ANALYSIS: The yellow vests and France’s new wave of anti-Semitism

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ANALYSIS: The yellow vests and France’s new wave of anti-Semitism
A picture taken on December 17, 2018 in Herrlisheim shows jewish headstones tagged with swastika symbol at a Jewish cemetery, eastern France. Photo: AFP

France has seen a worrying rise in anti-Semitic acts as well as the desecration of churches and attacks on politicians’ homes and offices and they may well all be linked to an extreme element of the yellow vest movement, writes John Lichfield.


Paris was contaminated last weekend by a rash of anti-Semitic graffiti. There was a 74 per cent increase in reported anti-Semitic behaviour in France last year.

The graffiti, including swastikas, were daubed during the night of Friday to Saturday, just before the latest Gilets Jaunes protest in Paris. The boom in anti-Semitic acts was concentrated at the end of 2018, which coincided with the rise of the yellow vests from mid- November.

President Emmanuel Macron said at the weekly cabinet meeting on Wednesday that this “new turn of events” should be “linked” to the Gilets Jaunes.

This is a little simplistic. I do not believe that the Gilets Jaunes are – at their core and in their origins – an anti-Semitic movement. In any case, the 74 per cent increase in anti-Semitic acts last year is misleading.

READ more OPINION and ANALYSIS on France from John Lichfield

(Anti-Semitic graffiti written on letter boxes displaying a portrait of late French politician and Holocaust survivor Simone Veil.AFP)

The actual number, 541 acts of violence, of verbal abuse or graffiti in 2018, was historically low. The percentage figure appears dramatic because it followed a lull or pause in anti-semitic behaviour in 2016 and 2017.

There were over 800 anti-semitic acts recorded in France in 2014 and again in 2015. The worst year recently was 2006, with over 1,000.

All of that being said, Macron may have a point.

The rash of anti-Semitic actions coincides with a series of desecrations of Catholic churches. It coincides with a sudden upturn in the random violence by extremist groups at the Gilets Jaunes protests in Paris last Saturday (Act XIII, or the 13th Saturday putsch since the movement began). It coincides with an attempt to burn down the country home of the president (speaker) of the national assembly.

I revile conspiracy theories. But I suspect that a concerted  effort is being made to ramp up the atmosphere of crisis in France as grass-roots support for the Gilets Jaunes in their rural and outer provincial heartlands declines. 

The graffiti campaign in Paris last weekend included the daubing in yellow paint of the word “juden” – Jews in German – on a bagel restaurant on the Ile Saint Louis. It also included the daubing of swastikas over images of the late, great Auschwitz survivor and former French health minister, Simone Veil.

Since the 1990s, there have been two strands of anti-Semitism in France.

There is the historic, far-right, French nationalist or ultra-Catholic strand. This goes back far beyond the Dreyfus affair of the 1900s, the Vichy government collaboration with the Nazis in the early 1940s or the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National in the 1970s and 1980s.

It can still be found, in mild but disgusting, form in the casual comments of well-heeled, well-educated French people from the “beaux quartiers” of Paris. I know because my children went to school with them.

Outrage in Paris over anti-Semitic graffiti on bagel restaurant window

For 30 years or so, there has also been a radical muslim and ultra-leftist strand of anti-Semitism in France, born from support for Palestine and hatred of capitalism (seen as dominated by wealthy Jews).  The revival of anti-Semitic acts, and violence, in the 1990s and the 2000’s was mostly due to this new phenomenon.

The figurehead of this “new anti-Semitism” is M’bala M’Bala Dieudonné, the stand-up comedian who has been convicted of anti-Semitic hate-speech. His emblem is the “quenelle”, an arm gesture which may or may not be a perversion of the Hitler salute. It has certainly become a widespread means of  deniable, anti-Semitic behaviour.

The kind of graffiti which appeared in Paris last weekend – the swastikas and the word “juden” – bear the finger-prints of the older, rather than the newer brand of anti-Semitism. Increasingly, however, it is difficult to tell them apart.

Anti-Semitic slogans can be found on Gilet Jaunes banners and anti-Semitic arguments in Gilets Jaunes sites on the internet. “Macron once worked for a Rothschilds bank. He is a tool of ultra-liberal, globalist forces, controlled by Jews….”

This is not something that you hear from “ordinary” yellow vests on roundabouts. Anti-Semitism has specifically been decried in several lists of Gilets Jaunes positions and demands.

But there is undeniably a sickening anti-Semitic obsession in one section of the yellow vests movement. It is tempting to attribute this influence to Dieudonné’s political mentor, Alain Soral.

Mr Soral, 60, would certainly love to claim the credit. A former speechwriter for Jean-Marie Le Pen, he met recently with a group of Gilets Jaunes spokespeople. It has long been his strategy, partly through his disciple, Dieudonné, to unite the two strains of anti-Semitism:  the far left and far right, the radical muslim and the ultra-Catholic.

He describes his own micro-party, Egalité & Réconciliation, as the “ideological inspiration” of the Gilets Jaunes, an insurrection by a France Profonde humiliated by masters of pouvoir profond”.

Who are these “masters of deep power?” Why the Jews of course.

Forces other than Mr Soral may well be responsible for the anti-Semitic graffitti, the desecration of churches and the attacks on politicians’ homes and offices. Such events may or may not be linked at all. Personally, I believe that they are.

The Gilets Jaunes are, at heart, a movement of moderate, ordinary people with radical, extraordinary demands. They say that they are non-political or anti-political. They are in danger of being led down strange paths and after strange gods.



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