PARIS — If Jews in France have long had a charged — at times painful — relationship with their country dating back centuries, they now face a new, particularly pernicious reality, says prominent French Jewish intellectual and writer Alain Finkielkraut.
“I’m extremely worried — as much for French Jews as I’m worried for the future of France,” says Finkielkraut, during a recent interview with The Times of Israel in his Paris apartment. “The anti-Semitism we’re now experiencing in France is the worst I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, and I’m convinced it’s going to get worse.”
Sitting at a long table in his living room, whose walls are lined with tall shelves laden with books, Finkielkraut, 69, comes across as a serious, deep-thinking man.
He isn’t given to laughter easily — certainly not when voicing his pessimistic view of France. With slightly disheveled hair and his signature round glasses, he often pauses to collect his thoughts, weighing his words before responding carefully to questions. Although comfortable in English, he requested the interview be conducted in French.
Born in Paris to Holocaust survivors from Poland, Finkielkraut insists he’s not an alarmist — just a realist who’s not afraid to call it as he sees it, political correctness be damned.
To hear Finkielkraut tell it, France is doomed if it stays on its current path. The main culprit, he says, is an immigration policy which has contributed to a decline in public education and a large, poorly-integrated Muslim immigrant population that represents a threat to French culture and society.
A prolific writer of non-fiction books, Finkielkraut is near-inescapable in France, where he has two weekly radio programs (one which has been airing since 1985), often appears on TV talk shows and is frequently interviewed in newspapers and magazines.
Never one to mince words, his outspoken opinions on topical issues leave few people indifferent, earning him disdain and applause in equal measure.
Such is Finkielkraut’s stature in France, here’s how The New York Times began a feature article about him in 2016:
“He is the intellectual much of the French left loves to hate, the writer whose rumpled look has racked up multiple magazine covers, the bookish essayist turned omnipresent media star and boogeyman for proselytizers of painless multiculturalism. Alain Finkielkraut’s mere presence in a television studio raises temperatures and sends accusations of racism flying.”
And that’s only the first paragraph.
True to form, in the two years since that article appeared, he’s ruffled many more feathers. His commentary is often trenchant, especially concerning the plight of his 500,000 Jewish compatriots. Among the worrisome developments that preoccupy him is what some call “internal migration.”
“Due to the increased hostility Jews are facing, especially in certain suburbs of Paris, many feel the need to leave where they’ve lived for a long time,” says Finkielkraut, referring to a growing unease caused by virulent anti-Semitism in predominantly immigrant areas.
“In recent years, tens of thousands of Jews have moved, some to Israel, most to neighborhoods where they feel more secure. Such a situation would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. It’s without precedent in France and, what’s really terrible, it’s going to continue,” he says.
For Finkielkraut, the origin of this malaise is clear.
“It’s a terrible phenomenon linked to immigration,” he says. “And as immigration is increasing, so is the rise in this anti-Semitism. Not only does a big part of the left refuse to recognize this, but they explain to us that the immigrants are the new Jews and that it’s important to know how to welcome them as the country should have done for Jews during World War II.
“What’s crazy is the situation is going to get worse with the complicity of people who claim to have learned the lessons from the Holocaust. We are at an absolutely diabolical juncture,” Finkielkraut says.
Anti-Semitism rears its ugly head
Last spring, following the anti-Semitic killing of an elderly Holocaust survivor in Paris — since 2006 the 11th distinctly anti-Semitic murder committed in France, mostly by Islamic radicals — Finkielkraut was one of 300 prominent Jewish and non-Jewish dignitaries and celebrities who signed a manifesto denouncing what it called the “new anti-Semitism marked by Islamic radicalization.” Published in France’s largest-circulation newspaper, it echoed statements previously expressed by Finkielkraut.
“Anti-Semitism is not a Jewish affair, it’s everyone’s,” the manifesto declared. “France has become a theater of murderous anti-Semitism.”
The signatories condemned what they called a “quiet ethnic purging” of Jews, especially in working-class, multi-racial neighborhoods and accused the media of remaining silent on this issue.
The hard-hitting text concluded with a call to action: “We ask that the fight against the democratic weakness that is anti-Semitism become a national cause before it’s too late. Before France is no longer France.”
A few days later, Finkielkraut told one of France’s leading newspapers, Libération, that as a well-known Jewish figure, he would no longer feel safe living in the Paris neighborhood where he grew up with his parents on the Right Bank between the Place de la République and the Gare du Nord train station. He said in recent years on several occasions while walking in that area, people had made the anti-Semitic “quenelle” inverted Nazi salute at him or verbally insulted him.
Finkielkraut has spent his entire life in Paris except for two years in California while teaching at the University of Berkeley in the 1970s. Today, he lives with his wife of 33 years, lawyer Sylvie Topaloff (with whom he has a 30-year-old son), on a quiet street on the Left Bank near the Jardin du Luxembourg. Their apartment is on the top floor of a six-storey building built in 1907.
A former philosophy professor at France’s elite Ecole Polytechnique, Finkielkraut has written or co-authored nearly 30 books since his first was published in 1977. They cover diverse subjects linked to current events and modern life, including the future of western civilization, the sexual revolution, public education, multiculturalism, racism, anti-Semitism, personal identity, and the war in the former Yugoslavia.
When he published “Le Juif Imaginarie” (“The Imaginary Jew”) in 1980, he didn’t think he’d write much again on Jewish topics but subsequent developments in France have caused him to devote almost a third of his books to Jewish-related subjects. His next book, which he’s now completing, will have a strong autobiographical focus.
In his youth, during the 1950s and ’60s, Finkielkraut says he faced relatively little anti-Semitism.
“When I was young, I expected to meet anti-Semites but I rarely did,” says Finkielkraut. “Of course, it happened to me a few times to be called ‘a dirty Jew’ but it was nothing, really. So, I grew up thinking anti-Semitism was largely a thing of the past.
“That all began to change around 15 years ago. Since then, there’s been a resurgence of anti-Semitism in France. But it’s not the old anti-Jewish demons [of French right wing nationalists] that suddenly reappeared,” he says.
Racist or realist?
Although he’s quick to avoid a blanket accusation, his detractors deride him as a racist.
“Obviously, it would be absurd to suggest all immigrants are anti-Semites,” says Finkielkraut. “The majority perhaps are not. But most anti-Semites today in France come from Algeria, northwest Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. That’s the reason anti-Semitism isn’t being fought very much.”
Although he was once active in leftist causes and took part in the fabled May 1968 student uprising in France, he’s long been disillusioned with many who purport to be progressive in their views.
“What worries me a lot is the abandonment of Jews by an important part of the intelligentsia,” says Finkielkraut. “They’ve chosen their camp, which is the Palestinians against the Israelis, and in France, the Muslims against the Jews. In the mind of many of these people, the Muslims are the first victims, the most stigmatized, the new Jews. That’s one of the hardest things to live with today.”
But Finkielkraut doesn’t see the danger as limited to Jews. As part of his cri de coeur, he bewails the rejection of French values by many immigrants, especially Muslims. Numbering 6 million, they are the largest Muslim community in Europe.
“France is subject to two separate but related and simultaneous threats, both of which are on the rise,” he claims. “One is Judeophobia and the other is Francophobia. In the face of this danger, Jews and other French citizens are in the same boat.”
He’s referring to the hostility of many Muslim immigrants to both Jews and French civilization in their new country. In certain neighborhoods with a large immigrant population, Finkielkraut says French citizens are often the target of insults and made to feel almost as foreigners in their own land.
Israel as Plan B
If things deteriorate further, he says Jews have one advantage that others don’t — they can always move to Israel. Some of the heat he has taken is linked to his longstanding support for the Jewish state, which he’s visited about 20 times.
“I always feel happy and excited to be there,” says Finkielkraut. “Unfortunately, I only know Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. That’s not enough. I really want to see other parts of the country and meet people in different places, especially in the Negev and the Galilee and in Haifa.”
At the same time, he’s distraught about Israel.
“I’ve always supported Israel and the two-state solution,” he says. “But I don’t see how it will be possible to preserve a Jewish majority if there’s no compromise with the Palestinians. The future of Zionism is at stake.”
Still, he recognizes the complexity of resolving the conflict.
“I don’t know if the Palestinians are a partner for peace,” says Finkielkraut. “However, in the Netanyahu government, some people are too happy they have no partner for peace. I’d like them to be unhappy about that. It’s as if they don’t want a partner because that would oblige them to make painful concessions which they don’t want to make.
“Of course, I know that when Israel made concessions in Lebanon, it got Hezbollah. And making concessions that would result in having Hamas in the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria, or whatever you call it, would be very dangerous for Israel. Still, there’s a demographic problem. I want a Zionist state with a Jewish majority. That’s why I’m worried,” he says.
Finkielkraut is also troubled by the perception of and attitude to Israel in France.
“In France, Israel is less and less understood, especially on the left,” he says. “So many can’t seem to understand a country that defends itself, that affirms itself. The left talk so much about multiculturalism, and yet they denigrate a Jewish country, an ethnic country.
“Whereas they once found the existence of a Jewish country legitimate, today they see it as incongruous and an anachronism,” Finkielkraut says.
It’s Finkielkraut’s ardent views that make him such a contentious figure in France.
If Finkielkraut first began having doubts about France’s future long ago, it’s little surprise his prognosis has become far more somber in recent years. Since 2014, Islamic terrorists, mostly home-grown, have carried out a series of major atrocities in France that have killed nearly 250 people and wounded hundreds more.
He takes no satisfaction in having seen his gloomy prediction for his country turn out tragically true. Most disturbing, he foresees even darker days on the horizon.
“In the current climate, I can’t say I’m comfortable saying some of the things I express,” admits Finkielkraut, who was elected to the prestigious, venerable Académie Française in 2014.
“For now, I’m not afraid for my personal safety, but we’ll see what happens. Many people are under police protection, which I may need one day. Until now, I’ve only been subjected to verbal assaults, nothing physical. It’s not easy, but I refuse to shut my mouth,” he says.