The case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former director of the IMF and leading Socialist politician now accused of sexual assault, has left the French public shocked and scandalized in many different ways. But curiously, there is one response that we have not seen: anti-Semitism.
Curious, because France’s long history with its Jews has often been troubled and it is at moments such as these that an ugly strain of homegrown anti-Semitism rears its head.
It’s a tradition that has its roots in late 19th-century populism. With the nation mired in a severe economic slump and governed by a venal and feckless political class, there was a ready market for demagoguery. In 1886, Edouard Drumont published a two-volume work, La France Juive (“Jewish France”), which became one of the era’s best-sellers. Drumont declared that a cabal of Jewish bankers and financiers — “this hook-nosed tribe” and “sons of Abraham” — had taken the nation’s economy hostage. The newspaper Drumont founded during the Dreyfus Affair, La Libre Parole, brandished as its motto, “France for the French!”
But the anti-Semite’s Jew was polymorphic. Not only did he control the nation’s economic system, but he also conspired to bring down that very same system. Nationalists claimed that the ranks of those critical of liberal democracy were riddled with Jews, as well. During the last years of the 19th century, French Jews became synonymous with socialists; in the wake of World War I, they were re-labeled as agents of communism. Banker or Bolshevik, the essence remained constant: The Jew was a relentless financial and political outsider who preyed upon the French nation.
There was a third facet to the Jew’s predatory nature that plumbed French history much more deeply: that of sexual marauder. With its roots in the blood libel of the Middle Ages, this characterization evolved into the image of the Jew as a threat to the sexual purity of the community. Writers as prominent as Louis Ferdinand Céline, as influential as Sibylle de Mirabeau (known as Gyp) and respectable as Maurice Barrès all exploited this fear. For these and other writers, there seemed a direct correlation between France’s ostensible decline into decadence and the growth of intermarriage between Christians and Jews.
In the years before and after World War II, two French politicians became lightning rods for this new kind of anti-Semitism. When Léon Blum, leader of the Socialist Party, became prime minister in 1936, he was attacked with a ferocity and violence remarkable even for French political discourse at the time. One parliamentary deputy, Xavier Vallet, declared in disgust: “For the first time, this old Gallo-Roman country is going to be governed by a Jew…. It is better to place at the head of this peasant nation of France someone whose origins, however modest, are rooted in our soil, rather than a subtle Talmudist.” It was hardly surprising that, as war approached, more than one voice on the French right announced, “Better Hitler than Blum!”
Less than a decade after France had been liberated from this fulfilled wish, it was the turn of another remarkable politician, Pierre Mendès-France, to weather these dismal torrents of rhetoric. An economist who had won the admiration, if not the support, of Charles de Gaulle, Mendès-France became prime minister in 1954. Pierre Poujade, a deputy in the National Assembly and cut from the same ideological material as Drumont and Vallat, was outraged: “We will not be the plaything of an army of mixed breeds who are camping out on our soil and dictate the law to us.”
The demise of Poujade’s political fortunes did not spell the death of anti-Semitism in France — to the contrary. Poujade’s most notorious follower, Jean Marie Le Pen, founder of the Front National political party, in turn cultivated many of the bizarre orchids found in the hothouse of this particular ideology. From his insistence that the gas chambers were “a detail of history” to rhyming the name of the government minister Michel Durafour with crematory oven ( “four” in French), Le Pen made a career of such racist goads.
When Le Pen’s daughter Marine succeeded him as head of the FN earlier this year, the media described it as a turning point. Young and media-savvy, Marine Le Pen was determined to modernize her father’s party by, in part, ridding it of its anti-Semitic baggage. She declared that she did not share her father’s vision of the past — though she did not add what her own vision happened to be — and has made a show of purging the party of those members who have a predilection for Nazi salutes and shaved heads.
This brings us back to the absence of an anti-Semitic backlash, the dog that didn’t bark. In a country awash in news and commentary about DSK’s arrest, Marine Le Pen’s public remarks have been strikingly circumspect. Though appalled by the nature of the charges, Le Pen, when she was interviewed on May 15 on French television, rather than reaching into her father’s repertory of rhetorical provocations emphasized that DSK must be granted the presumption of innocence.
Against these remarks, however, we should not lose sight of Le Pen’s efforts to meld France’s festering concerns over immigration to its growing fears over globalization. The immigrant to be feared is not the Jew from East Europe, but the Muslim from North Africa. The Muslim has come to represent all that threatens the social and economic fabric of the nation. No less a threat to France are international and supranational institutions. Le Pen has relentlessly attacked not just the European Union — she has proposed pulling France out of the euro zone — but also the International Monetary Fund, which had been led until very recently by the man who was to be her probable opponent in 2012, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. DSK, like the Muslim immigrant, is to her little more than the gravedigger of French national identity. For Le Pen, France is besieged by what she calls “Islamism” and the global sway of “roi-argent” (King Money). The two, she warns, form the dual totalitarianisms of our era.
It may well be that phrases like “King Money,” which echo the rhetoric of Drumont and Poujade, are accidental. We will certainly know better in the coming weeks and months. For now, the question is whether we must give Marine Le Pen the same presumption of innocence she has granted her bête noire.
Robert Zaretsky, a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College, is the author of “Albert Camus: Elements of a Life” (Cornell University Press, 2010).