France and the Middle East Conflict:
A Problem for Jews and Israel
Other European Updates:
France and the Middle East Conflict
The Jewish Stake in a Changing Europe
Rightist Violence in Germany

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November 2000

The most serious impact in Europe of the breakdown of the peace process and the rioting of the Palestinians has been in France. Synagogues and other Jewish sites have been attacked in or near cities in different
"[President Chirac] has never understood Israel and the Israelis, and their feeling of insecurity and isolation in the midst of a hostile Arab world."
- Henri Hajdenberg,
head of CRIF
parts of the country, particularly near Paris, where large agglomerations of immigrants from Moslem, mostly North African countries, live.

So far, material damage has been minor, and no one has sustained serious injuries

But the alarm of the Jewish community – the largest in Western Europe, estimated at 700,000 and half of them refugees from North Africa – is high. Public debate has been focused on whether there is a new wave of anti-Semitism, which Henri Hajdenberg, the head of the Jewish umbrella organization, the CRIF, does not believe. He sees the arson and other attacks on Jewish sites as attempts by "groups in the suburbs who try to spread what is happening in the Near East to France."

But ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman thinks that the attacks are "more than just heat-of-the-moment crimes as a result of tension in the Middle East." He believes that "these are hate crimes that have a devastating impact on entire communities, while re-opening deep wounds for the Jewish people."

The response of the government has been routine. Some 50 suspects were arrested by late October, and about a score are being prosecuted. President Chirac and Prime Minister Jospin have condemned the violence, but Mr. Foxman feels that the official response has been inadequate. He said that "government and local authorities must take a more public role in denouncing the attacks."

The view that the attacks on synagogues were not anti-Semitic, but rather the expression of frustration and anger in poor Moslem communities in French suburbs—is controversial. Mr. Foxman objected to this characterization by the French Interior Minister Daniel Vaillant who saw the attacks as those of juvenile delinquents. In his response, the French official did concede that the violence may have had ethnic motivation.

Both the public debate and the attitude of the government reflect the impact of French objectives in the Middle East on both domestic policy and public opinion. It is a policy that Jews consider pro-Arab and that inhibits the kind of hardheaded response to anti-Jewish acts that are believed to stem from what is happening in and around Israel. A poll published in the widely read daily Liberation shows that twice as many people in France who have an opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict attribute responsibility for it to Israel (31%) than to the Palestinians (15%). Half of the respondents do not name either party as responsible.

This fits in with the view of Henri Hajdenberg that President Chirac "has never understood Israel and the Israelis, and their feeling of insecurity and isolation in the midst of a hostile Arab world." He notes that Israelis see France and Europe – with France as the most vocal and assertive member of the European Community – as defending the Palestinian side with such partiality as to eliminate Europe from a credible role in the diplomatic process

There is a strong sense in the French-Jewish community that France is playing a pro-Palestinian and pro-Arab role in the conflict. Mr. Hajdenberg was particularly concerned at President Chirac’s statement soon after the outbreak of the new round of hostilities that "one does not respond to the feelings of a people, by sending tanks." The French-Jewish leader called this an emotional reaction to television images, rather than thoughtful analysis.

It has also been reliably reported that it was President Chirac who discouraged Yasir Arafat from signing an armistice agreement that was ready for signature after intense diplomatic negotiation in the French capital. The issue appears to have been the setting up of an international commission to supervise the armistice. The United States, as the traditional third party and mediator between Israel and the Palestinian Authority,

was to play this role on the planned commission. But France currently Chair of the European community, sought a wider group of which it would have been a member. Reports from the Paris meetings indicated that, when this failed, the French President urged the Palestinian leader to withhold his signature.

Another recent instance of friction was a complaint by Prime Minister Jospin, at the annual dinner of the CRIF, about legal actions in the United States against French banks, accusing the banks of failing to restore Jewish assets after the war. This, said Jospin, "is not only unnecessary but also likely to prejudice the awarding of compensation to the victims." Some present at the dinner interpreted Jospin’s warning as a veiled threat, and it sparked criticism from American representatives at the dinner, which usually is a congenial and festive event. Jospin pointed to the findings of a French commission that led to the budgeting of $380 million to compensate victims. He found it "difficult to understand" that an American judge considered himself authorized to deal with the subject. It was explained to the Prime Minister that American judges are independent and American lawyers free to act before the courts as they see fit. The protests subsided and the dinner proceeded.

The incident is part and parcel of a persistent tension between France and the United States, due in large part to a widespread feeling in parts of the media and the intellectual community that the United States seeks "hegemony" in the world, and particularly in commercial and cultural life. There are objections to American films, fast food outlets, like McDonalds, and other imports that turn out to be popular, especially with young people, but are deeply resented by the intellectual establishment.

This unrelated negative reaction to America coincides with the resentment of America’s dominant role in the Middle East peace process, in which France, seeing itself as the leading power of the European Community, seeks to play a more central role.

All this explains but in no way diminishes friction and resentment between the government, other important institutions and the Jewish community, as well as between French institutions and America. ADL works with the French –Jewish umbrella organization, CRIF, with which it is in frequent contact, and tries to develop closer relations with the French diplomatic establishment in the United States. So far this has not been very successful, but the efforts will continue.

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