France Is on Edge After Israel-Hamas War Reopens Old Scars

As home to both the largest Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe, France is feeling the strain of the Israel-Hamas war like no other country on the continent.

(Bloomberg) — As home to both the largest Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe, France is feeling the strain of the Israel-Hamas war like no other country on the continent.

Tensions are embroiling everyone from school children to football players in a country with a complicated colonial history in the Middle East and North Africa, one that is suffering the unmistakable reverberations of a conflict that’s pitting Jews against their Muslim neighbors. 

On Saturday the Louvre Museum and the Palace of Versailles, two of the capital’s top tourist destinations, were evacuated and shut down. Pro-Palestinian protests have been banned. The country’s been moved to the highest level of terror alert, with 7,000 soldiers deployed to supplement a heavy police presence on the streets. 

In the northern town of Arras, a teacher on Friday was fatally stabbed by a Muslim perpetrator. Though the government has nuanced earlier comments that the stabbing seemed motivated by events in Israel, its resemblance to the vicious 2020 murder of a teacher in an act of Islamist terrorism has reopened old wounds in a country where Jews and Muslims share a painful past.  

A conflict playing out thousands of kilometers away has resonated in France, despite — or perhaps because of — the country’s long-standing secularism, which relegates the religious convictions of its citizens to the private sphere. 

Speaking in a television interview, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said that an “extremely negative atmosphere” prevailed, amid fears that this new, disconcerting wave of violence in the Middle East would exacerbate preexisting animosities. 

France is the European country that has lost the most citizens in the Hamas attacks on Israel, according to figures from the foreign ministry. President Emmanuel Macron saw the seriousness and addressed the tragedy in a nationwide declaration on prime-time TV. Hours before the speech, he had summoned party leaders from all the political spectrum.

“I see the fear of our Jewish fellow countrymen that the surge in violence over there will be used as an excuse to justify words, slander or acts against them,” he said.

French Jews have good reason to be on edge. 

There have been 189 anti-Semitic acts in France since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, according to Darmanin. They included people arrested with blades near schools or synagogues, and hateful messages scrawled in public places.

Mounted police and officers carrying rifles could be seen Friday afternoon patrolling the narrow streets of the old Jewish quarter in Paris. The usually bustling Marais area was mostly quiet, with businesses closing earlier than the usual hour marking the start of the Jewish day of rest. 

Edward, the owner of a local deli, removed the chairs and tables on his terrace in an attempt to discourage anyone targeting his business. He has two Muslim employees, who he likes and trusts but with whom he’d never raise the Israel-Hamas war with because he’d rather not know what they think.

“Of course I’m scared,” he said, declining to give his surname over security concerns, and recalling that in 1982 an anti-Semitic bombing killed six people only meters from his deli. “When Israel gets a cold, France sneezes.”

As a visible act of terrorism by Muslim perpetrators against French Jews, the 1982 attack inaugurated a new front of unease in its Jewish community, whose early 20th century oppressors were the traditional enemies of the Jews. 

France is, after all, the country whose relationship with its Jewish population was partly forged by the Vichy regime and, even earlier, by the Dreyfus Affair, in which conservatives framed a Jewish soldier for crimes he didn’t commit.  

It is one of the ironies of the current conflict that it has pushed some Jews into finding common cause with the far-right, after three-time presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s voiced her public backing for Israel. Her father, Jean-Marie, had dismissed the Holocaust as a detail in history. When she took over the party he founded she publicly repudiated those comments and over the years has actively courted French Jews who say successive governments have done too little to stop the rise of anti-Semitism.

The war, for sure, has shaken up political alignments. 

On one side there is the softening of the Jewish community’s attitude toward Le Pen, while the refusal of far-leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon to call Hamas a terrorist organization fueled the perception of his party as anti-Israel. 

His reluctance to back the designation favored by both the US and the EU has deepened fractures with the NUPES leftist alliance, forged just before 2022 parliamentary elections. In that vote the coalition helped rob Macron of an outright majority, but it can only maintain the significant power it holds in the National Assembly if it stays united.

French Jews total almost 600,000, according to CRIF, an umbrella organization for Jewish groups in France. The Muslim minority, which originates mostly from France’s former colonial possessions in North Africa, is much larger and is around five million. 

Jean Garrigues, a political historian, sees a combination of factors that help explain why France is subject to greater sensitivity to Middle East tensions than its European peers. 

He named resentment toward France’s colonial past; the struggle for many Muslims to cope with laicite, which they see as a pretext to stigmatize their religious and cultural practices; and an influential Jewish community that feels strongly connected to Israel. 

“The Palestinian cause has become a banner for Muslims in France,” Garrigues said.

One factor he didn’t mention was France’s so-called banlieues. Past administrations sequestered immigrant families into the outskirts of major cities only for these areas to become centers of unemployment, crumbling housing, and sometimes riots and radicalization.

While open violence is still rare between Jews and Muslims in France, tensions in the Middle East often fuel mutual hard feelings.

Gerard Unger, deputy-head of the CRIF, said in an interview that while anti-Semitism in France historically comes from the far-right, every Jew that has perished in an anti-Semitic attack in France in recent years was killed by radical Islamists. 

But French Muslims have their grievances, too. 

“Banning pro-Palestinian demonstrations is problematic because it reveals the sympathies of the government and creates fractures within society,” said Nagib Azergui, the head of the small Union of French Muslim Democrats party. He attended a peaceful pro-Palestinian demonstration in Paris that was dispersed peacefully. 

By contrast, pro-Israel protests have been able to go ahead, with former president Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy attending a march in sight of the Eiffel Tower.   

In a cafe in Barbes, a Paris area home to many Muslims, bartender Yanis Kassed said he’s thinking about moving with his family back to his ancestral Algeria. 

“France is supposed to be the country of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite but we Muslims have no freedom nor are we treated equally since we can’t even support Palestine,” he said. “Things have become so complicated for everyone that the motto that was France’s pride is disappearing.”

–With assistance from Ania Nussbaum, Gaspard Sebag and William Horobin.

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