THE PERVERSE LOGIC OF FRENCH POLITICS (JCPA-JERUSALEM CENTER FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS) By Shmuel Trigano Jerusalem Letter / Viewpoints No. 479 06/02/02)
JCPA-Jerusalem Center Public Affairs
JCPA-Jerusalem Center Public Affairs Articles-Index-Top
Delegitimizing Jewish Citizenship in France
Today the Jewish community in France finds itself in a completely new
social and political situation, which could represent a turning point
in its history.
There are a number of external factors that have contributed to the
creation of a public image that does not really reflect the daily
experience of most Jews. However, they cannot ignore or disassociate
themselves from it because of its strong influence. (Internal factors
have also contributed just as much to this image, but we will not
analyze them here.) This image stems from events in the Middle East
that have deeply influenced religion and culture in France.
The situation is best exemplified by the anti-Semitic attacks on the
Jewish communities of France provoked by North African groups in
reaction to Middle East events. There were around 450 anti-Semitic
assaults between autumn 2000 and spring 2002. Yet for over a year the
media and the authorities implemented an incredible news blackout on
discussion of these attacks. This blackout, coupled with the pro-
Palestinian bias of the media and public opinion, created a feeling
of helplessness and abandonment within the Jewish community. When the
community expressed its uneasiness, it faced adversity and
misunderstanding. It found itself accused of anti-Arab racism every
time it tried to alert global society. The general public in France
has remained unaware of the real causes of this uneasiness. Reports
of anti-Semitic attacks offered an opportunity for criticism by the
press, which condemned the Jewish community for withdrawing into
itself. Some Jewish intellectuals even charged the community with
being responsible for the situation.
These developments signify a growing instability in the status of
Jews as French citizens. As their safety appears to be in greater
jeopardy, there is no protest from society at large and the
government seems indifferent. The authorities behave merely as
spectators, distancing themselves from the tension stemming from what
they perceive as an external conflict between "two immigrant
communities" that are perceived as foreign to France.
Such an interpretation is made plausible by earlier, similar
responses. For example, during the Gulf War in 1991, Francois
Mitterand, the President of France, hypocritically
congratulated "both communities" for their restraint during that
trying period, causing the Jews to be regarded in the same way as the
Arab-Islamic community, whose members were once (and still are to a
great extent) nationals of foreign countries -- recent immigrants.
Unfortunately, this image has become strongly fixed in the public
mind and implies the unobtrusive denationalization of the Jewish
community of France. This jeopardizes, de facto, Jews´ citizenship.
It deprives them of being considered truly French, an attitude
morally reinforced by the stigmatization of Israel.1
To understand the causes and the consequences of the present
situation and to explain how so many elements are linked, let us
review the background and identify the underlying problems.
Our analysis is based on the following argument: even if the current
situation was produced by external elements, its social basis is to
be found in recent French history and politics. Therefore, the
situation has a dual foundation that is both national and
The Metastasizing of Human-Rightism
The first riddle to solve is, obviously, how did it come about that
the French Jewish community was transformed into a "community of
immigrants" who are considered to be of foreign origin and not French
nationals. To do so, we have to go back to the 1980s and the end of
socialism in France, which the Left (in power) ratified by choosing
a "policy of economic and social stringency" which was at variance
with the Socialist Party program. This pragmatic turn of events
challenged the ideological ideals and hopes that the Left had once
represented and which had been the most powerful source of its
influence. Hope had always been found on the Left in French postwar
In order to reduce the political anemia produced by such a decision,
Francois Mitterand revived the "anti-fascist front" strategy that had
previously worked so well for the socialists/communists. Since the
appointed enemy, that was artificially created, was the National
Front of Jean Marie LePen and its racist ideology, it had to be
opposed in the name of well-accepted "human rights." Juridical in
concept, this became an ideological cause that served partisan
interests. This use of human rights as a political weapon is what we
Fifteen years of French policy were organized around this axis.
During those years, the Right was crushed between the extremes
activated by Francois Mitterand and could not achieve power.
Democratic forces were invited to join this front, while the Right
was hesitant to enter into a coalition with extreme Right forces in
the parliamentary elections. (In France, the electoral system is
based on a two-ballot majority system which in many constituencies
often requires local coalitions.)
The Jewish community was strongly attracted to the debate on human-
rightism (to promote humanitarian causes or to claim the right to
interfere in the affairs of other states for moral reasons). As the
heir to the Holocaust martyrology and the classic victim of anti-
Semitism, the Jewish community was called upon to serve as the moral
guarantor of such a human-rights policy. At the same time, the
Holocaust and the heritage of Vichy began to become part of the
political debate. The past victimization of the Jewish community
became a precious asset that legitimized the policy of the Socialist
Party. The Jewish community and its associations were asked very
strongly to support human-rightism, and they responded positively.
Associations such as SOS Racisme (Association Against Racism) were
born with great assistance from the Union of Jewish Students of
France (UEJF). Research has shown that UEJF was dependent on the
Socialist Party. These associations played an important part in the
creation of a public opinion that replaced its old "third-worldism"
with a flamboyant human-rightism.
"Jews = Immigrants"
Following this, the famous SOS Racisme equation "Jews = immigrants"
became the slogan of the politically inexperienced youth. This
equation involved the ideological synthesis of the Jew, the victim of
the Holocaust and Vichy, with the immigrant, the victim of racism and
the target of the National Front. Therefore, the emotions created by
the Holocaust and the guilt born from association with the German
Occupation became part of the image of the immigrant. All the Jewish
symbols were ideologically confiscated to serve the immigrant cause.
The lessening of the Jew´s national status was the result of this
rewriting, in which the Jew was identified with the immigrant: he was
viewed as more immigrant than the immigrants, becoming an archetype.
This was the start of a perverse logic, and we have recently
witnessed the latest of its developments. The evolution of this logic
can be divided into a number of steps.
The Holocaust and Vichyism became the epitome of the racism that had
to be fought and of which the Jews were the moral witnesses.
Therefore, the stigma of anti-Semitism became in itself a motive to
fight against anti-immigrant racism, even though the Jews were not
actually threatened at that time. One could get the impression that
they were exaggerating when they raised the danger of anti-Semitism
without any reason. Then there was also an undue confusion between
xenophobia and anti-Semitism -- which according to all historians has
its own specific tradition.
In fact, this symbolic transformation was much more complex and long-
term. Human-rightism used an exaggerated image of the Jew as an
example. It depersonalized the Jews, sacrificing their uniqueness and
legitimate interests for the good of mankind. By becoming a model,
the Jews were excluded first from their own history and then from
history in general. The consequences of this did not appear before
the 1990s, when that same human-rightism, so sensitive to the tragedy
of the Holocaust, began to stigmatize the singularity of the
Holocaust and the selfish exploitation of the Jewish community´s
identification with it.2
The Question of National Identity and the Headscarf Case
The equation "Jew = immigrant" was inverted with the "headscarf"
(hidjeb) case,3 which provided an opportunity for indirect criticism
of immigration. Some Islamic girls wanted to wear the headscarf in
school, and not take part in certain classes (sports, biology), even
though the French school system is supposed to be totally secular.
France became divided into two camps, with the anti-headscarf side in
the majority. The excessive reaction of public opinion to the
headscarf case leads one to think that something else was really
happening. It had less to do with the actual headscarf than with the
national identity of a France confronted by immigration, and the
expression of an identity that was threatening to the nation.
Then an additional factor, religion, was added to the equation by the
opponents of the headscarf, which supplied them with the politically-
correct opportunity and terminology to demonstrate in the name of
anti-clericalism (which was mistaken for secularism) as well as anti-
racism. Implicitly and indirectly, they were defending the national
character of France. On the strength of the SOS Racisme equation, to
make things equal, it was thought justified to devalue, without
reason, Jewish symbols at school (kippa, Star of David, respect for
religious holidays) that had never caused a problem. Then, to make
things even more equal, an opposition appeared against "the united
front of religions" (including Christianity), a phantasm that
incarnated the alleged threat against the secular republic, so that
criticism of the headscarf could not be considered anti-Arab. Jewish
intellectuals were strongly encouraged to participate in this as well.
In fact, a subliminal message was sent to the immigrants in the name
of the universal equality promoted by the secular republic, ordering
them to renounce their national (foreign) identity in order to melt
into France. Nobody actually spoke about national identity, although
this was the real issue hidden behind the banner of secularism.
Perhaps this was because the extreme Right had monopolized national
The equation "Jews = immigrants" may also have blocked any national
definition of the problem because, in the past, anti-Semitism and
nationalism had excluded the Jews from French national identity.
Thus, the synthesized image of the immigrant-Jew would have blocked
the legitimate use of national identity because of the influence of
the anti-Jewish past of Vichy, as if the past prevented looking at
the question of immigration in terms of national identity.
It helps to understand the source of the resentment in public opinion
that, in this instance, could have accumulated secretly and
unconsciously against the Jews. There was a process that led to the
symbolic substitution of the Jewish community for the immigrant
community in the terminology concerning immigration, as will be
In any case, the question of immigration was set in terms of religion
in order to hide a political and national reality. The real problem
was that immigration was not dealt with as the national problem that
it is: the integration of a large foreign population into a society
with a specific morphology and identity, that now has to redefine
itself. Instead, it was dealt with as a religious problem.
The synthesis with the symbolic position of the Jews became the moral
guarantor for the immigrants, and the fight against anti-Semitism was
extended to protect the immigrants against anti-Arab racism. Thus, a
terminology that had lost any connection to reality began to be used,
and in the end became part of the accepted way of thinking. A
language substitution developed which allowed the problem of
immigration to be confronted indirectly through the symbol of the
This was useful in two ways. Since the symbol of the Jew was known
and totally integrated into the culture and speech of contemporary
France, using it to speak to the immigrants translated what would
otherwise seem like an unclear and opaque reality into one that was
understandable and familiar. The Jewish symbol played the part of a
language of mediation. It was thought that there was no danger in
doing so, because discrediting anti-Semitism protected the Jews.
Thus, a double "republican" language that was politically correct
began to be used. In fact, from that moment, "republican"
meant "national." It was no longer a question of "Arabs" (as if the
term was insulting; just as "Jew" had been used as opposed
to "Israelite" in the past), but rather "North
Africans," "immigrants," "suburbs." This euphemistic terminology was
in itself a sign of the uneasiness felt in dealing with the issues
involved. When one spoke
of "suburbs," "rudeness," "insecurity," "rebel youth," or "little
savages" (according to former Minister of the Interior Jean Pierre
Chevenement), everyone knew what it meant. Indeed, this euphemistic
language expressed the will not to use the same language as the worst
enemies of the immigrants and extreme Right racism. However, the
consequences of using such indirect language made the Jews the safety
valve for a problem that has still not been solved in French society:
the integration of a large immigrant population. Since French society
was unable to face the problem, this accepted use of Jewish symbols
as a safe outlet attracted to the Jews what no one had the courage to
say to the immigrants.
Reversing Politically-Correct Terminology
Since the second intifada, the disastrous consequences of such a
development can be measured at every level. A reversal of the
symbolic meaning of the Jew took place. What had been an implied
symbolic language convention started to be taken as reality by those
who used it. This first occurred with French Islam. The recent
attacks against the Jewish community gave an opportunity to actually
show how circles within the Islamic community relate to the Jewish
community as a rival. According to them, the Jewish community
benefits from "privileges" that their community does not have, even
though the Jewish community is just as much an "immigrant community."
In French society at large, the use of politically-correct language
has confused a political debate that was built on a misunderstanding.
Thus, the nation vs. immigrant conflict was hidden by the republic
vs. religion conflict. When this conflict is dealt with in its
national reality, priority is given to the republican-communal
polarity as a way of avoiding the question of national identity. One
has to remember that France has a very centralistic political
culture. The "republic" is thought of as unique and all-encompassing,
which includes within it only anonymous, individual citizens. Nothing
is more illegitimate than an additional communal identity.
Here, "communities" means those who see themselves outside of
republican law. It is also a euphemistic term for referring to
For the Jewish community, this comparison with the "community of
immigrants" has removed its legitimacy in the collective
consciousness. Placing it at the communal level has removed the
national legitimacy that the Jewish community had rebuilt for itself
after the war. The place of Judaism in France has nothing in common
with the place of Islam. During the last two centuries, the Jewish
community went through a process of modernization (the Napoleonic
Sanhedrin) that transformed it deeply, a process unknown to Islam.
As for its national roots, the Jewish community is in no way
an "immigrant" community. Assuming the memory of a collective fate,
it was set up at the end of the war, in the 1950s, in order to put
right the wrongs stemming from the national exclusion suffered by the
Jews under Vichy and to restore a lost citizenship. The Council
Representing the Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) was founded
during the resistance movement in 1944, on the same wavelength of
legitimacy as the CNR (National Council of Resistance).
According to the editorialists, the "Jewish (immigrant) community"
seems to be made up of Jews coming from North Africa, who had settled
in France since the 1960s. In actuality, the 120,000 Jews from
Algeria, which was the most important community in North Africa in
1962, have been French since 1870, except, of course, during Vichy.
This was well before numerous Jews living in France who arrived after
World War I. When the Algerian Jews became French citizens, their
history was irreversibly separated from that of the Islamic societies
in which they lived, where Jews were second-class citizens who were
kept in precarious conditions. From that point of view, to assimilate
the Jewish community into an immigrant North African community that
has recently arrived in France is the worst regression. It is like
denying their choice of a century ago: they became French in order to
leave the Islamic society where their status was less than desirable.
In parallel, while there has been such an unobtrusive
denationalization, the fight against anti-Semitism and the exaltation
of the memory of the Holocaust started to appear to certain groups as
a sham, hiding shameful intentions, as a diverted and hidden
statement of a Jewish communal identity.4
The second intifada has actually introduced an additional step in the
history of Jewish symbolism in French politics: in immigrant circles,
the symbolism of the Jew has now been turned against itself when
speaking with French society. In the France-immigrant relationship, a
conventional, politically-correct language is now used, this time in
an unexpected way, in the opposite direction. Certain activists
within the Muslim community are now using Jewish symbolism to
communicate with French society and government.
The Consequences of the Weakened French Nation-State
This evolution can only be explained by introducing it into the geo-
political framework of the internal French political situation.
Obviously, this evolution has an impact on the different trends in
the Right and the Left (for example, Jean Pierre Chevenement, a left-
wing nationalist). The process of European unification also
influences the internal situation. The structural foundation of the
French political community is at stake with the development of a
united Europe: a weakening of the state is obviously outlined since
the state will be dependent on the European authority (still in
formation). The French political community is already dependent on
the European authority for legal conformity, and dependent on the
European Court of Human Rights where a French citizen can appeal
against the state´s decisions.
In France, the state led to the nation. In Germany, on the contrary,
the nation and the culture brought about the state. They do not need
its centralism, which is the reason why Germany can be more European
than France. The centralism of the state is at the foundation of
French political culture and it is challenged by the European Union.
Political speeches have been delivered that oppose the threat to
French independence of the European Union, by Charles Pasqua,
President of RPR (Rassemblement Pour la Republique), a right-wing
party, or by the radical republican Jean Pierre Chevenement. In fact,
those two movements are only two variations of a neo-nationalism that
is fighting on two fronts, inside for a united republic (not allowing
Corsica or any "community" any autonomy or recognition), and outside
against the European Union. Those holding this view feel threatened
by regionalism and collective identities inside France. European
unification establishes a level of identification above the state. By
doing so, it disturbs the state´s primary status and automatically
frees secondary entities such as regions and different kinds
This national republican trend practically meets another progressive
trend, which fights the so-called negative effects of globalization.
This trend does not fight for the republic or the nation, but rather
seeks to restore the welfare state. Thus, it is also a fight for the
continuation of the state.
The community sees its legitimacy challenged from the perspective of
those two ideological and political trends, and it is challenged even
more when it is combined with an immigrant population. In a rightist
and nationalist setting, the Jewish community has become the object
of a symbolic construction different from that of human-rightism: the
Jews have come to symbolize the republic, the universality of the
state, as opposed to ethnic identities: "Jews = republic" is the
rightist counterpart to the slogan "Jews = immigrants."
The Jew as a Model Citizen
This symbolism had very concrete consequences. "The immigrant Jew"
became "the integrated Jew," a successful model offered to immigrants
who are not Jewish. The 190th anniversary of the Napoleonic Sanhedrin
raised Jewish symbolism into a republican model to be offered to the
immigrants. It was sponsored by the Consistoire (the original
statewide authority established for French Jewry), and was celebrated
by the President of France. (The entire matter was done with strange
haste; it is normal for 200 years to pass before such a celebration
is held.) For the occasion, the integration of the Jews into the
republic, glorified in the speech of Jacques Chirac, was offered as a
model to the immigrants. This haste has numerous causes, but the
political situation at that time has to be mentioned: the Left
compared the Debre laws restricting the entry of foreigners to the
status of the Jews during Vichy.
The same symbolism, "Jews = republic," was used in the immigration
policy of Pierre Joxe when he encouraged the creation of the CORIF
(Council Representing Islam in France), which is similar to the CRIF
(Council Representing the Jewish Institutions in France), and even
the creation of an Islamic "Consistoire." It was as if he was
offering a Jewish model to the Muslims. Such an action could have
predictable consequences: it could only bring about jealousy and
resentment by the Muslims. They were offered as a model Jews who,
according to their cultural and religious heritage, are seen as a
minority which should be ruled by Islam, and one which is also
identified with Israel.
In France, Judaism had to meet the humiliating requirements of the
state in order to receive state recognition. That was Napoleon´s goal
when he summoned the Sanhedrin. Nothing similar has been required
from French Islam. Yet it is necessary to do so for several reasons:
Islam cannot distinguish between religion and politics. It does not
have a tradition or a psychology of being a minority. It has known
the process of modernization very superficially. Its religious
authorities today are appointed and financed by foreign countries
(Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco). But France today is not the
powerful state that it was in Napoleon´s time.
Vichy -- The Unacceptable Past
The tendency of the whole political class to hold up the Jewish
community as a model or absolute reference for immigrants, especially
Muslim immigrants, has its roots in Jewish martyrology, which has
been a source of great legitimization in French politics since the
1980s. The terrorist attack at the Copernic Street synagogue in 1980,
and the desecration of a Jewish grave in Carpentras, provoked large
demonstrations supported by wide sectors of French society and
politics. The reaction to these events provided an example of French
thinking with regard to what these events symbolized, and were
considered essential for France´s conscience and moral dignity.
This situation has its source in the repression during the German
Occupation and the Vichy government as evidenced in the collective
memory during de Gaulle´s period, i.e., before the socialists came to
power. The almost alchemic reversal of the Jew from outcast to
perfect citizen, from exclusion to absolute ideal, is typical of the
phenomenon of sacredness, and it explains the ambivalence of a
process which glorifies what Jews symbolize and crushes the Jews.
Jacques Chirac gave a very colorful example of such a contrast: on
one hand, he recognized French responsibility during Vichy. On the
other hand, he made a scene during a visit to the Old City of
Jerusalem when he criticized his Israeli bodyguards in a deliberate
fit of temper. The confused interaction, so important for the French
collective identity, between the problem of immigrants and what Jews
symbolize in French politics, their being sacred, leads to a
marginalization -- a negation of the Jews as a specific reality.
As an ideal model, Jewish existence -- when it becomes all too
visible -- is becoming an unbearable profanation of the sacred
collective which was symbolized by the recognition of the Jewish
condition as victim. At the level of the Jewish community as well as
the State of Israel, the defense of legitimate interests can only
harm their supposedly sacred character and create a scandal, an
abomination. That is exactly what is happening to Israel, which has
political interests to defend. That is what happened just before the
second intifada, with unfavorable publicity relating to claims for
compensation for suffering during the war. The exceptional impact in
France of the pamphlet by Norman Finkelstein on "The Holocaust
Industry"5 testifies to the blame that the Jewish community has
experienced because of its fall from sacredness. This step is linked
to another one we have experienced for over a year: the
stigmatization of Israel as an expression of the boomerang effect of
having made the Jews sacred.
The Real Question
Everyone understands that the present situation is, above all, very
French in its meaning and reality, even if it is the result of
outside events. It reflects the difficulties encountered by French
society and politics when confronted with the natural sociological
impact of mass immigration on their structures and routine. That is
the reason why the National Front progressed to such an extent and
became the axis of the political system. The political operations of
Francois Mitterand, who deliberately inflated their importance, could
only take place if they were based on this structural factor.
Certainly, it is impossible to create a phenomenon out of nothing.
Here a national problem of collective identity is raised. This
problem was not faced by offering a clear agreement to a newly
arrived population. Rather, the problem was defined in religious
terms: namely, the entrance of Islam (as a religion) into a secular
society. The reduction of politics to religion shows the poor
capacity of the French political culture to face such a situation.
Its tendency to reduce the question of collective identity to
religion represented the difficulty in recognizing and accepting the
national dimension of the problem.
That is the reason why the Jews were asked to socialize the immigrant
community. They are already citizens and at the same time they are a
community. Their presence diminished the impact of the communal and
foreign character of Muslims on the French system. The Jew was
reduced to the position of a "good foreigner" who is a well-
integrated citizen. Aside from the satisfaction that gave them, it
was a sign that Jews were still seen as fundamentally foreigners, a
patch on the French nation.
The part played by the Jews as the symbolic mediators in the
political community is the axis of the present politically symbolic
French system. It created a situation in which the discourse that
French society could not have on Islam and the immigrant community
could be had on Judaism and the Jewish community. All the collective
anguish toward Islam is projected on Judaism as a mirror, and the
exclusion of Islam is transferred to the Jewish community. This was
proven by the events of October 2000, when dozens of anti-Semitic
attacks occurred and French magazines started to criticize the Jewish
community in haste and almost in a psychoanalytic way. There was
better proof after the terrorist attacks in New York, when the press
and the government took the place of the immigrant community to speak
in its name, to defend Islam and to dissociate it from Islamism.
On this occasion, by comparison, any discourse on the matter by the
Jewish community is absent -- it has been repressed. The attacks
suffered by the Jews were passed over in silence. At the same time,
the incredible journalistic outpouring on the Middle East, which
incited the anti-Semitic assaults in the suburbs, was not once muted.
The symbolism of the Jew in French politics may now be entering the
next stage in its history. The operation of substitution is complete:
the Islamic model has become the example of excellence, while the
Jewish community is falling from its pedestal.
The ventriloquist exercise of the press and the government expresses
unconsciously and dialectically a serious mistrust toward the Islamic
community (which is less and less a community of immigrants).
Meanwhile, the highest level of deception is reached when the image
of the threatened Islamic community is presented, even when certain
of its activists are threatening the Jewish community. No one ever
recognized, admitted, or clearly condemned this situation, even the
nebulous Islamic authorities.
The consequences of such a distortion of the public and political
system of communication can be very serious because this dialectical
subtlety, whose development was described here from the perspective
of political sociology, is unknown to those who use it (public
opinion and immigrants); they can take this switching of images and
terminology seriously. In any case, the use of this terminology
endangers the Jewish community, causing it to become the scapegoat
for the unsolved problems of French society. (© Copyright. JCPA.ORG 06/02/02)
1. The link between the image of Israel and the image of the French
Jewish community is objectively shown by the aggressions against
2. For an analysis of the ideological and political trend which
supports those ideas, see L´ideal democratique a l´epreuve de la
Holocaust (The Democratic Ideal Tested in the Holocaust) (Paris:
Odile Jacob Publishers, 1999).
3. In 1989, a movement in favor of wearing the headscarf (hidjeb) by
young Muslim schoolgirls created a very strong public reaction. A
national debate divided France in two. The secular and republican
side, condemning the hidjeb, had an overwhelming majority. Afterward,
the "Conseil d´Etat," a kind of Supreme Court, allowed this custom,
4. See Trigano, L´ideal....
5. La Fabrique (The Holocaust Industry), 2001.
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