x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

France has no monopoly on hate

France's Muslims and Jews share a growing feeling of alienation, aggravated by lingering antisemitic sentiment, and in the case of the Muslims, routine discrimination.

People attend a ceremony for the victims of a Toulouse school shooting at the Synagogue de la Victoire in Paris on March 26. Three French-Israeli children and a parent were gunned down outside the Ozar Hatorah Jewish School on March 19.
People attend a ceremony for the victims of a Toulouse school shooting at the Synagogue de la Victoire in Paris on March 26. Three French-Israeli children and a parent were gunned down outside the Ozar Hatorah Jewish School on March 19.

MARSEILLE, FRANCE // The rising tension over recent violence that is expected to contribute to a large increase in the number of Jews abandoning France to settle in Israel throws into focus a surprising similarity with the French Muslim community.

France has Europe's largest populations of both Jews and Muslims. The latter is estimated at between five and seven million, originating mainly in the former French colonies of North and sub-Saharan Africa.

Both see reasons to feel a sense of alienation, aggravated in the case of the Jews by lingering antisemitic sentiment, and for Muslims by routine discrimination in employment, education and housing opportunities.

France's Jewish community, about 600,000 strong, has been deeply affected by the Toulouse shootings and a subsequent series of incidents. They include attacks in the street or on public transport carried out with suspected, though in at least one case unsubstantiated, antisemitic motives.

Three Jewish children and the father of two of them were among the victims of the French-Algerian gunman Mohamed Merah's attacks in March.

According to Richard Prasquier, the president of France's main Jewish body, the Representative Council of Jewish Insitutions (Crif), security fears are advanced by some as helping to explain why the number of Jews choosing to emigrate to Israel is likely to rise this year to between 3,000 and 4,000.

This compares with the 1,600 observing aliyah, or emigration to Israel, during 2011. The trend had been one of decline for five years.

However, a more general disenchantment with life in France, and the belief that Israel offers a better option during a time of crisis in the euro zone, may be even more significant.

"Everyone knows people leave for one of two reasons, either because times are difficult in the country where they live or because they are enthusiastic about living in Israel, feel close to Israel and believe life there will be more meaningful," said Mr Prasquier.

"I hope that if people wish to make aliyah, they do so for the second reason, the good one, and not the bad one."

Even allowing for the alarm caused by such incidents as the recent attack on a bus carrying Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, the failure to resolve the Palestinian conflict suggests Israel can hardly be considered safer than Europe.

But there is broad agreement that the worries about anti-Semitism, which the government shares, play a part.

Some Jewish spokesmen also feel French policy towards Israel will shift and become more pro-Arab under the new socialist president, Francois Hollande.

Mr Prasquier is not among them, though he accepts that for some Israeli figures promoting aliyah, the mantra is that "there is no future in France for Jews".

One who does suspect policy change is Gilles-William Goldnadel, a prominent lawyer and the president of the France-Israel Association.

Mr Goldnadel said he had little doubt the new administration will show greater hostility towards Israel. While Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, sometimes clashed with Mr Hollande's centre-right predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, their relationship was "balanced", he said, whereas the new president's thinking would be driven by left-wing opposition to the Israeli position.

Without singling out France, Israel has reaffirmed its commitment to aliyah, injecting an additional €40 million (Dh180 million) into its budget for smoothing the integration of new arrivals.

Mention of similarities with the Muslim community may at first seem implausible. But just as France took time to recognise the part it played in the Holocaust, many Maghrebins feel aggrieved there has never been a formal apology for French actions during the Algerian fight for independence.

This year, with its various dates marking the 50th anniversary of the end of French rule, has seen some improvement in Franco-Algerian relations.

But Mr Hollande must tread a delicate path as he seeks to address Algerian grievances without offending the families of others who fought on the French side during the conflict, only to be made unwelcome in France.

The former French president, Jacques Chirac, said in 2004 that neither Jews nor Muslim had a monopoly on being the target of hatred.

Ariel Sharon, the then Israeli prime minister, had complained of a "wild" spread of anti-Semitism and advised all French Jews to leave immediately for Israel.

In the midst of the controversy, Mr Chirac symbolically chose Chambon-sur-Lignon - where many Jews were hidden by villagers from the Nazis and French officials seeking to please their German occupiers - to make a passionate attack not only on anti-Semitism but on the racism encountered by Arabs and Africans.

Eight years later, it is important to remember Jews were not the only victims of Mohamed Merah. In his exchanges with police and an intelligence officer pressing him to surrender before the shoot-out in which he was killed, Merah said French soldiers were also among his key targets. The three he killed were all of North African origin.

French Muslim leaders have consistently condemned Merah's crimes and point out that his actions in no way represented the overwhelming majority of their faithful.

And Nicole Yanedi, president of Crif's regional branch covering Toulouse, said that since Merah's killings "unfortunately turned me into a public figure", she had often been approached in the street with words of encouragement from people "including Muslims who want nothing to do with crazies like him".

foreign.desk@thenational.ae