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.
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