On supermarket siege anniversary, French Jews resolutely insist they are not afraid

Three customers and a Hyper Cacher employee were killed in the January 2015 attack


On a dark and cold January afternoon, there is a steady stream of cars arriving to drop customers off at the Hyper Cacher in Porte de Vincennes.

Shoppers emerge carrying bulging bags from the grocery store and its neighbouring Jewish businesses — the gourmet bakery boasting French and North African patisseries, the wine shop and the butcher.

The shops attract customers far beyond this east Paris neighbourhood for its extensive kosher wares.

But this picture of everyday French-Jewish life is overshadowed by worries about a shrinking community. Many have left for Israel after the terrorist attack on this very site that left an Hyper Cacher employee and three customers dead.

Inside, the atmosphere is cheerful, with shoppers smiling and chatting as they hunt for cooking ingredients.

And yet everyone remembers: four years ago this week a man recruited by ISIS stormed the store and took customers and workers hostage. He planned to blow up the entire building before he was shot dead by special police forces.

“The fear is always there since the attack,” says Gerard, who is shopping with his children and grandchildren.

“I always look around me now. Whenever I return home I make sure no one’s behind me, whenever I go to a synagogue or a store, I look around. We try to keep our habits but there is a feeling of helplessness.

“I’m even worried about the beggars asking for money outside kosher stores. Often they’re Muslim and I’m worried one of them might do something. You never know.”

The Hyper Cacher attack was one of the deadliest in the wave of terror and antisemitism that has confronted France’s Jewish community over the past two decades. Thousands have since emigrated to Israel and other countries.

Several shoppers in the store this week also said they planned to leave — if the situation gets any worse.

“I’m not going to stop shopping here or stop eating kosher because of terrorism, but I’m concerned by the situation. And I’m watching how it evolves,” said Jocelyne, a 45-year-old mother of three from the suburb of Creteil, home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Paris.

“In the long run I’m sure there is no future in France and I’ve already sent my children to Israel for their own safety.”

But although many talk about making aliyah, most do not see it as an ideal option.

“Will the future be brighter for Jews in Israel?” Gerard asks. “Not necessarily. But I believe it’s safer for the time being.”

Prosper Tobie, the manager of the butcher next door, says their safety would be in doubt even if they did leave: “Israel is far more dangerous than France. They have attacks on daily basis. Here in France when a Jew gets hurt it’s a big deal and is taken seriously.”

Some French Jews have drawn on the Hyper Cacher attack as inspiration to become more assertive.

“The attack pushed me to wear my kippah more often, it made me embrace my identity,” says Jean-Bernard, an athletic man in his thirties, who waits in his car as his girlfriend loads it with a dozen Hyper Cacher carrier bags.

“I will not bow to terrorism. I’m not afraid. There have been some attacks but not enough to scare me.

“Do you hide and fear or do you embrace your identity and values?”

But he acknowledged that wearing a skullcap is much easier in the upmarket Porte de Vincennes neighbourhood — which is considered safe — than in rougher Parisian suburbs like Sarcelles, where a synagogue was attacked by rioters in 2014.

“God protects us,” says Prosper the butcher. “We have no security guards, no cameras, nothing and anything can happen but god is there for us. The rest is a question of Mazel.”

But he is worried that the French community may follow the example of Jews in a former French territory in Africa.

“We left Morocco [in the 1960s] because everyone was leaving, schools were emptying up. The same thing is likely to happen here.

“There used to be a reservoir of Jews in North Africa who could emigrate to France but they’re all gone now and families who leave France cannot be replaced. The community will keep shrinking.”

Joel Mergui, the head of the French Jewish community, agrees that the departures to Israel have changed French Jewry: “For decades community leaders managed ongoing growth and in the past few years we’ve been managing decline.

“The people who have left were among the most active in the community so their departure is significant — but we’ve been able to mitigate the crisis by getting other Jews involved. I call that internal aliyah.”

And yet antisemitism soared in 2018: 69 per cent more incidents were reported in the first nine months compared to the same period in 2017.

For some like Francis Kalifat, who leads Crif, the Jewish community’s umbrella body, this proves the authorities’ plans to fight antisemitism are not working.

He said the government has “multiple global plans to fight together all intolerant behaviors: racism, antisemitism, homophobia”.

But he added: “We say these actions have to be fought with specific plans because each phenomenon has specific origins and characteristics.

“Sanctions must also be toughened because today they’re too lenient to dissuade attackers from targeting Jews.”

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