The Blog

Anti-Semitism and France

The story of assault on a French train highlights the problem in France. But the nation's elites have slowly begun to understand that their society has a problem.

12:00 AM, Jul 13, 2004 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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YOU COULD EASILY HAVE MISSED the two-inch story on an inside page of yesterday's Washington Post about the young mother attacked on a train near Paris, but it dominated the front pages in France. "Train of hate," was the lead headline in the conservative Le Figaro, followed by the subhead, "The cowardice of the anti-Semitic thugs was matched by the cowardice of the passengers on the train."

"Antis'mitism: A French story," read the giant headline filling the first page of the leftist Libération. "Indignation is universal after the gang attack Friday in an RER train near Paris on a young woman and her 13-month old baby in front of passive witnesses."

Even the establishment Le Monde made room for the story on page one above the fold: "Amazement after the anti-Semitic attack on a woman on an RER train."

Stunning as it was, the story was developing some curious holes by the end of Monday. No witnesses had come forward, nor had security cameras helped to identify suspects. Unconfirmed reports on radio and TV said "Marie L." had a history of reporting attacks that no one else saw. Her account was indeed unusual.

Early Friday, Marie L. told the authorities, she boarded a two-deck RER train in a Paris suburb with her baby daughter in a stroller. She chose to remain standing rather than maneuver the stroller up the stairs. Soon six youths of North African Arab or African descent came down the stairs and accosted her. Several had knives. One cut her clothing. One started fishing through her backpack. He stole 200 euros and found an old identification card that listed an address in the wealthy 16th arrondissement of Paris. One of the assailants said, "In the 16th there are only Jews," and the attack took a racist turn. Three swastikas were drawn on her body in black marker. Someone cut off some of her hair. Finally the train pulled into Aubervilliers station and the assailants ran, capsizing the stroller and knocking the baby to the ground. Only then did a couple approach Marie L. to help.

With echoes of Tawana Brawley now hanging about this particular case, one can draw no conclusion about the facts. Already, though, the story has thrown a spotlight on the steep rise in anti-Semitic crimes in France. According to official statistics, there were more attacks (vandalism, arson, assault, and so on) targeting France's 600,000 Jews in the first half of this year than in all of 2003--135, up from 127 last year. An additional 95 racist attacks targeted all other groups, including some 5 million Muslims. This figure too, has already surpassed the total for last year.

Politicians from President Chirac on down are vowing to punish Marie L.'s assailants to the full extent of the law (assuming they are captured). And it has been announced that this year's Bastille Day presidential pardons will not extend to perpetrators of racist or sexist crimes. More important, the current French government, according to numerous sources, has moved beyond the denial of three years ago and is starting to tackle its anti-Semitism/Muslim violence problem in a sustained way.

A cabinet-level group now meets monthly to monitor the incidence of anti-Semitism. Former interior minister Nicolas Sarcozy, who is credited with being the first to wake up to the dimensions of the problem, is now the powerful minister of finance. His successor at the interior ministry, Dominique de Villepin, has favorably impressed American collaborators on the issue.

"The French have actually gone further than any other country in Europe in recognizing that they have a mountain of a problem on their hands," says David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, who consults with the French government. Indeed, from their point of view, anti-Semitism may turn out to be the least of it. The huge number of Muslim young people born in France who actively resist acculturation, he says, leaves French officials "baffled and challenged."

But government officials are now eagerly seeking constructive policies. They have expressed interest, for example, in the "Hands Across the Campus" curriculum the AJC developed some years ago for schools beset by inter-group conflict. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, points to the French government's role in prodding the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to hold a conference two weeks ago in Paris on the ways the Internet is being used to promote anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and racism. There were 55 nations at the table, says Cooper, "and my presentation wasn't P.C. at all."