something of a problem in Alsace, in part because Nazi insignia and demonstrations are illegal in Germany and France, but those laws have never been as heavily enforced next door in German-speaking French Alsace; and in part because Alsace is a very conservative part of France with a history of nativism. Libé specifically links a particular recent Neonazi gathering near Strasbourg to the recent defamation of a Jewish cemetery and a Muslim one.
Something is rotten in the French Republic. I suspect that it’s a right-wing government that is treating economic problems by distracting the public from them. The French government has done very little to dispel the notion that it blames the occupants of the slums that ring every major French city for the lack of opportunity they have in France. But this does not excuse the manner in which these events are reported abroad. Any but the most simplistic tale which equates French Muslims with rising anti-semitic attacks simply seems to disappear in international reporting, even from folks who should know better. I don’t expect better from Sharon or from the Little Green Footballs set. I do expect better from AFP, AP, Ha’aretz and The Guardian.
Profanations of cemetaries and attacks on places of worship are not acceptable, nor are attacks on persons for ethnic or religious reasons. Such attacks are no more acceptable against Jews than they are against Muslims, regardless of the different social status of either group or the situation in France, the Middle East or elsewhere. However, I find it hard to respond to events like this with never again when those words begin to serve to justify new victimisations, or when they substitute for real discussion of what is going on.