Just as France was engulfed in a wave of rioting, a delegation of French Jewish leaders visited New York last week to deliver a decidedly upbeat message.
In meetings with American Jewish communal leaders, members of the French delegation — representing the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France, known as CRIF — described France as a “model” in the fight against antisemitism, after years of claiming that the government and law-enforcement authorities had not done enough to stop anti-Jewish vandalism and physical attacks. In addition, they said that France’s famously pro-Arab foreign policy was becoming less one-sided.
However, this assessment was overshadowed quickly by more than a week of riots following the death of two teenage African boys who were electrocuted in a high-voltage power substation while trying to avoid a police checkpoint in the northeastern Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. In the following days the violence spread to numerous cities, featuring clashes between rioters, most of them marginalized Muslim teenagers, and the police, as well as assaults on cars, trains, buses, schools, public buildings and businesses. Many of the rioters hailed from the same impoverished suburban slums that for years have been identified by French Jewish leaders as the breeding ground of most of the antisemitic perpetrators. Malcolm Hoenlein, an American Jewish communal leader who helped host the CRIF delegation, was quick to point out to his visitors that French authorities have said that radical Islamic ideology permeates dozens of ghettos in the suburbs where the rioting first erupted.
But the CRIF leaders were careful to stress that there were no discernible religious or ideological motives behind the riots. In fact, they said, the latest wave of rampage was first and foremost a vivid illustration of France’s failure to integrate the latest wave of immigrants from North Africa, who often live in largely neglected high-rise housing projects around large cities plagued by crime and unemployment. As such, the CRIF officials said, it vindicates their claims that the failure to integrate these immigrants is a threat not so much to French Jews as to French society.
The recent violence is likely to reinforce a trend among French Jews to distance themselves from the Muslim community, and it’s all but certain to strengthen far-right political forces by bolstering the image of foreigners as outcasts and dangers to French society. The ineptitude of the authorities in quelling the violence could end up weakening one of the Jewish community’s strongest allies in the government and a presidential contender, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, whose zero-tolerance policy and tough rhetoric have been assailed by critics as inflammatory. In recent years, Sarkozy has become the darling of much of the Jewish community for playing a key role in making the fight against antisemitism a priority of the French government.
In recent months, CRIF leaders had begun to praise the French government for its improved efforts to fight antisemitism. But they went even further in their praise last week, during their visit to New York.
“Things have substantially improved since a few months,” CRIF President Roger Cukierman said during a briefing at the offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. He noted that the number of antisemitic acts, after a sharp increase in 2004, had dropped by nearly 50% in the first half of 2005 compared with the same period last year. The French Jewish leader described the reversal as the product of a genuine effort by the French authorities to tackle the issue, as well as the relative improvement of the Israel-Palestinian situation.
Cukierman attributed the shift in French foreign policy to a string of developments, including the death of Yasser Arafat, the Gaza withdrawal, France’s efforts to curb the Iranian nuclear program and its tough stand against Syria following the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. “For us, it’s a considerable relief,” Cukierman said
As recently as February, at the CRIF’s annual dinner, which drew a mix of government ministers, Cukierman excoriated France’s pro-Arab tilt.
Since Israel began its Gaza pullout in August, however, its relations with Paris have improved markedly. Prime Minister Sharon visited France in July and government officials in both countries hailed the trip. Cukierman said that Israel now seemed eager to use France’s good relations with many Arab countries as a conduit to prod those countries to change their policies toward Jerusalem.
French officials also have appeared increasingly upset over Iran’s attitude in the negotiations with regard to its nuclear activities. France, Great Britain and Germany have been in talks with Tehran for two years in an effort to get Iran to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for economic and political incentives.
After Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared recently that Israel should be wiped off the map, the French government promptly criticized the comments and called in the Iranian ambassador for an explanation. French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin phoned Cukierman the next day to express his indignation. By contrast, France had come under fire for its delayed and ambiguous reaction to antisemitic remarks made by former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad in late 2003.
The most obvious change in French policy is its increasingly aggressive position on Syria, which began after the slaying of Hariri, the former prime minister and a close friend of French President Jacques Chirac. Cukierman said that shortly before the murder, in reaction to reports of discontent in Damascus toward Hariri, Chirac had warned Syrian President Bashar al-Asad not to harm the Lebanese politician. So when a huge bomb blew up Hariri’s car in Beirut on February 14, killing him and 20 others, Chirac decided to join hands with the United States in order to put pressure on Syria at the United Nations — a move also aimed at healing the rift with Washington created by the Iraq War. France is insisting on the full implementation of U.N. resolution 1559, which demands a complete Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon as well as the disarming of all militias there, which includes Hezbollah.
Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, acknowledged the French government’s efforts to fight antisemitism and noted that Paris actually had been tougher on Syria than Washington.
Another leader to take notice is David Twersky, director of the American Jewish Congress-Council for World Jewry, an organization that fiercely criticized France and CRIF as too tepid in responding to antisemitism. But he added a caveat.
“There is some justification to the CRIF’s analysis,” Twersky said. “But on the foreign policy front, the question is whether this will remain so if and when the Israelis dig in their heels and don’t give more to the Palestinians.”