— M’sieur! Vous etes feuj?
— Tu parles ou tu traites?
— Non, M’sieur! Je parle.
This little bit of French dialogue, occurring in a newly published novel by Michael Sebban titled “Lehaïm,” takes place between a Parisian Jewish high school teacher and a teenager from an Algerian slum neighborhood. It translates as:
“Sir! You’re a feuj?”
“Are you asking or calling me names?”
“No, sir! I’m asking.”
Encapsulated in this exchange is the ambiguous tone of the relatively new French slang word, feuj, meaning “Jew.” Is this a neutrally descriptive word, like juif, the ordinary French word for “Jew,” or is it derogatory?
Feuj, as I noted in a column two years ago, is more or less juif spelled backwards and belongs to the extensive French slang vocabulary known as Verlan, in which new words are created by a process of reversal. (“Verlan” itself is a reversal of the syllables of l’envers – the final “s” is silent — which means “upside down” or “backward.”) Originally a criminals’ and drug users’ argot, Verlan began to spread through lower-class French neighborhoods in the 1970s and ’80s and many of its words have today entered mainstream colloquial speech, especially among teenagers. Thus, for example, a woman, femme, is a meuf in Verlan; père, “father,” is reup; “hello,” bonjour, is jourbon; francais, “French,” is céfran, and so on.
Already existent slang words can be Verlanized, too. Mec, for instance, French slang for “guy,” becomes keum; gonzesse, girl or “chick,” turns into zesgan; flic, a “cop,” into keuf. And sometimes, to keep a step ahead of the game, Verlan itself is re-Verlanized. Take beur, for example, which is Verlan for an Arab: Today it vies with reub and rebeu, both reversals of the original reversal.
But to get back to our question: Is feuj derogatory? That seems to depend on whom you ask. My friend Brett Kline, an American Jewish journalist who has lived in Paris for many years, writes me that: “Feuj is used by anyone who uses slang. It is not derogatory, although many French speakers will not use it because they consider Verlan to be beneath them. But both Arabs and Jews use the word readily, as do some other Frenchmen.”
Yet not all observers and speakers of French agree with this, one reason being that feuj in contemporary French slang, besides meaning “Jew,” has come to mean “no good,” “dumb,” “screwed-up” or “uncool.” As New York Times correspondent Craig Smith pointed out in an article on French antisemitism, a French child whose pen does not write may say that it is complètement feuj and it has become a standard playground insult to say tu es feuj to a boy or girl with whom you get into a fight. It may be true, as a French Internet correspondent writes, that “the kids using the word feuj don’t necessarily intend to express antisemitic sentiments,” but they are nevertheless, the correspondent continues, the unconscious conveyors of an “antisemitic slur… deeply embedded in popular culture.” And a French Jewish mother on the Internet complains that her child came home from school deeply upset because someone asked her in the lunchroom, “Why are you eating alone like a feuj?” — the implication being that Jews are anti-social and disliked.
Of course, all languages have words like feuj, which can be pejorative in some contexts and not in others. Our Jewish word “goy” is a good example, since it can be used perfectly innocently (“Did you hear about Rachel? She married a goy, a great guy”) or with venom (“Did you hear that Rachel’s husband is an alcoholic and beats her? That’s what you get for marrying a goy”). Many Jews will avoid using “goy” entirely because it can so obviously function as a slur; others might use it with other Jews but not in the presence of a non-Jew, either because they don’t mind other Jews knowing that they have anti-gentile prejudices or because they trust other Jews to understand that they don’t. These things are delicately nuanced.
Ultimately, the question of whether feuj is or isn’t “antisemitic” has a lot to do with one’s overall assessment of antisemitism in France. If one believes that this is a fringe phenomenon, limited largely to the Muslim immigrant population and caused for the most part by resentment of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, the spreading use of feuj can be considered relatively harmless. If, on the other hand, one detects deep currents of anti-Jewish feeling in French society, which is aimed against Israel only because Israel is a Jewish state, feuj is a disturbing and unwelcome new word, one conveying a host of antisemitic stereotypes. “Tu parles ou tu traites?” — “Are you just talking or calling me names?” — is a question that French Jews today are asking all of France.