By Gerard Leval
France is the frequent object of accusations of antisemitism. The various attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions in recent years seem to fully warrant the fears regarding the presence and growth of antisemitism in France.
There is simply no denying the reality of this situation but, fortunately, this is not the whole story. One need merely note the identity of the current French prime minister and of the newly designated president of France’s National Assembly to know that there is another side to the story.
The French nation remains today, as it has been since the French Revolution of 1789, a schizophrenic nation. Enlightenment philosophy battles a kind of obscurantism. Hospitality clashes with xenophobia. Tolerance is in a continuing struggle with intolerance. And France’s treatment of its Jewish population epitomizes this schizophrenia.
Observers of life in France have noted the recent terrible violence perpetrated against some Jews, such as the vile killing of three children and an adult at a Jewish school in Toulouse a few years ago. Or, when a young Jewish man was tortured and killed by a gang of sub-Saharan immigrants who had kidnapped him because they thought that since he was Jewish he must be rich. Just five years ago, a young Muslim defenestrated his Jewish neighbor while shouting antisemitic slogans. The following year, two young Muslims tortured and killed their elderly Jewish neighbor. In recent months, additional violent incidents, strongly suggesting that they were motivated because the victims were Jewish, have occurred.
For years, attending a synagogue in Paris has meant passing through a gauntlet of guards who interrogate every visitor out of fear that one of them could wreak havoc or worse. This has led to the notion that France is a place where Jews must, at all times, look over their shoulders.
This may be so. But there is another side to the story. France has been witness to some of the most important successes for the Jewish community in Europe. It was the first nation in the Western World, even before the United States, to grant its Jewish citizens equal rights. The economic, academic, cultural and even political achievements of members of the French Jewish community have been remarkable and they have been fully recognized by the French nation. You need only look at the façade of the Paris Opera and note that of the seven statues of composers there two are of Jews.
And we do not have to look at the past. Little noted in the United States is the fact that the current prime minister is the daughter of a Polish Jewish immigrant, who survived deportation to Auschwitz. Although she was brought up by her Catholic mother, Elisabeth Borne, whose family name is actually Bornstein, has never tried to hide her Jewish origins.
She was named the nation’s second female prime minister by President Emmanuel Macron just a couple of months ago without much fanfare or opposition. Any opposition has had to do with the political weakness of Macron and not with her Jewish origins.
Just a few days ago, for the first time in the nearly 230 years of its existence, the presidency of the French National Assembly was turned over to a woman. The new president is named Yaël Braun-Pivet. She is descended on both sides of her family from Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Her Hebrew first name makes it difficult to dissimulate her Jewish roots.
So, as of this week, two of the most important political positions in France are held by women with Jewish origins. While this cannot in any manner reduce the pain and horror of the various antisemitic attacks to which Jews in France have been subjected in recent years, it does suggest that it may be too facile simply to write off France as an antisemitic nation.
France is a very complex nation. Its history can probably best be described as a rollercoaster ride. Reminiscent of the statement made about the little girl with the curl, it can appropriately be asserted that when France is good, it is very, very good and when it is bad, it is horrid.
Over past decades, the accession of Jews to some of the highest positions of power in France has been taken in stride. The uneventful appointment of two women descended from Jewish immigrants to the very pinnacle of the French governing structure is yet another manifestation of the best side of the French national character. None of this erases the terrible chapters of French antisemitism, but it does suggest that there may yet be hope for the future for the French Jewish community.
Whether the good side of France’s national character can prevail over the bad one, remains an open question. Perhaps, the Jewish women who have recently achieved such important political success can help France take some of the steps necessary to ensure that there is a bright future for its Jewish citizens. JE
Gerard Leval is a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of a national law firm. He is the author of “Lobbying For Equality, Jacques Godard and the Struggle for Jewish Civil Rights during the French Revolution,” published this year by HUC Press.