Ben Judah

Fear and loathing in Paris unsettles French Jews

If Macron keeps failing to bring stability through reform, it will prompt further emigration


TOPSHOT - French riot police officers stand guard next to a burnt out trash bin during a demonstration against police in Marseille, southern France on July 1, 2023, after a fourth consecutive night of rioting in France over the killing of a teenager by police. French police arrested 1311 people nationwide during a fourth consecutive night of rioting over the killing of a teenager by police, the interior ministry said on July 1, 2023. France had deployed 45,000 officers overnight backed by light armoured vehicles and crack police units to quell the violence over the death of 17-year-old Nahel, killed during a traffic stop in a Paris suburb on June 27, 2023. (Photo by CLEMENT MAHOUDEAU / AFP) (Photo by CLEMENT MAHOUDEAU/AFP via Getty Images)

July 06, 2023 11:39

Nobody in Paris can be said to be calm about the biggest explosion of civil unrest in France for 20 years. What began with the shooting by traffic cops of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old French-Arab with immigrant parents — one of a shocking 17 drivers shot dead by police in the past 18 months — exploded into five nights of rioting, looting and rage.

Spreading across France, rioters from the underprivileged and racially mixed banlieues — the fringes of the country’s prosperous and elegant cities — torched cars, looted shops and targeted town halls, the homes of mayors and state-owned properties or symbols of all kinds.
The statistics are horrifying: more than 5,000 vehicles burned, 3,400 arrests, 1,000 buildings damaged or looted, 250 police stations or gendarmeries attacked and more than 700 police officers injured.

But French Jews woke from the madness more nervous than most. Not only was the Holocaust Memorial in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre, the epicentre of the rioting, defaced by anti-police and anti-government slogans, but Jewish shops were ransacked in the community hub of Sarcelles, an ethnically mixed banlieue itself, also on the edge of Paris. Clips circulating on social media showed graffiti warning “we will make you a Shoah” and recorded cries of “death to the Jews”. The deep seam of banlieue antisemitism, while not central, had indeed reared its head.

“What does it mean for the Jews?” is, in Paris this week, not a comic question. So far, community leaders have been keen to point out that, unlike in the 2014 riots, the properties of Jews caught up in the rioting do not seem to have been targeted simply for being Jewish. Instead, the kosher supermarket and orthodox wig shop in Sarcelles that were devastated were part of wider, indiscriminate mayhem. This was a relief to a community which in 2014 saw multiple synagogues targeted by rioters. But in an indication of pessimistic expectations, this in itself is considered positive news for the Jews.

The real worry is what the unrest means politically. The community fears that this third episode of chaos facing President Macron in less than a year marks a moment when a decisive part of the electorate begins to desert the centre ground. Far-right Marine Le Pen, who has spent a decade trying to “de-demonise” herself and her party, is waiting for them. Earlier this year, a few polls showed that the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen would beat Macron in a rematch. She is now perfectly placed to take advantage of his humiliation. This would be a disaster for French Jews, not simply because it would bring a party with a history of antisemitism to power.

Le Pen’s preferred recipe for the banlieues — more police brutality — is no solution. Since 2001, France has passed a new law every year further empowering and arming the police. This has had little effect on law and order. Instead it has turned the French police into an outlier in western Europe. In Germany, one person has been killed for refusing to comply with the police in the last ten years. In France, this statistic is one every month. Under Macron, who assumed office in May 2017, there have been more than 30 complaints of people losing an eye or a hand to police flash or stun grenades.

Unlike in Britain or Germany, the French police stand out by lacking an independent complaints department. What France needs, instead of a brutal crackdown on the banlieue, is genuine reform of the police, confronting its institutionalised racism and resort to violence, coupled with investment in the banlieue which Macron toyed with but never delivered.

The worst case scenario for French Jews would be that Macron misses the opportunity and a cycle of ever more violent rioting and response kicks in during the countdown to the 2024 Olympic Games and the next Presidential elections in 2027. As the smashed Jewish shops in Sarcelles show, even when the community is not being targeted, it can find itself in the crossfire. And the worse things get, the more the lurking antisemitism on both sides of French society risks spilling out into the open.

Talking to French Jews this week, the question of whether to leave France was mooted several times. But this year has seen France’s traditionally strong aliyah rate fall to sudden lows because of the political uncertainty in Israel and mass protests against proposed judicial reform, seen by the Israeli opposition as opening the doors to authoritarianism. The truth is that if Macron misses his moment to really seize the chance for reform — and to build a legacy of stability to stop Le Pen — a small but significant number of (especially younger) French Jews will emigrate, not just to an unsteady Israel but increasingly to Britain, Canada and the United States.

None of these destinations, whatever their flaws, look too bad if the local kosher supermarket has just gone up in smoke.

‘This is Europe’ by Ben Judah is out now, published by Picador

July 06, 2023 11:39

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