The rise of Anti-Semitic attacks raises troubling questions for the Gilets Jaunes

The movement must address the ugly ideology within its ranks. 

“Shitty Zionist!” “Go back to Tel Aviv!” “France is ours!” When French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut stepped out of a building in Paris’ 14th arrondissement last Saturday, protestors from the Gilets Jaunes hurled anti-Semitic slurs at him. Finkielkraut’s thought is controversial in France, but it wasn’t his ideas that were under attack: it was his Jewish identity.

He remained stoical and walked away, later telling the JDD newspaper: “I felt… absolute hate [towards me]. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time.” French president Emmanuel Macron late condemned the attack as “the absolute negation of what we are and what makes us a great nation.” His Interior minister Christophe Castaner added that anti-Semitism is a “venom” spreading “poison.”

France has the largest Jewish population of any European country. It also has a serious problem with anti-Semitism, which is accelerating at an alarming pace. Anti-Semitic crimes have increased in France by 74% since 2017. A week prior to Finkielkraut’s attack, on 10 February, vandals painted a bakery in Paris’ central île Saint-Louis district with the German word for Jew: “Juden.” The following day, on 11 February swastikas were graffitied across Parisian post boxes that had been decorated with an image of Holocaust survivor Simone Veil. One day later, vandals chopped down two trees honouring the memory of Ilan Halimi, a Jewish teenager who was tortured and died in 2006.

A fresh round of attacks followed last week. On the same day that marches were scheduled across France to protest the rise of anti-Semitism, 80 graves in the Jewish cemetery of Quatzenheim in Alsace were branded with swastikas and anti-Semitic slurs written in German.

Is this spike in anti-Semitic attacks primarily associated with the Gilets Jaunes? Yellow vest protestors have previously used shockingly anti-Semitic vocabulary. In November, five men wearing yellow vests at a Paris march did the “quenelle” gesture first invented by the Anti-Semitic polemicist comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. Protestors have also referred to Macron’s previous career as a Rothschild banker in anti-Semitic chants and banners.

But anti-Semitism associated with the Gilets Jaunes may also be a product of the movement’s heterogeneity. As Jean-Yves Camus, head of the French Observatory of Radicalisation, told Libération: “The fact that the movement has no organised procession or security services opens the door to everyone.”

Because the yellow vests reject the mainstream media and political system, instead consuming their news through social media, they are more likely to encounter conspiracy theories, Camus said.

“When the discourse is about [an] oligarchy governing everything, the porosity is inevitable. It’s the fantasy of the cosmopolitan, stateless, rich Jew, [who holds] power from the media, finance and politics. It’s a very old pattern.”

But it’s not just the yellow vest protests that are the locus for the spread of anti-Semitism; as Le Monde observed, universities and suburban cities have also seen an increase in anti-Semitic attacks. Last night, some 20,000 people marched on Paris’ Place de la République, with several thousands more gathering across other French cities, to combat this alarming rise. 

Macron’s deputy, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, attended the Paris march last night, while Macron visited the Shoah memorial, where he declared that the French Republic would “stand together” against the threat of anti-Semitism.

In the midst of a difficult crisis, Macron has managed to remain clear-headed. He has contested an idea proposed by MPs to table a law punishing anti-Zionism. Although “those who want the end of Israel are those who want to attack Jews,” he said, the details of such a law would “pose problems,” including potentially conflating opposition to Israel’s policies with opposition to the very existence of Israel.  

It will be a challenge for the Gilets Jaunes to rid their movement of the anti-Semitism in its ranks. But they must endeavour to do so. They face a far greater risk in allowing ugly ideologies to infiltrate a movement that is largely concerned with social justice and equality. Defending the French motto fraternité – fraternity – would be a good place to start.

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.