The massacre at a kosher supermarket in Paris on Friday reinforced a fear, expressed openly and with distressing frequency by many in France’s half-million-strong Jewish community, that Islamist violence is compelling large numbers of Jews to flee. Already, several thousand have left over the past few years. But it is not merely the physical safety of France’s Jews that is imperiled by anti-Semitic violence, the country’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, argues, but the very idea of the French Republic itself. In an interview conducted before the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket massacres, Valls told me that if French Jews were to flee in large numbers, the soul of the French Republic would be at risk.
“The choice was made by the French Revolution in 1789 to recognize Jews as full citizens,” Valls told me. “To understand what the idea of the republic is about, you have to understand the central role played by the emancipation of the Jews. It is a founding principle.”
Valls, a Socialist who is the son of Spanish immigrants, describes the threat of a Jewish exodus from France this way: “If 100,000 French people of Spanish origin were to leave, I would never say that France is not France anymore. But if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.”
I met Valls at the Hotel Matignon, the prime minister’s residence, in the 7th arrondissement. (We spoke for a while, and I’ll be incorporating the full interview with Valls into a longer article for the magazine about this set of issues. But, given the suddenly intensifying crisis, it seemed worthwhile to highlight some of the things he said.)
Valls made it a point, early in our meeting, to show me the desk used by one of his predecessors, the Jewish prime minister (and Dreyfusard) Leon Blum. “Jews were sometimes marginalized in France, but this was not Spain or other countries—they were never expelled, and they play a role in the life of France that is central,” he said.
Valls, who on Saturday declared that France was now at war with radical Islam, has become a hero to his country’s besieged Jews for speaking bluntly about the threat of Islamist anti-Semitism, a subject often discussed in euphemistic terms by the country’s political and intellectual elite. His fight, as interior minister, to ban performances of the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonne (the innovator of the inverted Nazi salute known as the quenelle) endeared him to the country’s Jewish leadership, and he is almost alone on the European left in calling anti-Zionism a form of anti-Semitism.
“There is a new anti-Semitism in France,” he told me. “We have the old anti-Semitism, and I’m obviously not downplaying it, that comes from the extreme right, but this new anti-Semitism comes from the difficult neighborhoods, from immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, who have turned anger about Gaza into something very dangerous. Israel and Palestine are just a pretext. There is something far more profound taking place now.”
In discussing the attacks on French synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses this summer, during the Gaza war, he said, “It is legitimate to criticize the politics of Israel. This criticism exists in Israel itself. But this is not what we are talking about in France. This is radical criticism of the very existence of Israel, which is anti-Semitic. There is an incontestable link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Behind anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”
Though he worries about fear-driven emigration, Valls told me he believes that the government can work with the Jewish community to make it more secure. “The Jews of France are profoundly attached to France but they need reassurance that they are welcome here, that they are secure here.”
The French government, under President Francois Hollande and Valls, provides substantial funding each year to help physically secure French Jewish institutions, but Jewish leaders say that the government alone cannot make French Jews feel at ease. “The prime minister has led some courageous battles,” Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Paris office, who is close to the prime minister and other senior officials, told me this weekend. “He’s the first one who has spoken out so clearly, without any ambiguity, about the reality we are facing.” She also praised Hollande for quickly labeling the kosher supermarket attack anti-Semitic. “The issue is that the government cannot protect every Jewish person and Jewish institution. There’s always more to do, but they can’t do everything. Even if they did all that needs to be done—counter-radicalization, education, making sure that imprisoned people don’t become radicalized, and so on—there’s always more to do. We have a very, very profound problem.”