ANALYSIS: Where does all the hatred towards Jews in France come from?

Jews in France make up 0.7 percent of the population, so why is there so much hatred directed at them? John Lichfield examines the reasons behind yet another spike in anti-Semitism in a country which has a sorry history of animosity towards its Jewish community.

ANALYSIS: Where does all the hatred towards Jews in France come from?
Photo: AFP

There are 467,500 jews in France, less than one per cent of the population. And yet over half the acts of racism recorded in the country are anti-Semitic graffitti or verbal or physical attacks on Jews.

As thousands prepared to demonstrate in Paris tonight against anti-Semitism, 80 grave-stones were desecrated with swastikas at a Jewish cemetery in Alsace. The weekend’s latest Gilets Jaunes protests were disfigured by the violent abuse heaped on the Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut when he climbed out of a taxi near a handful of demonstrators in Montparnasse.

An unusally large opinion poll (a sample of 10,000 people) by the Elabe organistion finds that 73 per cent of French people are “happy”.  If so, where is all the hatred coming from?

Why is so much of that hatred – by no means all of it – aimed at 0.7 per cent of the population?

It shouldn’t be necessary to defend French Jews. Here goes all the same.

The 467,000 make a disproportionate contribution to French life, especially in the medical and artistic professions. They do not, as absurd conspiracy theories suggest, dominate French business or banking or politics or government.

Not all French Jews are wealthy. I once visited a kosher transport café in the north eastern suburbs of Paris. My fellow diners were Jewish truck-drivers and Jewish textile workers.


You feel the hate-rising: Jews in France speak out about rise in anti-Semitism

'You feel the hate rising': Jews in Paris speak out about rise in anti-Semitism

The scourge of modern anti-Semitism is not just a French phenomenon, as the melt-down in the British Labour Party indicates.

The old far-right, nationalist or ultra-Catholic jew hatred is now reflected, as if in a distorting mirror, on the hard Left. There is also a virulent anti-Semitism promoted by Islamist activists among young Muslims, exploiting their understandable sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

In France, these different kinds of anti-Semitism breed among themselves. There is a right-left, nationalist-workerist, muslim-white anti-Semitism, which is promoted by the comedian Dieudonné and the former Jean-Marie Le Pen speechwriter, Alain Soral.

There is also a trendy, leftist-islamist anti-Semitism, which is popular amongst some French intellectuals, who see Jews as the praetorian guard of a capitalist-racist global elite. Something similar has infected parts of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the UK.

The handful of young men wearing yellow high-viz vests who called Alain Finkielkraut a “dirty Zionist” from a “dirty race” were probably from the Dieudonné-Soral school of “lets blame the Jews for everything”.  Finkielkraut himself said that they were not “authentic” provincial Gilets Jaunes but members of one of the extremist sects which have attached themselves to the movement.

Some minor Gilets Jaunes figures and bloggers have repudiated the attack on Finkielkraut. The leading yellow vest spokespeople have said nothing or complained that the mainstream media is trying to tar them as racists.

One clownish Gilet Jaune appeared in a march on Sunday wearing a kippa. He suggested that this was the only way to avoid being “gassed” or “rounded up” by the police. The word he used for “round up” was “rafle” , a term always associated with the mass arrest of Jews by French police in 1942.

'Hatred of Jews is the obsession of a minority of Gilets jaunes'

It is wrong – and too convenient – to dismiss the Gilets Jaunes as a racist phenomenon or “anti-Semitic at heart”.  Hatred of Jews is not something that you hear on the lips of ordinary yellow vests during Saturday demos.

There is something indecent about the way that some Macron  ministers and supporters have pounced on the Finkielkraut incident to try to discredit the whole of the muddled and much-splintered yellow vest movement.

But it is clear that the more moderate Gilets Jaunes are in danger of being overwhelmed by their extremes. As the yellow flood abates week by week, the detritus that it has gathered floats to the surface.

Hatred of Jews is the obsession of a minority of Gilets jaunes. Others hate politicians, the “elites”, “the media” and  one another. 

A moderate and eloquent Gilets Jaune personality, Ingrid Levavasseur, was insulted and shoved by militant yellow vests at a Paris march on Sunday. Her crime was to have announced that she plans to run in the European elections in May. One of the insults hurled at her was “dirty Jew|”.

That takes us back to our original question. Where does all this hatred come from? The Elabe poll suggests that the great majority of French people feel “happy”. And yet more than 40 per cent feel that their standard of living is declining and 70 per cent are pessimistic about the country’s future.

Anti-semitism has been with us for centuries. It tends to rise and fall with a national sense of victimhood or well-being. It can, as it did in Germany and France in the 1930s, portend approaching national breakdown.

The Gilets Jaunes movement is based partly on genuine grievances. It also reveals a more existential malaise in France, a crisis of identity which coincides with the collapse of the traditional left-right party structure, the retreat of the Church, suspicion of the media and the inflammatory influence of social media.

The demonstration in Place de la République tonight will repudiate an abhorrent and absurd obsession with a blameless minority. It should also be a moment for the happy French to ask themselves where all the hatred is coming from and where it might lead.   

You can follow John Lichfield on Twitter @John_Lichfield



Member comments

  1. I agree, and throwing in comments about “Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party” was not relevant (or if it were it would need some lengthy explaining, and distinguishing from the French experience.)

    This was glib, superficial, really unhelpful in understanding anything. Disappointing and well below the Local’s usual standard

  2. And it has been all to easily forget how Muslims in France most notably at the Grande Mosquée de Paris actively helped Jewish people escape and survive the rafles, the round-ups ordered by the Nazis and so willingly carried out by the Vichy forces. They haven’t had a lot of thanks for that.

  3. I read this article to hear why people hate Jews, but all I got was a political non-answer. By the way I am not Jewish.

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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.