In the 140th anniversary year of his birth on April 9, 1872, the French Jewish statesman Léon Blum is more timely than ever. In April, during France’s latest presidential election, Les éditions Albin Michel reprinted a short exhortatory text, “In Order to be a Socialist,” which Blum wrote in 1919 when he was 42. It was dedicated to his son Robert and in stately, decorously literary prose – Blum also published a book of his thoughts on the 19th century author Stendhal – counsels young people to be optimistic civic activists.
Along with Léon Blum, Pierre Mendès France (1907-1982) was the only Jewish statesman ever allowed to serve as Prime Minister of France. Mendès France held that office from 1954 to 1955, following years in the wartime French Résistance. Like Blum, Mendès France was targeted for a multitude of anti-Semitic insults, which made him resolve not to run for President of France, fearing his candidacy would lead to a further upswing in Gallic hatred for Jews.
A startling new report by investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein suggests that the arrest of then-International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn on sexual assault charges in New York last May may have been a setup engineered by his political opponents.
French government officials are rarely known for their sense of poetic justice, but the French Jewish statesman Robert Badinter, born in 1928, is an exception to the rule.
When the leftist French Jewish singer/songwriter Jean Ferrat (born Tenenbaum) died last March at the age of 79, the outpouring of affectionate tributes surprised some. After all, Ferrat had been retired to an Ardèche village in south-central France for a number of years. A detailed new biography has appeared from Les éditions Fayard, “Jean Ferrat: Singing is No Pastime for Me” (Jean Ferrat, Je ne chante pas pour passer le temps) by journalist Daniel Pantchenko, to explain the lastingly galvanizing emotional power of Ferrat’s songs.
The Moroccan-born Israeli historian Michel Abitbol is a possibly surprising source for savvy perspectives on the strained relations between Jews and France. Up until now he has produced cogent, concise works about North Africa such as “The Jews of North Africa during the Second World War” from Wayne State University Press as well as others so far untranslated into English. Now an emeritus Humanities professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, Abitbol has just produced a revised edition of his 1989 study, “Two Promised Lands: France’s Jews and Zionism,” from Les éditions Perrin.
Ilan Greilsammer, who teaches political science and French culture at Bar-Ilan University, is the author of a 1996 biography from Les Éditions Flammarion of the French Jewish Socialist leader Léon Blum, as well as a 1998 “New History of Israel” (Gallimard). After editing Blum’s “Letters from Buchenwald” (2003; also from Gallimard), Greilsammer has just published a new take on Blum in the form of a novel.