Listening to French politicians, journalists, and intellectuals responding to the seafront massacre in Nice in mid-July of this year, or to the murder two weeks later of a priest in the village of Saint Etienne du Rouvray, one could not escape a feeling of déjà vu. By now, official France has developed a carefully scripted ritual for reacting to such Islamist attacks. Prior to this past summer’s events, the script was most conspicuously deployed in the wake of the killings at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015, and before that on the occasion of a jihadist spree in Toulouse in 2012; but its use can be traced back much farther in time.
The ritual opens with an outpouring of compassion for the victims, as public officials, stunned by the horror of the event, appear too deeply engulfed in emotion to process its significance or formulate what might be done about preventing its recurrence. This is followed rapidly, almost reflexively, by a choreographed rite of “no-linkage,” whereby politicians assure the public that the latest bloodshed “has nothing to do with Islam.” With a barrier thus erected to any rational consideration of the killers’ self-professed motives, it is but a short step to the third phase: solemn warnings against the dangers of “Islamophobia,” itself a concept mobilized solely for its utility in a larger strategy of evasion.
The object of this strategy, which derives much of its moral force from an implicit parallel with the socially sanctioned French struggle against all forms of racism, is to foreclose any ideological or political debate about Islam. The term “Islamophobia” itself—meaning fear of a religion rather than fear of murderers who invoke or otherwise identify themselves with that religion—is meant to imply that anyone engaged in criticism of Islam or its proponents is by definition suffering from a psychiatric disorder. And this gives the game away: would an atheist’s critique of Christianity or of Judaism be described as a phobia? The question answers itself. By means of this term, one religion, and only one, is singled out for official protection.
Refusing to name the enemy—always “terrorism,” never jihadism—declining to condemn it or rally citizens to join the fight against it, officials smartly move on to the only possible conclusion: “we have to learn to live with terrorism.” Surrendering to what is supposedly an impregnable fact of nature, the government masks its supine posture with empty slogans of social solidarity: “We stand together!” “Disunity is what [ISIS] hopes for!” “Let us remain united!”
By now, however, the ritual, though still embraced by French elites, has become entirely ineffective. Each successive attack has served to confirm the public’s deepening anger over the government’s failure to confront the threat and restore security. Addressing the public after the slaughter in Nice, French leaders were met by taunts and catcalls. And little wonder: at present, counterterrorism efforts amount to putting a bandage on a wooden leg.
The flaw, as I say, goes back a long way, and its etiology is worth exploring. Today’s failures exist on a continuum that stretches back to the dawn of the 21st century, and specifically to the persistent and blatantly anti-Semitic attacks that began to proliferate at that time. The years between 2000 and 2002 witnessed 500 such incidents of anti-Jewish violence. All were greeted by a total blackout on the part both of government authorities and of the media—as also, it pains one to record, on the part of compliant Jewish institutions. So as not to admit that the actors almost uniformly were Muslims of African origin, facts were concealed or distorted, and the perpetrators’ clearly anti-Semitic motives were hidden behind a veil of euphemisms.
There ensued a decade and more of downplaying or ignoring anti-Semitic violence, an exercise that afforded its practitioners much experience in the art of denying the realities of jihadism and thereby contributing to the current confusion. Daniel Vaillant, who served as minister of the interior from 1995 to 2014, would later admit that the administration of then-Prime Minister Lionel Jospin (1997-2002) had explicitly ordered the blackout so as not to “add fuel to the fire.” This shameful cover-up would have serious implications for France and French democracy. In effect, France sacrificed its Jewish citizens on the altar of “public order” and the ideal of vivre ensemble (living together)—a slogan constantly tossed about by the government. But as one group of citizens (an element of the Muslim community) continued to act violently toward another (Jews), public order was not in fact maintained. Vivre ensemble meant instead, that one group, a kind of scapegoat, could be attacked by members of another group with impunity.
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Inevitably, as the years went by and reports of the attacks began to be circulated more openly, theories were advanced to “explain” the anti-Semitism by reference to social or psychological factors affecting the Muslim immigrant population. Cited among the social factors were poverty, unemployment, and “social apartheid” (a phrase later used by Prime Minister Manuel Valls); among the purported psychological factors were Arab “humiliation” (supposedly an effect of colonialism) and garden-variety mental illness—anything but religiously motivated hatred of Jews. To the extent that anti-Semitism was acknowledged at all, blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of the extreme right, despite the fact that the right had been totally uninvolved in any of the attacks. Even today these so-called explanations, which vaguely indict French society but implicitly exonerate the attackers, have not lost their appeal to French politicians, despite their waning plausibility to voters.
Worse yet, it became convenient to blame the problem on Israel, and thus by extension on French Jews themselves. The more the Islamic nature of the attacks was suppressed, the more Israel and “Zionism” were brought forward for ritual indictment. Jospin’s foreign minister, Hubert Védrines, went so far as to declare that, in the light of “what was going on” in the Middle East, he “understood” why the “youngsters of the suburbs” attacked their Jewish fellow citizens. Such statement paved the way for a political alliance to be formed between Islamists and (mainly) leftist foes of Israel. The media, led by Agence France-Presse (AFP), cooperated by presenting a systematically distorted version of the Palestinian jihad against the Jewish state.
In its turn, the “respectability” of anti-Zionism gave respectability to plain anti-Semitism. An early move in this direction was the coinage of the term “intercommunity conflict,” as if the victims of jihadism were at least equally as culpable as their persecutors, and as if the problem was not France’s to resolve but theirs. The introduction of the Israel-Palestinian issue into the equation then tipped the moral scale in favor of the perpetrators. The “two communities” (a pointed expression introduced earlier by President François Mitterrand) continued to be lumped together, but one of them was now, as it were, innocent by association with a just cause, the other guilty by association with an unjust one. When Jews had the temerity to insist on naming the religion or ethnicity of their attackers, they were called “racist” or, worse yet, communautariste. Literally meaning “communalist,” the term refers to those who place their own ethnic, religious, or social community above the well-being of the republic as a whole—one of the harshest adverse judgments in French political discourse.
Thus were the victims informed that they were not victims. In the meantime, the government, instead of cracking down on violence and restoring order to the immigrant neighborhoods, opted for a policy of “conciliation” and “pacification.” Toward this end it decided to orchestrate a “dialogue of religions,” as if all religions were at war and it was somehow up to them to make peace among themselves. Politicians, and soon thereafter the educational system, began to hold up, as a model for present-day France, a mythic version of medieval Spain where Jews, Christians, and Muslims allegedly lived together in harmony (under Muslim political domination, naturally).
All this was equivalent to acknowledging the defeat of the state—whose most basic responsibility was to prevent a Hobbesian war of all against all—and the abandonment of the French republican ideal whereby all are guaranteed the rights of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Instead, the Jews, their synagogues and communal institutions placed behind police barriers for their protection, were symbolically deprived of those rights and isolated from the rest of French society.
Two events shattered the strategy of denial and utter irresponsibility.
On March 11, 2012, Mohammed Merah, born in France to an Algerian family, shot and killed a French Muslim paratrooper in Toulouse. Four days later, he killed two more Muslim soldiers in uniform. After another four days, he killed three Jewish children and a rabbi at the Ozar HaTorah school before dying in a shootout with police. It was only then, when the media discovered that a Frenchman (journalists repeatedly referred to him as the “Frenchman Merah”), without any personal connection to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, could become a murderer of Jews and a murderer of French soldiers that France began to accept, with professions of astonishment, that it had a problem.
But the response was another dodge. The fact that Muslim soldiers had been among Merah’s victims licensed official condemnations of Islamism, which, however, was still fastidiously cordoned off from Islam—this, despite the explicit ruling of the Islamic theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi that the death of Muslims could accompany the murder of non-Muslims should a “martyr” consider this necessary for the success of an operation. (The same justification would be invoked this past summer in connection with the wholesale massacre in Nice.) At a “spontaneous” demonstration in Paris in the wake of Toulouse, marchers again reviled the right-wing and chauvinistic National Front—the least responsible party.
The second event, and the one that more truly alerted French society to the danger within, was the January 2015 mass murder at Charlie Hebdo, followed two days later by the killing of four shoppers at a kosher supermarket. Without the first set of murders, those at the kosher market would certainly have been consigned to the “Jewish” box and not regarded as presenting an issue affecting France as a whole. Now it was becoming clearer that all of society was threatened.
Still, this realization hardly led to greater sympathy for Israel (or, by extension, for French Jews) or even to a better understanding of the threat to France. In this respect, the AFP’s habitual differentiation of the two cases was (and remains) illuminating. A terrorist who killed Israeli Jews—in the lingo of the French media, the latter were always “settlers”— was thereby exculpated. The terrorist who killed Frenchmen was condemned, although barely and even then with no mention of his jihadist motives.
The Charlie Hebdo wakeup call thus proved of brief duration. To this day, government obfuscation continues, and so does the media’s complicity in it. Following the July massacre in Nice, a lengthy cover story in the left-wing daily Libération—dramatically entitled “Why?”—tried to make sense of a situation that the paper’s authors and editors themselves had helped to create. Among the paper’s other excrescences over the years, three whole pages of newsprint were devoted to lauding The Anti-Semitic Temptation, a book by the sociologist Michel Wieviorka that maintained, supposedly on the basis of thorough investigation, that there was no anti-Semitism per se in France, only Jewish “communalism,” which had understandably provoked the inhabitants of the “working-class [read: Muslim-immigrant] suburbs.”
In sum, France’s flaccid and morally retrograde response to the emergence of the “new” anti-Semitism in the early 2000s does not merely form a backstory to the escalating violence that was to come; it was a causal factor in that violence. It taught the terrorists that they could develop their networks and carry out their attacks with almost total impunity. This in turn encouraged them to take on ever more ambitious targets and shift from attacking only Jews to attacking soldiers, cartoonists, and eventually, as at the Bataclan theater in Paris and more recently in Nice, crowds at public events. By covering up the reality of anti-Jewish violence, by blaming it on the far right or on the Jews themselves, and by symbolically separating Jews from society, the French government and media only confirmed the message: nothing to worry about here. Most perniciously, by accepting and propagating the anti-Zionist argument, they helped bring Islamism into the mainstream.
The results can be seen today in leaders who now appear to believe their own politically correct rationalizations. While the murderers and their inciters continue to speak of themselves as soldiers in a religious and civilizational war against the West, their designated targets speak foggily in terms of abstractions like “radicalization,” “terrorism,” or even “barbarity,” and then incoherently proclaim that “life must go on” as if there were nothing seriously amiss. No wonder the public is by turns bewildered, apathetic, frightened, and angry. The average Frenchman may have no real or deep understanding of what has brought his society to this pass, but he has certainly learned what attentive Jews have known for a decade and more: the French governing class is incapable of confronting the problem at hand and appears to be sinking slowly into morbidity.
The recent ban on the burkini is a perfect synecdoche for official France’s ineptitude and incapacity to name things as they are. Fixated on the little things, the pawns on the board—or on the beach—politicians, intellectuals, and media personalities avert their eyes from the chess masters’ progress toward their goals. The novelist Michel Houellebecq pithily summed up the situation in his latest book, Submission, by placing the following words in the mouth of his hero, whose Jewish girlfriend is leaving for Israel in the face of the Islamist advance: “There is no Israel for me: a rather poor thought, but an exact thought.”
This essay has been translated and adapted from a longer article in the July 27 number of Le Figaro.