April 30, 2003
A Dangerous Triangle
Given to all-out, gleeful French-bashing of late, the American media has called the Hexagon every name in the book, indulging in a despicable parade of worn-out stereotypes, from Jerry Lewis and snippy poodles to vile traitors and "surrender monkeys." Anything to avoid debating the actual issue: America wanted war for its strategic, geopolitical interests and oil, and France didn't want war for its strategic, geopolitical interests and oil. Jacques Chirac is equated with Saddam Hussein, accused of coddling terrorists and pandering to the growing Muslim population in his country. But the actual situation within France is much different and more complicated. Just as in the United States, foreign policy is not domestic policy. And the Arab community in France is anything but catered to.
When I first came to France to live more than seven years ago, I lived with the North African community for some time and I saw firsthand what it was like to be Algerian in France. That is to say, I stayed in the banlieue (Parisian suburbs) in publicly funded housing far from the city center, and heard a lot of stories about riots, police brutality and not getting hired for jobs because many employers would say outright, "We don't hire Arabs here."
I stayed with an Algerian woman born in France, Zolera, who was forthright and outspoken, had raised four bright children, lost a husband and had gotten elected to her city council because she was committed to helping others in her community overcome discrimination, housing difficulties and immigration issues. She had dyed blond hair, a belly laugh and an incredibly strong will; she considered herself 100 percent French, but for her, that did not mean reneging on her culture, her tradition or her community.
Anti-Arab racism in France is fierce, and it comes in the form of social exclusion: relegation to "ghettos" (they borrow the term from us) on the outskirts of cities, rampant employment discrimination, police surveillance and control of identity papers and quasi-zero presence on French media. The public discourse around insecurité is a euphemism for the common perception that rising crime rates are directly correlated to immigrants (i.e., North Africans).
I say all this because in order to have any understanding of the precipitous rise in what can only be called hate crimes against Jews here in France (brutality against Jewish kids in schools, attacks and beatings, defacement of synagogues), one cannot ignore the severe social and economic rifts that are present and getting worse. There is a terrible triangulation going on between "mainstream French society" (whatever that means), the Arab population and the Jewish population here -- and Jews are paying the price. The anger and embitterment of some Arab youth is not going in the direction of Zolera, that is, in the struggle for recognition, against discrimination and in favor of political and community solutions, it is being unleashed upon another visible minority, with horrendous results. Anti-Semitism in France at the moment does not mean social segregation, it does not mean employment discrimination -- it means violence and vandalism.
This you know. The American Jewish community was crying out "Boycott the French!" long before the advent of "freedom fries." And I must say, I long considered this a knee-jerk reaction without much actual impact upon the increasingly difficult lives of French Jews. I have heard again and again how the people the boycott is hurting are the Jews themselves -- shop owners in the Marais, for instance. But recently, someone here said to me that they appreciated it; that regardless of the practical effects, the rhetorical impact was important because it meant someone was taking notice.
"The media here is relentlessly anti-Israel," he said, "and for once, the reaction of the American community meant that someone else was watching what was happening within this country."
For the government here has been painfully slow in responding to the rising attacks on the Jewish community, dismissing them as "intercommunity" violence, or as a "spill-over" from the situation in Israel, and they are virtually never reported on French media. (The situation is improving: Education Minister Luc Ferry, is establishing measures to combat racial violence in schools, particularly anti-Semitism). But the only way that the government can see this as intercommunity violence is if these two communities are seen as foreign to the national community. It's a problem with Israel, not a problem with France, not a situation of French citizens being brutalized by other French citizens who are not recognized as such. To see violence in Paris or Marseilles as exclusively a symptom of the situation in the Middle East makes it impossible to admit that the social conditions of Paris or Marseilles are also fueling the problem. The most insidious consequence of this conflation is the way violence against Jews is constantly portrayed as "inevitable," which absolves those in power of the responsibility to seriously combat it.
It's not an external problem, it's an internal problem. There is no doubt that rage and anger against the situation in Israel and the American invasion of Iraq have degraded the situation here in recent months. But in the long term, it is necessary for France to come to terms with the changed face of its citizenry in order to live up to its responsibility to protect each of its citizens.
Erin Williams Hyman is a doctoral student in comparative literature at UCLA. She is living in Paris for the year with her husband, Rabbi Micah Hyman, who is working there at a Conservative synagogue.