French Society Views Jews through the Prism of Shoah
“The position of the Jews in a country is largely determined by how its general population views them. This is often far more important than the Jews’ own conduct. French society and the Jewish community frequently have different mindsets.
“In recent years, to be involved in Jewish life has become synonymous with communautarisme (i.e., withdrawal into one’s own community, which is considered a lack of loyalty to the French Republic) – a term with a negative connotation. This was not the case previously. French public opinion now sees the Jewish community as ambivalent regarding national citizenship.
“The Jews in France play a symbolic role – a result of their lengthy past in European civilization. This role was greatly influenced in the previous century by the Shoah and more recently by the mass immigration of Muslims.”
Shmuel Trigano is Professor of Sociology at Paris University, President of the Observatoire du Monde Juif and author of numerous books focusing on Jewish philosophy and Jewish political thought.
“In France in the 1980s, the Holocaust rather suddenly replaced almost all of the Second World War history in collective memory. Thereafter, the image of the Jew as victim, the person with whom one should commiserate as a matter of principle, became dominant. Today however, this role is almost non-existent.
“During the years after the war, an obscuring of the Shoah took place. Initially Gaullism ruled, which promoted the myth of ‘resistant France,’ as if the majority of Frenchmen had actively opposed Vichy. The country’s authorities and elites had to conceal the fact that the collaborating Vichy government had come to power democratically as a result of a vote by the French Parliament.
“The radically changed situation made the ‘Jewish question’ an extremely sensitive one. It began with a scandal over statements made by Louis Darquier de Pellepoix. He was Commissioner for Jewish Affairs under the Vichy regime. By fleeing to Spain, Darquier escaped French post-war justice, which condemned him to death.
“In 1978, he told the weekly L’Express that only lice had been gassed in Auschwitz and that the Jews were lying about what went on there. Thanks to that interview and the reaction it sparked, the Jews suddenly became the subject of both media and public debates.
“When Darquier gave his interview, the new perception of the ‘Jew as a victim’ had not yet crystallized. However, that happened later on. This image has been instituted by state bodies – rather than by the Jewish community – such as the Museum of the Shoah Memorial and the Foundation for the Remembrance of the Shoah.
“What is remembered nowadays in this ‘victim image’ is the human condition as it expresses itself in Jewish suffering. This is an ambivalent role. To be accepted by French society at large, the suffering must be greatly de-Judaized. Many public personalities and educators say that transmitting the Shoah to the current generation requires stressing and valorizing its universal aspect. It means exposing barbarianism, inhumanity and suffering, in general terms.
“During the 1968 student riots in Paris, the slogan ‘We are all German Jews’ was used to defend one of the student leaders, Daniel Cohn Bendit, a German Jew. Indirectly, it meant that one identified with the victims of a Nazi state. Twenty years later, this saying obtained a new connotation: ‘We identify with universalist, assimilated German Jews, but not with Zionists and Jewish communautarians.’
“Already in the previous century, the role of the ‘absolute victim’ in France slowly mutated from the Jews to the mainly Muslim immigrants, whose situation is often compared publicly with that of Jewish victims in the past. In the 1980s, one occasionally heard that when fighting against the extreme-Right racism of Jean Marie Le Pen’s Front National party and general anti-Arab racism, one was combating anti-Semitism.
“The so-called Debré laws of 1997 – named after Interior Minister Jean Louis Debré – regulated the immigration and status of foreigners. In demonstrations against these laws, some participants dressed up as camp prisoners. They wore striped pajamas and carried bags on their backs as if traveling toward the trains that would deport them toconcentration camps. Those demonstrating and their supporters associated the fate of these immigrants suffering from French racism, with that of the Jews as victims of the Shoah.”
Trigano concludes: “There are many more roles which Jews fill in French society. They include that Jews are upheld as a positive role model for Muslim immigrants. They are also an instrument for the authorities to maintain social peace, a witness to the supposed tolerance of Muslims, or, as whitewashers for French problems such as anti-Semitism. Above all, French Jews are placed in the role of ‘representatives of Israel,’ which is portrayed negatively in the French media.”