France's Anti-Semitism Problem is Escalating and Can't Be Ignored

A Jewish cemetery in France was vandalized with swastikas

February 20, 2019

It shouldn’t come as a surprise anymore that France has a serious anti-Semitism problem. Since 2000, there’s been attack after violent attack against the French Jewish community, with only the most shocking ones – from the horrific murder of a Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll last year to the deadly terrorist shooting at the Hyper Cacher kosher market – making headlines and raising perennial concerns about the safety and long-time viability of the ancient Jewish community of France. 

But the news this week continues to shock, to the extent that one can be shocked anymore by the virulence of anti-Semitism and its continued entrenchment in France.

Anti-Semitism is being manifested in ways large and small. In just recent days we’ve seen writer and philosopher Alain Finkielkraut being verbally assaulted by Yellow Vest protestors who have taken to France’s streets to demonstrate against the country’s economic policies.  In videos documenting the incident, protestors can be heard chanting “Dirty Jew” “dirty Zionist shit,” “go back to Tel Aviv,” and “you’re a hater, you’re going to die, you’re going to hell.”

This came just days after newly released figures from the French government confirmed that anti-Semitic incidents have skyrocketed over the last year. The country experienced 500 reported incidents in 2018, a year-over-year increase of 74 percent, with violent anti-Semitic assaults up an astounding 270 percent. In a country that is home to a strong Jewish community of nearly 500,000 people, it is hard to find anyone who has not been personally touched by anti-Semitism in France.

And just hours before nearly all of France’s political leaders were set to march against the recent surge in anti-Jewish violence, anti-Semites struck again: vandals spray-painted swastikas on nearly 100 graves at a Jewish cemetery in the village of Quatzenheim, near the city of Strasbourg in eastern France. The presence of neo-Nazi symbols along with the swastikas served as an indicator that the attack may have emanated from agitators on the far right.

French President Emmanuel Macron toured a vandalized Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim, France.

French President Emmanuel Macron toured a vandalized Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim, France.

This week, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt is meeting with Jewish community leaders in France to discuss these recent manifestations of the age-old hatred and to continue our partnership with the Jewish community. France’s problems also come at a time when anti-Semitism is in the headlines across Europe. The UK, for example, where the controversy over anti-Semitism has engulfed the Labour Party, recently reported an increase in anti-Semitic incidents of 16 percent last year alone.

But France remains the most serious locus for anti-Semitic acts, a place where Jews face tragic examples of extremism from radical Islamists – who perpetrated the 2018 Knoll murder, the 2015 Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket attack, and the horrifying 2012 attack on the Jewish school in Toulouse – as well as attacks from the left and the right. Even memorials to those slain in anti-Semitic attacks are being targeted: last week, two trees planted in memory of Ilan Halimi, the 23-year-old Jewish man abducted and killed over a decade ago by a gang of Islamist thugs, were found to have been mutilated and chopped.

And of course, it is the Jews of France who are feeling this day after day.  According to a recent EU survey, 95% of French Jewish respondents view anti-Semitism as a “big issue.” 

This finding accords with ADL’s own surveys on anti-Semitic attitudes in France.

Anti-Semitism protests in France in February 2019

French politicians and citizens rallied against anti-Semitism in France on Feb. 19, 2019.

In 2014, ADL’s original Global 100 Survey of anti-Semitic attitudes found that nearly 37 percent of the French population at the time agreed with longstanding anti-Semitic tropes. While that number fluctuates from poll to poll, and was down to roughly 14 percent of the population in our most recent poll in 2017, the fact remains that as many as 7.6 million French adults harbor anti-Semitic attitudes toward their Jewish neighbors.

The good news is the government and people of France are long past the point of denying the extent of the problem.  Security has been stepped up at Jewish institutions, and government leaders are more willing than ever to speak out against anti-Semitism. The fact that people are marching in the streets against anti-Semitism stands as a powerful testament and a recognition that something in society must change – and soon.

On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron visited the desecrated cemetery in Quatzenheim, telling local leaders that “whoever did this is not worthy of the French republic and will be punished.” 

He later visited the national Holocaust memorial in Paris with the heads of the Senate and National Assembly. His visit coincided with nationwide rallies organized by 14 French political parties, including Macron’s own party, to denounce hate crimes against Jews.

These are the kinds of steps we would expect from responsible moral leadership.  But there’s more that France can do as well. As Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said after today's rally, "demonstrating is necessary but not sufficient."