France rejects anti-Semitism
It was not just any demonstration for Giselle and for so many other people, many older, who gathered yesterday on the Esplanade des Invalides. “Only my parents survived the Shoah,” explained this Parisian retiree, born in 1947. My father spent three years in Auschwitz. He resisted because he was young and strong, physically and mentally. The rest of the family was gassed. They were taken from the Warsaw ghetto. My father started telling me things when I was eight years old. He traumatized me for life.”
Yesterday there were demonstrations against anti-Semitism in the main French cities. 105,000 people attended the Paris march, according to the police prefecture, a respectable number although not the human tide that the organizers would have hoped for. The average age was high. Among them, many members of the local Jewish community and few representatives of France of Arab and Muslim origin, although some mosque imams. In the rest of the cities the total attendance approached 80,000 attendees. Modest numbers if compared, for example, to the protests against pension reform.
The demonstration in the capital had a very symbolic start and destination. It began in the National Assembly and ended in the Senate. The presidents of both chambers, from different parties, were the conveners. There was a clear desire for national consensus, an objective that was only partially achieved. Former presidents François Hollande (socialist) and Nicolas Sarkozy (conservative) attended, as well as several former prime ministers, including Manuel Valls, the current head of the Government, Élisabeth Borne and around twenty ministers.
The President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, chose not to attend, to preserve his role as guarantor of national unity and, probably, to not exacerbate tempers in the face of the delicate geopolitical moment that is being experienced due to the Gaza war. Macron chose to write a letter to the French, through the newspaper The Parisianin which he recalled the Hamas attacks of October 7, which cost the lives of 40 French people, he defended the universalism of republican values and firmness in the face of attempts to divide the country and confront communities. “A France in which our Jewish fellow citizens are afraid is not France,” stressed the head of state.
“A France in which our fellow Jews are afraid is not France,” says Macron
The good wishes for unity were partially fulfilled. La France Insoumise (LFI, radical left), led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, refused to join the Paris march when it learned that the leaders of the extreme right were going to attend. The presidents of both houses of Parliament did not want to parade near the ultras, so they drew up a cordon sanitaire. Marine Le Pen and other leaders of the National Regroupment (RN, formerly the National Front) agreed to stand at the tail end of the march, also far from Éric Zemmour and Marion Maréchal, their far-right rivals from the Reconquista party.
The presence of the extreme right at an event against anti-Semitism broke a taboo. Many do not forgive the ideological complicity of some of its founders with the Vichy regime, which collaborated with the Nazis. One mature protester, Carole, a sociologist, carried a small banner that said “No to all anti-Semites, no to the RN.” Two protesters criticized the banner. “You have nothing of a patriot, madam! –one of them snapped–. “I carried a French flag but not this banner.” “They are there (Le Pen and his co-religionists) and I don't want to demonstrate with them,” she replied. I don't want to breathe the same air. They have their history. “They want to whiten their image.”
It was difficult for France to recognize the full responsibility of Marshal Pétain's regime in the deportation of the Jews to the extermination camps. President François Mitterrand himself, one of the great leaders of European socialism after World War II, had a very murky past of collusion with the Vichy government and the extreme right. He was a lifelong close friend and protector of René Bousquet, chief of the Pétain police and a convinced anti-Semite. It had to be the conservative Jacques Chirac who apologized in 1995.
At yesterday's demonstration there was a retired teacher, Kathleen, 70, who was wearing a sticker with the phrase "Never forget, never forgive" and a yellow Star of David attached to her chest. Kathleen explained her unique story. Her mother, French and a member of the resistance, hid Jewish children during the German occupation. Her father was an American soldier and landed from Normandy.
The presence of far-right leaders breaks a taboo, but generates tensions
“The problem is that history is no longer taught in schools in this country,” Kathleen lamented. Kids go to the internet and believe anything they read. They are very vulnerable. The global danger is there, believe me, in today's children.”
The desire to fight against oblivion was very common among the protesters. Michel Cymes, a doctor who has a popular television show, said he went to the march for a simple reason, which he explained to La Tribune Sunday: “I speak out because on May 14, 1941, my grandfather, trusting in the country in which he had taken refuge, responded to the call of the French police. Detained, deported and murdered in Auschwitz. This country, which he considered a refuge, did not protect him. His grandson demonstrates to show him that history will not begin again, that this country, my country, will protect me, not because I am Jewish but because I am French.
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