'This time, I'm afraid as a Frenchman'

For Jewish community, Paris riots stoke fear they will become targets of violence

The indiscriminate looting and torching of stores and vehicles sparked by a police shooting of a Muslim teen invokes for many a wave of antisemitic attacks less than a decade ago

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Police officers patrol in front of the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs Elysees in Paris, Saturday, July 1, 2023. (AP/Christophe Ena)
Police officers patrol in front of the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs Elysees in Paris, Saturday, July 1, 2023. (AP/Christophe Ena)

Before sunset, Jonathan C. draws the curtains of his apartment in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles tightly and makes sure no light can be seen from outside.

“I don’t want my place to be seen from the street and get targeted,” Jonathan C., a Jewish 40-year-old who works in the city as a procurement professional, told The Times of Israel on Friday.

“I’m very afraid,” he added, referring to a wave of nocturnal riots that has rocked the streets of Sarcelles and other areas around the country with large Muslim communities.

The riots broke out Tuesday following the slaying by a police officer of a 17-year-old boy of Algerian descent. The teenager was driving a rented Mercedes and refused to comply with the instructions of an officer who pulled him over for a routine roadside inspection near Paris. The officer shot him dead, reportedly for fear for the lives of other officers.

Thousands of Jews who live in Sarcelles and other areas with a large Muslim population perceive the riots as a direct threat and reminder of the volatility of life in crowded neighborhoods with a history of antisemitic violence.

In Sarcelles, an ordinarily calm but bustling suburb with an ethnically diverse population and a parking shortage, the riots have transformed the urban landscape into a battle zone where looters shatter storefronts to the light of burning tires.

Burnt out vehicles are removed following riots in Sarcelles, north of Paris on June 29, 2023, two days after a 17-year-old boy was shot in the chest by police at point-blank range in Nanterre, a western suburb of Paris. (Bertrand GUAY / AFP)

The riots are a polarizing event in an already divided society and a test for the administration of President Emmanuel Macron. A politician with a center-left electoral base, he has nonetheless gone farther than any of his recent predecessors to address the concerns of many immigration skeptics on the right.

So far, the rioters have not targeted Jews, several community leaders confirmed.

Unidentified perpetrators did vandalize a monument for Holocaust victims in Nanterre, the Paris suburb where the 17-year-old, identified in the French media only as Nahel M., was killed. The perpetrators spray-painted the words “Police scum” on the monument.

In addition, some antisemitic chants have been heard during anti-police riots, part of a well-documented sentiment among some Muslims who see Jews as part of an oppressive power structure.

But “we’re not targeted specifically. This is just chaos; the rioters smashed Jewish-owned shops, Arab-owned shops, even the bus and metro stations that their own families use to get to work,” Jonathan C. said.

A kosher supermarket and a wig shop for Orthodox Jewish women were among the businesses ransacked in Sarcelles, Jonathan C. said. But “there was no logic to the madness. The rioters just smash any shop in their path, there’s no selection,” he added.

A memorial to those deported from France during the Holocaust and World War II is defaced during riots following the police shooting of a teen, June 29, 2023. (Screen grab via Twitter used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Many of the rioters, Jonathan C. said, are no older than 15, and some are even 12. “There’s no ideology; these are kids participating in barbarity,” he said.

In an address this week, Macron urged parents to take responsibility for underage rioters, one-third of whom he said were “young or very young.”

‘Afraid as a Jew, afraid as a Frenchman’

Since Tuesday, police have arrested hundreds of rioters, including in Aubervilliers, another heavily Muslim suburb of Paris. It has fewer Jewish residents but it does house a large and popular Jewish school affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Each weekday morning and afternoon, minibuses gather there to fetch and return hundreds of Jewish students from across the Paris region.

The riots “have caused delays because of traffic complications,” Rabbi Arie Tzvi Nisilevitch, who lives in Drancy but is affiliated with the Chabad community of Aubervilliers, told The Times of Israel. The riots necessitated some security arrangements, which Nisilevitch declined to discuss due to safety concerns. “But the school has not been targeted to the best of our knowledge and the disturbances happen long after school hours,” he said.

For Jews in Paris and Sarcelles especially, the riots evoke the events of 2014, when perpetrators singled out Jewish-owned shops in that suburb, nicknamed “little Jerusalem” due to its large Jewish population of about 20,000.

The 2014 attacks, which also targeted multiple synagogues outside Sarcelles, were part of an explosion of hostility by Muslims against Jews amid the 2014 Gaza war between Israel and Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Palestinian enclave.

FILE: Rioters throw projectiles at French riot police officers in Sarcelles, a suburb north of Paris, on July 20, 2014, after clashes following a demonstration denouncing Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. (AFP/ PIERRE ANDRIEU

“In 2014, I was afraid as a Jew. This time, I’m afraid as a Frenchman,” said Jonathan C., noting that he does not have a Middle Eastern appearance.

Police and firefighters are common targets of violence by rioters whom many believe are acting out of resentment of French society, where the anti-immigration far right is the second-largest political force.

Other incidents are seen by some as reflecting a religious dimension of the riots, which are occurring in heavily Muslim areas.

On Thursday, two unidentified individuals beat up and robbed a priest in Saint-Etienne near Lyon. Disagreements exist on whether the assault, the second attack of a priest in the region in three weeks, was part of the riots.

Hate attacks against Christians are multiplying in France, where in 2021 the interior ministry recorded 1,052 anti-Christian hate crimes, nearly double the assaults on Jews. It meant that Christians were, in absolute numbers at least, the religious group that was most targeted that year.

That’s worrisome to many French Jews, who view the hundreds of antisemitic and anti-Christian attacks, as well as attacks against police, as part of the same resurgence of radical Islam in communities of immigrants and their descendants in France.

Macron’s statements on the subject suggest he shares these concerns. In 2020, he announced what he himself termed a “radical” plan requiring children to attend state-recognized schools from the age of 3, effectively barring the practice of Muslim home schooling, and mandating an oath of allegiance to the state from religious associations.

French police officers patrol as demonstrators fill the street in the Champs Elysees area of Paris on July 1, 2023, five days after a 17-year-old man was killed by police in Nanterre, a western suburb of Paris. (Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

In 2019, Macron said that France must develop a “society of vigilance” in its fight against the “hydra” of Islamist militancy, a reference to a multi-headed monster in Greek mythology. His language, which resembled far-right terminology and was unprecedented coming from a sitting president, reflected growing resentment toward radical Islam following the Charlie Hebdo, Hyper Cacher, and Bataclan terrorist attacks in 2015, some of the most brutal incidents in a wave of jihadist violence that left hundreds dead in France.

Many French Jews lauded Macron for declaring a tough stance. But the continuation of wide-scale rioting connected to the politics of immigration from Muslim countries despite his actions is giving rise to new concerns.

“There’s a feeling of negligence on the part of law enforcement, a reluctance to confront the problem,” Jonathan C. said. “There’s a shortage of cops and they’re not there when the riots happen.”

Macron’s remarks classifying the police shooting of the teenager in Nanterre as “inexcusable” have only strengthened Jonathan C.’s concerns about how authorities are handling the riots, in which thousands of cars and shops have been damaged.

On Friday, Macron announced the deployment of 45,000 police officers around Paris to deal with he called “the current crisis.” He praised the police force and its officers’ “courage” and condemned “those who use this moment to sow hate.”

Protesters walk past a burnt out trash bin during clashes with police in Marseille, southern France on July 1, 2023, after a fourth consecutive night of rioting in France over the killing of a teenager by police. (CLEMENT MAHOUDEAU / AFP)

But by condemning the shooting officer, who reportedly said that he had shot Nahel M. because he feared that the teen would ram the officer’s partner with his car, “Macron violated the separation of authorities and signaled to police he doesn’t have their backs,” said Jonathan C.

Jonathan C.’s pro-police attitude is shared by both the leaders and the rank-and-file of France’s Jewish community of about 400,000 people, whose synagogues and schools for several years have received police and army protection.

Bruno Benjamin, right, meets Frederic Potier, a former coordinator of the French government’s efforts to fight antisemitism and racism, in Paris, France, on November 15, 2017. (Courtesy of Bruno Benjamin)

In Marseille, the rioting has taken place outside the neighborhoods favored by the city’s 70,000-odd Jews, according to Bruno Benjamin, the head of the local branch of the CRIF federation of French Jewish communities.

“There are no special security directives for the city’s Jews. But it’s a bad idea to go walking around at night for anyone now,” he told The Times of Israel.

Benjamin says it was too soon to judge how authorities are handling the situation. “Look, we’ve had mass riots every night for three-four nights now. If it continues, we’ll know that the problem is more serious than we thought,” Benjamin told The Times of Israel.

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