Why France Matters to the Jewish People

By Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, AJC Paris Director

In anticipation of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’s speech at the AJC Global Forum on Monday, May 12, AJC Paris Director Simone Rodan-Benzaquen details the importance of France to the Jewish people.

As a pillar of Europe, permanent member of the UN Security Council, and home to the largest Jewish community in Europe, France is a priority for AJC’s advocacy efforts on Israel, countering the Iran threat, and combating anti-Semitism.

France and Israel
In November 2013, French President Francois Hollande made his first official state visit to Israel. AJC Paris was honored to represent the only American Jewish organization officially invited by the President to accompany the delegation.

During the visit, the President reaffirmed France’s strong and profound relationship with Israel, saying, "Israelis turned their tragedy into a power which built their state." He promised to help safeguard Israel against the Iranian nuclear threat, and called for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, saying, "peace requires courage, even more than war," and recalling that "France has always defended Israel, from its first day, to support its right to exist. Sixty-five years later I come to say in Israel, in the name of France: The friendship between us is firm, more than the passing leaders who come and go, and even more than ups and downs of international life." 

France and Anti-Semitism
 In the fight against European anti-Semitism, France is a key—if not the key—battleground. It has the largest Jewish and Muslim populations in Europe; it has a certain responsibility for the Holocaust; it has been a colonial power; and is now undergoing an unprecedented economic and societal upheaval. In 2012, 55 percent of racist acts in the country were directed against Jews, and in 2013, 40 percent were, even as Jews represent only 1 percent of the French population.

The 2012 murders of a rabbi and three young children at a Jewish school in Toulouse shocked the Jewish community. Reassuringly, government leaders demonstrated immediate solidarity with the victims. But anti-Semitic incidents increased in the immediate aftermath of this crime, rising by 58 percent in 2012.

Late last year, the French public became aware of the “quenelle” movement, invented by a notoriously anti-Semitic comedian named Dieudonné M'Balla M'Balla. His quenelle, described as “an inverted Nazi salute,” is a gesture of contempt for and defiance of what he and his followers see as “official France,” which, in their minds, is "mainly controlled by a Jewish elite whose only mission is to preserve Jewish interests and pervert French society."

The phenomenon, supported by other extremists on the right and the left, has rapidly spread on the internet and social networks, and its YouTube videos have been viewed more than two million times. In December 2013, then-Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls recommended that local authorities ban Dieudonné’s latest anti-Semitic show in which he "joked" about gas chambers and made anti-Semitic comments about several French Jewish personalities.

This past January, the Conseil d’État, the highest legal authority in France, upheld the ban on Dieudonné’s performances, which they were deemed a risk to “public order” and “national cohesion.” A few weeks later, Interior Minister Valls (who is now Prime Minister) condemned the “Day of Anger” with its chants calling for expulsion of Jews. Several of the demonstrators were arrested, and Valls spoke of “the need to stand firm against anti-Semitic hatred” in France.

The government today, and in particular Prime Minister Valls (an AJC Project Interchange alumnus), sees fighting anti-Semitism as a clear priority for the French government, despite the profound challenges involved. AJC Paris will continue to consult closely with the government on creating a comprehensive strategy to combat anti-Semitism.

You can watch French Foreign Minister Fabius’s address to AJC via live webcast on Monday, May 12, at 5:30 PM ET on the main AJC Virtual Global Forum webpage.

To receive an email notification about the webcast of Foreign Minister Fabius’s address, click here.

Date: 5/8/2014

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