Never again

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.

14 thoughts on “Never again

  1. 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.

    Well, I could argue that the interests of at least some elements of the left are also advanced by linking anti-semitic incidents to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such a connection enables leftists of that stripe to argue that any spike in anti-Semitic attacks is a function of Israeli behavior and to deny that anti-semitism exists among the wider European population.

    I agree, of course, that anti-Semitism (whether real or perceived) should not be used as an excuse to victimize European Muslims and that attacks on Muslim cemeteries are intolerable. If anti-semitism is pervasive among part or all of the European Muslim community, the remedy is to educate them, not to subject them to racist attacks or discrimination. Anti-racism isn’t a zero-sum game, and a strong response is necessary to bias attacks against Jews and Muslims.

  2. And let me agree that there are leftist currents that are more than amply opportunist enough to do as you describe, and that I whole-heartedly condemn them too. They’re not really anywhere near Elysée palace right now, or the French Socialist party, but they still qualify as no damn good.

    The whole point is that this is intolerable quite independently of the situation in the Middle East or in France. Anti-Semitism is intolerable, as is comparable anti-Islamism, and distorting either one for political gain is contemptible.

    I am just a little frustrated at seeing France described as a haven for anti-Semitism for the nth time – and seeing press outlets that ought to be a little more careful repeating it – when it doesn’t seem to be particularly so, while the French Muslim community seems to face at least as much open hatred and I suspect a lot more invisible hatred without comment from that same media. Seeing the coverage in the anglophone press today set me off on it. There seems to be a real resurgence of Neonazi activity in France lately, and the causes are not clear to me. They seem to like desecrating cemetaries and places of worship and aren’t picky about distinctions between Jews and Muslims. Neonazis are no more acceptable than Muslim anti-Semites, but one is likely to be more suspicious of the claim that France is becoming a Neonazi state, or that Neonazis represent a major part of French political beliefs.

  3. BTW, the notion that there are even “races” is highly anachronistic these days given what we know of human genetics; phenotype ain’t genotype in other words.

  4. French Strive to Be Diverse Without Being Less French
    By ALAN RIDING – NYTimes

    July 24, 2004

    PARIS – After 15 years of soul-searching, France has decided to create a Museum of Immigration. Why now? For generations, France successfully absorbed waves of Poles, Russians, Italians, Spaniards and Portuguese ? and remained French. Then over the past 30 years millions of migrants flooded in from the third world, and it was France that changed.

    A Museum of Immigration is a fairly typical French response, one financed by the government and intended by politicians and bureaucrats to address a social problem through culture. Yet while willing to open a museum, France’s cultural elite continue to resist embracing the creative energy represented by French artists, writers and performers of African, Arab and Asian descent.

    The energy is certainly there ? in stand-up comedians and above all in pop music, the art form where performers and public can most readily connect without the mediation of cultural institutions. But in theater, movies, television and the visual arts, this “other France” is far less visible.

    Will a Museum of Immigration change this? The museum is to open in 2007, but its purpose is still not clear. Will it simply demonstrate that millions of the French have foreign roots or will it acknowledge that, by becoming French, immigrants actually change and enrich French culture and society?

  5. Since when did ?Jews? or ?Muslims? become a ?race??

    “Racism” is commonly used to include ethnic or religious prejudice, although “bigotry” might be a better word.

  6. The World Dispatch section on the Guardian website has an essay about how France’s traditional concept of citizenship has blinded it to the discrimination suffered by the Arab community:

    The problem of failed Muslim integration in France is made 100 times worse by the nation’s profound inability to recognise it. The very principles of the Republic – the watchwords of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity that have supposedly governed this country for more than 200 years – prevent it from doing so.

    For the most sacred article in all France’s grand republican and secular creed is the principle that everyone is equal and indistinguishable in the eyes of the state: no matter where they come from, all French citizens are identical in their Frenchness. In the much-vaunted “Republican model of integration”, all immigrants go through the Gallic mill, shedding their ethnic and religious differences and emerging as shining new French citizens. In theory.

    In practice, this explains why France cannot say, and does not know, how many citizens it has who are of north African origin, or who are Muslim, or who are Jewish. For the purposes of the Republic, it simply does not matter.

    It explains too why France does not know how many children of its north African immigrants leave school without useful qualifications, or fail to get a job. (Only unofficial reports are available, for example, to show that unemployment among 20 to 29-year-olds of north African origin is currently up around 40%, against 10% for youths of French origin.)

    It also explains why France cannot make any attempt to introduce programmes of positive discrimination; make extra resources – in education, for example – available for specific ethnic groups; encourage companies to hire north African staff; make sure there are Arab presenters on TV and Arab politicians in the national assembly; undertake what is really needed: a massive, society-wide effort to raise the status of an entire community.

    To do so would be to reject part of the very bedrock of France, to admit that the Republic has, quite simply, failed 6 million of its citizens. For those 6 million, there may be a fair whack of fraternity, but it is true to say that there is precious little liberty and far, far less equality.

  7. If anti-semitism is pervasive among part or all of the European Muslim community, the remedy is to educate them, not to subject them to racist attacks or discrimination.

    This spins it in the wrong direction. The physical attacks on, and discrimination of, the Muslim community is largely fom the non Jewish non Israel apologizing front. Au contraire, it is probably from the same group that also performs anti Jewish attacks.

    So the end of that quote – “subject them to racist attacks or discrimination” – has little to do with the start – “If anti-semitism is pervasive among part or all of the European Muslim community”. Either way, anti-semitic or not, those attacks and discrimination would be there.

  8. In practice, this explains why France cannot say, and does not know, how many citizens it has who are of north African origin, or who are Muslim, or who are Jewish. For the purposes of the Republic, it simply does not matter.

    Actually, the reason this is the case is because of the records used in WWII to round up Jews; it was a never again response to stop any future classification system.

    It also explains why France cannot make any attempt to introduce programmes of positive discrimination…

    Combatting some social ill with something as evil as affirmative action is flat out silly; and “positive discrimination” is common France, its just not official policy that’s all. Indeed, some of it even is official policy, such as the tax free zones that have been created in areas where minorities tend to congregate.


    Actually it was a typically borish and overly simplistic post.

  9. The Guardian article David cites seems to have a pretty simplistic idea of how to “fix” the problem with affirmative action. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly hard for anyone, let alone a first or second generation immigrant from a poor community, to break into the French elite. You have to have gone to a “Grande Ecole” before you can hope to have one of those representative public offices that the Guardian article blithely redistributes to immigrants.

    People unfamiliar with the French educational system need to understand that they basically have a subject-specialized, state-subsidized Ivy League school for every important public position, from university teaching to politics to civil engineering, which you take a test to enter at the age of around 19. Once you are in, you’re in for life. (Some academic publications are signed with the only qualification of expertise being a diploma from a grande ecole–no current position required.) If the French state were to weight the state entrance exams for these schools differently for some minority groups, the justification for the (already dubious) system would collapse entirely–with serious repercussions for the current elite in almost every public sector.

    Without logical transition, to the question of anti-semitism in France. I have begun to hear strange, tentative anti-semitic comments from well-brought-up, usually very tolerant, intelligent French (d’origine) people whom I otherwise like. It’s as though they’re trying out how it feels to make negative characterizations of a population. (And yes, I always spend the requisite unpleasant hour or so explaining why they’re teetering into bigotry.) So I have to agree with the general argument of the original post: something’s going on, and it won’t do to blame it all on Muslim immigrants.

    One element of this story that I would like to know more about is the demographics of the Jewish population in France (although, given the lack of statistics-collection, I won’t hold out too much hope). A lot of the most visible Jewish people in Paris at least are, I think, immigrants from North Africa. Are they more or less often victims of attack or intimidation than the often more-integrated Ashkenazis? I’m not trying to blame the victims or justify the assaults, just trying to understand what’s going on.

    Some of the reporting is strange: an American article reprinted in the Courier International a couple of weeks back quoted a recent Jewish immigrant from North Africa as having moved because he felt unsafe in the mostly Arab and very poor Saint-Denis suburb of Paris. Although the context of the quote placed the onus on Arab anti-semitism, it should have been mentioned that Saint-Denis is one of the roughest places around.

    Something is rotten, as you say, and I haven’t yet read anything convincing about just what it is.

  10. Gary,

    Thank you for the correction. When I mentioned the column to a friend, I was told a bit of the same.


    Thank you for your post. This does make far more sense.

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