France Waking Up to Its Anti-Semitism?

There is something intriguing about François Hollande, the socialist president of France. Many of his policies boil down to sheer liberal mantras in the style of Paul Krugman or the New York Review of Books. He indulges in overtaxation, big government, inflated social programs, and such cultural demagoguery as compulsory gender parity, gay marriage, and electoral franchise for resident aliens. On the other hand, he departs sharply from the left-wing agenda on some issues.

He seems to be serious about abiding by the EU free market rules, submitting to the euro’s deflationary discipline, cutting the national debt, and balancing the budget. And he is expressing, along with his Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls, genuine sympathy and concern for the French Jews -- and Israel.

On June 30, barely three weeks after Hollande’s election, the French President’s Office devoted a dignified obituary to Yitzhak Shamir, who had just passed away in Jerusalem, calling him a "builder of the state of Israel” and a “courageous man.” The French Left used to describe the late Israeli prime minister as a “former terrorist” and a “fascist.”

Then, on July 22, Hollande boldly linked current anti-Semitic violence in France, including the murder earlier this year of three Jewish children and one Jewish teacher in Toulouse, to the Holocaust. For over half a century, successive French administrations, both Right and Left, had been reluctant to acknowledge the role played under the German occupation by the Vichy regime apparatus and a subservient French police in the round-up of Jews and their subsequent transfer to Auschwitz. François Mitterrand, a socialist president from 1981 to 1995, had been particularly nervous about it, if only because of his close personal ties to René Bousquet, who had supervised the major Paris round-up in 1942 as the secretary general of the Vichy police. It was Jacques Chirac, his conservative successor, who first took full responsibility for these matters in 1995 in the name of the French nation. But at the same time, he held on to the anti-Israeli and pro-Arab policy inherited from Charles de Gaulle, as if France’s partial complicity in the Holocaust did not entail at least some understanding for the Jewish state’s travails.

What made Hollande’s statement on July 22 quite remarkable was not that he reiterated France’s responsibility -- “The crime committed in France and by France” -- and its duty to fight anti-Semitism and racism at large (as liberals in France and abroad, and the New York Review of Books, understood it), but rather that he described the Toulouse massacre as an eerie return to Holocaust times. Indeed, Toulouse’s Islamist killer, Mohamed Merah, had been trained to kill, and to kill Jews, just like SS men had been seventy years ago. The placards and banners at Islamist demonstrations all over Europe routinely warning of a coming “real Holocaust” were from now on to be taken literally, just like the ubiquitous Arabic slogan Itbah al-Yahud (“slaughter the Jews!”). And Hollande, while owing his own election in a large measure to the growing and increasingly assertive Muslim vote, was prepared to do so.

But Hollande went even further. On October 31, he welcomed Benjamin Netanyahu, the conservative prime minister of Israel, on a “working visit” to Paris. They had lunch at the Elysée Palace. The following day, All Saints Day, the two men went to Toulouse and attended a memorial ceremony dedicated to Merah’s Jewish and non-Jewish victims (the Islamist terrorist had also killed, presumably as “traitors” to jihad, three soldiers of North African or Caribbean origin in Montauban). French and Israeli flags were displayed. While Netanyahu had called on French Jews to come to Israel, Hollande insisted that French Jews’ security was “a national cause.”