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Outrage over antisemitic attacks in France presents opportunity for Emmanuel Macron to heal wartime wounds

Macron visits a cemetery where graves have been vandalised. EPA/ Frederick Florin

France has recently been rocked by a series of antisemitic attacks. Portraits on post boxes of the late Simone Veil – a Holocaust survivor and the country’s first minister for women’s affairs – were vandalised. The philosopher Alain Finkelkrault was verbally abused by protesters from the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) movement. A number of tombstones in Jewish cemeteries have been defaced with Swastikas and a man was shot with an air rifle outside a synagogue in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles.

Now President Emmanuel Macron has announced new laws to attempt to tackle antisemitism. At the moment, these deal exclusively with online abuse. Social media platforms will be given up to 24 hours to remove antisemitic posts or face sanction.

Deep roots

France has a deep-rooted history of antisemitsm. From the medieval period, with its intermittent rejection and welcome for Jews, through to the Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s, France has demonstrated in turns respect and utter disregard for the fate of its Jewish population.

France was the only Nazi-occupied country in World War II to deport Jews of its own free will, before Nazi pressure. And the definition of a Jew under Marshal Pétain’s Vichy regime was harsher than that of the Nazis, implicating many more Jews because it conferred the status of Jew on anyone with three or more grandparents who were Jewish, or two or more grandparents if the person was married to a Jew. The Nazis were so impressed that they later adopted this definition for themselves to feed the demands of the Final Solution. In total 76,000 Jews were deported from France during this period.

This does not of course tell the whole tale. Around 75% of the wartime Jewish population in France survived the deportations. In some locations in France, life for Jewish people continued to some extent as normal up until November 1942. Even during the darkest days of French history, some French people were willing and able to shelter Jews.

Yet in the years that followed the occupation of 1940 to 1944, Jews were either removed altogether from the historical narrative (thanks to General Charles de Gaulle’s interpretation of history) or were perceived predominantly as victims. Neither status has helped to better assert the role of Jews in contemporary French society. While the French political elite recognises France’s role in mass deportations – especially the notorious rafle du vel d’hiv in July 1942, when French police helped round up thousands of Jews who were subsequently sent to concentration camps in Germany – the debate has not shifted away from victimhood and towards a more nuanced image of Jewish identity. Even Macron, who in July 2017 widened his definition of antisemitism to include verbal or physical attacks on Israel, has failed to articulate clearly his vision for Jewish life in France.

Efforts to teach the Holocaust in French schools – often packaged as part of a wider discussion around resistance in the occupation – appear likewise to have done little to alleviate hostile attitudes towards Jews. The far-right Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National) has not cleansed its image sufficiently to iron out attempts by its leader Marine Le Pen to play down the role of France in deportations, while in 2014 the French footballer Nicolas Anelka was found to have committed an antisemitic act when performing the quenelle gesture, inspired by his friend, a controversial comedian called Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. Anelka claimed he was acting in solidarity with his friend and hadn’t realised the gesture was antisemitic.

Macron’s moment

Macron and his government have condemned the latest wave of antisemitic attacks. And after three months of protest by the yellow vest movement, which opposes Macron’s social and economic policies, the president has an opportunity to restamp his authority on France.

Macron can use these widely criticised attacks to coalesce public opinion around his image of Jewish life in France. The bitter irony of Finkelkrault – a vocal supporter of anti-Macron protests – being verbally abused by yellow vest protesters should not be lost on the centrist French leader.

By reasserting the right of Jewish people to exercise their religious rites on French soil and to emphasise their status as citizens, these attacks could be the perfect opportunity for Macron to reverse his decline in public opinion. It is time that France exorcised the demons of the past and for Macron to embrace Jews as more than simply victims but as fully-fledged contributors to French society. His new laws are a step in the right direction.

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