PARIS, France (AFP) — Staring aghast at the swastikas scrawled over the portraits of his mother, the son of famed French Holocaust survivor Simone Veil says a recent surge in anti-Semitism reflects much larger problems.
“French society is in trouble,” he says.
On Tuesday, Pierre-Antoine Veil went to Paris’s 13th district to see for himself what vandals had done to the artistic tributes to his late mother on two post boxes.
“How can people have such ideas?” he wondered aloud at the scene of one of several anti-Semitic incidents in and around Paris in recent days that have stoked concern about rising hate crimes against French Jews.
“We can’t let this happen,” Veil told the city’s Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo, who attempted to reassure him that the vandals would not have the last word. “You can count on us, we’ll repair the damage each time,” she said.
But the rising number of anti-Jewish offenses reported to police — up 74 percent last year — have caused alarm in the country that is home to both the biggest Jewish and the biggest Muslim community in Europe.
In recent days, the word “Juden” was spray painted on the window of a Paris bagel bakery and a tree planted in memory of Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man who was tortured to death by an anti-Semitic gang near the capital in 2006, was chopped down.
“I have never known France to be free of anti-Semitism,” Valerie Zenatti, a children’s author and translator who grew up in a Jewish family, told AFP.
“I grew up with the attacks of Copernic Street and Rosiers Street and police guarding synagogues,” she said, citing two attacks on Paris synagogues in 1980 and 1982 in which four people and six people were killed respectively.
“But the phenomenon has exploded. Clearly, the dam has burst,” she said.
‘The most vile passions’
French President Emmanuel Macron and government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux have both suggested the latest attacks could be the work of far-left and far-right figures within the “yellow vest” movement.
The protests began three months ago over fuel taxes but quickly grew into a broader anti-government rebellion fueled by hatred of Macron, with some using anti-Semitic tropes to refer to his former job as an investment banker.
An Ifop poll this week showed that yellow vest protesters were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories than the rest of the population.
The results showed nearly half of the respondents believed in a worldwide “Zionist plot.”
But others say the roots of the problem go much deeper and wider.
For philosopher Pascal Bruckner, who has written extensively on the issue, the attacks highlight the convergence of three currents of anti-Jewish sentiment in French society.
“Radical Islam, the far-right — as evidenced by the ‘Juden’ inscription on the restaurant window — and the anti-Zionist far left,” he told AFP.
He sees Macron’s past as a banker for the French branch of the Rothschild family — who trace their roots back to the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt — as a key factor in the venom directed at him by the yellow vests.
“He has been branded a ‘Jewish whore.’ That would not have happened if he had worked at Dupont bank,” he said, referring to one of France’s most common surnames.
Bruckner also pointed to the links between radical Islamists and the anti-immigration far-right — unlikely allies united by anti-Semitism.
“All this is circulating and converging to awaken the most vile passions,” Bruckner said.
‘A quiet ethnic purge’
Surveys show anti-Jewish attitudes still circulate in France, despite a lingering sense of shame over the round-up and deportation of Jews during World War II by a pro-Nazi regime.
A report published last year by France’s National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, an independent advisory body, found 38% of people polled as saying Jews had a “particular attitude to money.”
Many observers date the resurgence in anti-Semitism to a spike in anti-US and anti-Israeli sentiment following the 9/11 attacks and the eruption of the second Palestinian intifada against Israel, which fanned anti-Jewish sentiment in France’s Muslim communities.
A letter signed by 300 French public figures last year warned about the “quiet ethnic purging” of some areas where Jews were being driven out by rising Islamist sentiment.
In the past few years, French jihadists have targeted Jews in several attacks.
In 2011, an Islamist gunman shot dead a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse.
Then in 2015, an extremist claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group killed four people at a kosher supermarket in Paris.
The violence that year triggered an increase in the number of French Jews moving to Israel, which totaled 6,628 in 2015. Another 3,157 left in 2017, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.
Emilie Freche, president of the jury that awards the annual Ilan Halimi prize for initiatives against racism and anti-Semitism, urged the authorities to declare “a state of emergency on anti-Semitism.”
“For the past 15 years we’ve been issuing condemnations,” she said wearily, calling for greater investment in culture and education.