When a group of youths stood outside the synagogue in Sarcelles, north of Paris, shouting “Death to Jews” last week, Michael Amar was alarmed, but not surprised.
“I’ve been insulted like that dozens of times in recent months,” said the 23-year-old student. “In fact, almost every time I go out, someone calls me a dirty Jew.”
Nor do the anti-Semites in France stop at words. During the past two weeks, five synagogues have been firebombed, a pregnant Jewish woman has been punched, a kosher butcher’s shop has been sprayed with bullets, and the Jewish school run by Amar’s father-in-law has been vandalised.
Reaction to these incidents has been sharp. The French press has warned of a Gallic intifada. Politicians have lined up to denounce an attack on the founding principles of the republic. And on 7 April, Jewish leaders organised a protest march that drew 50,000 people, amid tension that is probably unprecedented since the days of French collaboration with Hitler’s Germany in the 1940s.
Although the National Front movement is large in France (it claims to have won 4.5 million votes in the last election), there is little evidence of its involvement in the recent incidents. Rather, they are the work of young Muslim youths responding to television pictures from the Middle East and their own deep-seated hatred of Jews.
Take, for instance, Akim, a 22-year-old mechanic from Sarcelles. Although he was born in France and educated in French schools, his vision of the world is shaped by his belief in a pervasive Jewish conspiracy. “The Jews control everything in this town – the shops, the banks, the police, even the buses,” he said, sitting with his friends, Rachid and Mourad, on a yellow bench in the middle of the Cite Rose council estate.
“If someone gets assaulted around here, you’ll never see a police officer. The only time we see them is when they come round to give us parking fines. But if even the slightest thing happens to a Jew, there’ll be a whole squad of them. They’re outside the Jewish schools and synagogues all the time . . . The Jews never get a parking ticket. They park their cars in the middle of the road when they take their children to school, and the police do nothing, even though our bus is always delayed because of these cars. That’s why I’m always late for work.” Suddenly Akim jumped up, pointing: “That’s it, our bus, the Arab bus, number 168,” he said. “It’s crowded and it stinks. It’s not like the Jewish bus, where you can sit down, and where they have police officers on board to stop Muslims getting on.”
His comments were nonsense. The 168 is an ordinary, green Paris Regional Transport Authority vehicle, as is the bus that goes through the Jewish district in Sarcelles. Yet Rachid and Mourad nodded in agreement as Akim continued. “This estate is like a Benetton advertisement,” he said, looking up at a four-storey block of flats. “We have blacks, Arabs and Turks, and I’m probably forgetting some. We all get on fine together. But everyone here hates the Jews. You won’t find anyone who has a good word to say about them.”
This statement, at least, was nearer the truth. Akim’s views may be extreme, but they are widespread among youths like him, born into families who arrived in France in the 1960s and 1970s.
It is a generation that challenges the very conception of a French republican model that is supposed to guarantee equality of treatment and opportunity for citizens united behind universal values. “France is not and never will be a juxtaposition of communities,” said President Jacques Chirac in a recent presidential election campaign speech.
Until 30 or so years ago, this was undeniable. Throughout the 20th century, waves of immigrants from Italy, Poland and Portugal arrived in France, sent their children to what was mostly an excellent state education system and saw them emerge as citoyens francais.
Today, however, France is different, and neither its four million Muslims nor its 700,000 Jews are integrated in French society. “Look at Sarcelles,” said Amar: “In practice, it is a juxtaposition of communities.”
With a population of 60,000, and an unemployment rate of 14.5 per cent, Sarcelles is divided by the Avenue du 8 mai 1945, a street commemorating the end of the Second World War in Europe, and one that now boasts a McDonald’s and a restaurant called L’Apocalypse. On one side, there is the Flanades district, where France’s biggest Jewish community lives. Here you can find the synagogue, the school of Amar’s father-in-law, and James and Dede’s kosher butcher’s shop. There are no young Muslims to be seen. On the other side of the street, there is the Cite Rose with its social security office. Here, there are no Jews.
Akim and Amar never cross the Avenue du 8 mai 1945, and have never met. Yet they have much in common. They were born to families who emigrated from Morocco in the 1970s, with Akim’s parents settling in Sarcelles and Amar’s in Marseilles. They spent their childhoods in France, yet neither identifies with this country.
Amar, for instance, spends eight months a year studying in Israel and is considering a permanent move there with his new wife. “I don’t feel at ease in France any more, with all these attacks on Jews.”
As for Akim, his identity is confused and uncertain. “I’m a foreigner everywhere,” he said. “In France I’m a foreigner, and in Morocco I’m a foreigner.”
Yet in this confusion, and perhaps because of it, he claims to have espoused radical Islamic causes. “If I had the means, I’d go off straight away to fight for the Palestinians,” he said. “They’re my brothers. When you see them being killed night after night on the television, how can you not end up hating the Jews?”
He is highly unlikely to go to the Middle East, but it is easy to see how such sentiments can result in attacks on Jews in France. To Akim, after all, Sarcelles and Ramallah are engaged in the same combat. “Every time an Arab dies in the West Bank, all the Jews here are happy in their hearts,” he said.
On the wall of his estate, there is graffiti glorifying Osama Bin Laden, a drawing of the airplanes striking the World Trade Center, and two scrawled lines of writing – “Screw America” and “The state manipulates us like objects”. The youths here believe the attacks of 11 September were carried out by the US government to give the west a pretext for invading Afghanistan. They also believe that Washington, Paris and London are controlled by a shadowy Jewish network.
“Bin Laden is the only one who’s fighting back,” said Akim. “We’re all right behind him here. He’s a great man.”
Akim says his parents and their generation do not share these views. Yet among his generation, such ideas are common.
That, in turn, appears to be pushing France’s Jewish community towards radicalisation. At the recent protest march, for instance, a group of extremist Jews broke away to attack pacifist demonstrators, police officers, journalists and any Arabs they happened to come across.
In the Paris region, according to Amar, the Jewish community is considering the creation of its own security force. “My father-in-law’s school has been vandalised five or six times this year. The actions are obviously anti-Semitic because these people never take anything. They just break in and smash up the place. But the police have always maintained the fiction that this is just ordinary vandalism. They’re scared to say that it is anti-Semitic because they don’t want to find themselves in the middle of something they don’t understand.”
In short, he believes the French authorities are failing to protect his community and are favouring a rival community. And, in that, he is of the same opinion as Akim.