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OPINION & ANALYSIS

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

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.

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

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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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.

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