NEUILLY-SUR-SEINE, France — From his home in this upscale Paris suburb, Dr. Richard Prasquier looks back with satisfaction at his term as head of the political arm of France’s Jewish community. A cardiologist by training, Prasquier spent the past six years as the most senior representative to the government of the world’s second-largest Jewish diaspora.
Created in 1943, CRIF (a French acronym for the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France) serves as the political connector of France’s Jews to the country’s political system, alongside the Consistoire — founded by Napoleon — which deals with political issues, and the FSJU, which deals with Jewish culture. The annual CRIF dinner is celebrated as one of the most prestigious events in Paris’s political calendar, bringing together top politicians from both sides of the political map — a somewhat more modest version of America’s AIPAC Policy Conference.
These are trying times for the Jews of France. The economic maladies plaguing Europe have swept across France with a wave of populism and anti-Semitism. But Prasquier insists that nevertheless “France is not an anti-Semitic country,” with actual levels of anti-Semitism — as reflected by survey after survey – remaining low.
However, the growing phenomenon of French “Israelophobia,” as Prasquier dubs it, is a new source of concern. Disproportionate criticism of Israel for human rights violations, singling it out from all other nations, is a nefarious form of “anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism.” The long-term survival of Jews in France may depend on their capacity to fight this delegitimization, he says. Jews must be wary of attempting to counter their own vilification by vilifying other communities, he warns, referring specifically to the sizable Muslim community of France which according to many estimates comprises one tenth of French society.
A Jewish sense of estrangement from the French state is another source of concern for Prasquier. Alienation from the republic is by no means unique to Jews, but the clash between an increasingly traditional community and the staunchly secular state is certainly a contributing factor, as is the widespread animosity toward the Jewish state in intellectual circles and the media.
Prasquier acknowledges the near absence of the younger generation in France’s Jewish institutions, but attributes it to a lack of commitment on the part of Jewish young professionals more than to the unwillingness of organizations to embrace them.
‘France is not an anti-Semitic country’
A surge in anti-Semitism usually follows economic crises like the one sweeping Europe at the moment. But that has not been the case in France this time around, Prasquier argues. The proof: in 2011, three years after the start of the crisis, both leading presidential candidates were widely considered to be Jewish — Nicolas Sarkozy, with his Jewish grandfather and Jewish grandson, viewed as deeply favorable toward Israel; and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who is a bona fide Jew.
“Their Jewishness was absolutely not a problem … very few people disliked them for being Jewish. This was not considered a hindrance,” Prasquier says.
Anti-Semitism does exist in France, he acknowledges — with the extreme right National Front party led by Marine Le Pen gaining steam due to the economic downturn — but pales in comparison to other European countries which today display powerful quasi-Nazi parties. Though CRIF shuns the National Front and he himself never met with Le Pen, she is cautious not to make anti-Semitic statements like the ones her father, the previous party leader Jean Marie Le Pen, was famous for.
“I know the difference between the statements of Golden Dawn [the ultra-nationalist Greek party] and those of Marine Le Pen.”
Contrary to recurrent claims by [Israeli] newspapers, “France is not an anti-Semitic country,” Prasquier asserts. “When I say that, people say I don’t want to admit reality. But I do. For six years I faced reality every day and I always said what I wanted … when I say France is not an anti-Semitic country, I mean it.”
‘Delegitimization makes me fear that reason and rational ideas can no longer be expressed in my country, in France’
That is not to say that a new form of Jew hatred is not emerging in France. “Israelophobia,” as he terms it, “has turned Israel into ‘the Jew’ of the nations,” and amounts to a new form of anti-Semitism. If in the past Jews were singled out as exceptionally evil, now their country has taken the place of individuals.
“They say: ‘I like the state of Israel. I don’t want it to disappear. But the treatment of Palestinians is similar to that of the Nazis.’ They won’t say ‘the state of Congo should exist, but…” even though four million people were killed there over the past 30 years. No one talks about that, no one demonstrates across from the Syrian embassy. This stigmatizing is reserved only for Israel.”
It is the majority of French media, as well as many young human rights activists, who perpetuate this distorted worldview, he says. Today, defenders of Israel in France are also considered complicit in Israel’s “crimes.”
“Delegitimization makes me fear that reason and rational ideas can no longer be expressed in my country, in France. There is a decrease in the rules of democracy and freedom of speech.”
‘I don’t expect the Muslims to become Zionists’
Prasquier treads cautiously when referring to Israel-hatred in France’s Muslim community. As a people that suffered from stigmatization and vilification, Jews must be doubly cautious not to demonize France’s Muslim population, most of which is nonobservant and wishes only to live in peace in the country, he says.
A consensus must be forged in France to deal with the Israeli-Arab conflict as any other international conflict; that is, as one that can be solved. In Prasquier’s opinion, most of France’s Muslims can be included in this kind of national consensus.
“I don’t expect Muslims to be transformed into Zionists,” he says, adding that he has succeeded in forging warm personal relations with the newly appointed head of France’s Muslim representative organization, CFCM, Dalil Boubakeur, who like him is a cardiologist.
‘If it becomes the Muslim community against the Jewish community, it’s game over’
Extremism within the Muslim community must be fought, he adds. For that reason, Prasquier advocates confronting another local Muslim organization, the UOIF (French Union of Islamic Organizations), which he dubs “the French branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
“These people have a political agenda that is incompatible with the French constitution and French traditions. We should fight them democratically, and be vigilant.”
The terrorist attack carried out by Mohammed Merah in the Jewish Ozar Ha-Torah school in Toulouse in March 2012 could be used by Jews as a casus belli to fight Muslims in France, especially considering the spike in anti-Semitic incidents during the six weeks that followed. But Prasquier thinks that would be a wrong move.
“If it becomes the Muslim community against the Jewish community, it’s game over [for us], because the Muslim community is 10 times larger than ours,” he says. On the other hand, phenomena of extremism within the Muslim community must not be disregarded, either. Nazism, too, began as a minority group within German politics, he recalls.
‘The French model is in trouble’
French Jews, and especially the younger generation, are growing increasingly alienated from the French state, Prasquier warns. He says this phenomenon is part of a larger trend of denationalization within French society, but also exhibits certain features unique to the Jewish community. Other European countries share this concern, “but France is probably worse than many other countries,” he notes.
French disenchantment with their state, Prasquier claims, probably has something to do with the fact that the French are the most pessimistic nation in Europe when asked about their future. The cancellation of compulsory military conscription in 1996 further contributed to the weakening of social cohesion, he speculates.
“In the US, pride in being American is an important factor. In France, unfortunately, pride in being French has been dwindling,” he says. “The population at large feels that everything is going down the drain.”
‘For the Jewish community to remain it must fight against the delegitimization of the State of Israel’
But Jews have a special reason to feel dissociated from their surroundings. French Jewish youngsters, who are by and large more connected to Israel than their American counterparts, are deeply offended by their compatriots’ growing disdain for the Jewish state. Jews in France are also growing gradually more observant, placing them at odds with a country that considers secularism in the public sphere as paramount.
“The fact that their views and preferences aren’t shared by the population at large, the notion — which is only partially true — that they cannot express their views in the public arena … contribute to this sense of alienation,” Prasquier says.
Looking into the future, Prasquier argues that standing up for Israel is a matter of life and death for the Jewish community of France, which faces largely the same challenges of delegitimization that Israel faces. That is why CRIF works closely with the Israeli embassy in Paris.
“I cannot envision the continuous criticism of Israel in such an unbalanced way without it leading to Jewish reactions, which may be that people will leave,” he says. “For the Jewish community to remain it must fight against the delegitimization of the State of Israel. We are not Israeli citizens, but we are facing the same issues that the State of Israel is facing.”