The Image of France

The images of France in the media on Wednesday provided in effect a split screen profile: of a country playing a leading role in world affairs; and simultaneously of a country bedeviled by the scourge of anti-Semitism.

At the NATO conference in London, a combative French President Emmanuel Macron was pictured tangling in person with U.S. President Donald Trump. Macron, sitting next to the president, pointedly refused to take back his characterization of NATO as “brain dead,” a condition for which he holds Mr. Trump at least partly responsible. Mr. Trump said it was “insulting.”

Macron also had tough talk for Turkey, demanding “clarifications from the Turkish side” on key defense issues — such as the purchase of a Russian-made air defense missile system, among other things.

“How is possible to be a member of the alliance … and to buy the S-400s from the Russians?” Macron asked, alluding to NATO’s original raison d’etre of defending against Russian aggression.

It was a picture of France projecting itself as a world power once again, standing up to the man who occupies the White House and confronting the troublemaker in Ankara. For the proud French people it is no doubt gratifying to see at least a semblance of the glory that once was.

But those images appeared, side-by-side, with the sickening scene of rows of Jewish headstones in a cemetery in eastern France, defaced with large swastikas. Not just one or two wild acts of smashing headstones and spraying graffiti; the vandals apparently went about their work calmly and deliberately, putting the mark of hatred on sacred stone after sacred stone. Over a hundred of them.

In yet another juxtaposition, on Tuesday, the same day the swastikas were found, the French General Assembly, the lower house of parliament, passed a draft resolution defining hatred of Israel as a form of anti-Semitism, in line with the definition of anti-Semitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

The vote was hailed as an historic event. France turning to confront the evil, expunging the stain of Dreyfus. The actual context was less encouraging.

It was a French resolution, not a French revolution. France was not in the lead on this. The United States, Germany, Britain and other countries have already adopted the IHRA definition.

The vote to approve was 154 to 74, but that tends to obscure the fact that only a third of President Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique en Marche centrist party voted for it. France’s own governmental human rights watchdog, the Commission Nationale Consultative des Droits de l’Homme (National Consultative Commission on Human Rights) has also taken a position against the resolution, as Haaretz noted.

Final passage in the upper chamber and enactment into law remains uncertain. Even if it does become law, its impact on anti-Semitism will be marginal, at best. Anti-Semitism has been surging in the countries that have the law already.

In an impassioned speech ahead of the National Assembly vote, MP Phillip Habib called on his colleagues: “Wake up. Since Dreyfus, the fight against anti-Semitism has overlapped with the fight for the republic. That’s why the fight against anti-Zionism is not only a matter of interest to the Jews. It touches on the values of the entire republic. To put anti-Zionism into the penal code. Today, there is a lack of political courage for that. However, this vote today is, I hope, a small step towards the future, towards hope.”

“Whatever your vote is, it will be a signal of what is to come,” Habib said.

The official French response to the cemetery desecrations as usual, sounded good.

President Macron pledged to fight anti-Semitism “until our dead can sleep in peace. Jews are and make France. Those who attack them, even in their graves, are not worthy of the idea we have of France,” he said.

Yet another setback for France’s Jewish community was the announcement that prosecutors were dropping the case against the murderer of Sarah Halimi, Hy”d. Their’ claim that the Muslim immigrant from Mali could not be held responsible for his actions due to his heavy drug intake was far from standard, Robert Ejnes, executive director for CRIF, France’s umbrella organization for Jewish institutions, told Hamodia.

On Wednesday, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner went to the scene in Westhoffen and declared that the government is establishing a national anti-hate crime office. A special police unit has begun investigating the incident, he said.

But even these pledges, welcome as they are to a Jewish community under attack, are little more than gestures. They are intended to show a resolve to correct a situation that is acknowledged to be intolerable.

But it will take more than expressions of solidarity and official gestures to rid France and Europe of anti-Semitism. It will take a serious soul-searching and a determination to enforce the laws against bigotry.

The French have long sought to play a major role on the stage of world affairs. But whatever they accomplish toward that goal will mean nothing if they fail to solve the problem at home.

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