The Meaning of France's March Against Anti-Semitism

The murder of a Holocaust survivor is forcing the country to embrace a new, unfamiliar kind of religious and ethnic solidarity.

A pin with a portrait of Mireille Knoll is seen on a man's jacket during a gathering in Paris, France, on March 28, 2018.  (Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters)

PARIS—On April 4 of last year, a 67-year-old Jewish woman in Paris named Sarah Halimi was beaten to death and thrown off the balcony of her third-story apartment in a public housing complex by a neighbor who shouted “Allahu Akbar.” It took 10 months and a public outcry that began with France’s Jewish community, the largest in Europe, before prosecutors officially called the attack an anti-Semitic hate crime. Last Friday, Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, was stabbed 11 times and set alight by a neighbor and a homeless man. This time, authorities immediately, perhaps even prematurely, called it an anti-Semitic attack. Gérard Collomb, France’s interior minister, said this week that before killing Knoll, one of the two men arrested for the murder had told the other, “She is a Jew, she must have money.”

A lot took place between the death of Halimi and the death of Knoll. It may seem cynical to point it out, but one of them is an election, whose winners and losers seem freer to call out anti-Semitism when they’re not trying to win the support of Muslim voters in the banlieues, or the working-class suburbs that are home to generations of France’s immigrant underclass. Another is a growing sense, one that has been compounded by every terrorist attack here in recent years, that something has gone wrong in France, and its institutions are struggling to keep pace. While there have been concerns about new strains of anti-Semitism in Sweden and Britain, to say nothing of Poland and Hungary, France’s challenges are unique. It is a nation founded on deeply held universalist republican ideals, on the notion that citizens are citizens, not members of individual ethnic or religious groups—no intersectionality, no American-style identity politics, no interest groups—and it has struggled to develop a vocabulary for religiously motivated violence, let alone a solution. The problem defies Cartesian logic and transcends traditional divisions between left and right.

The murder of a woman who had narrowly escaped deportation as a child in Nazi-occupied France at the hands of a young Muslim neighbor unlocked something here, a sense of public outrage that seemed to transcend even the horrible facts of the case. On Wednesday evening, thousands of people, including French political leaders, held in a march through eastern Paris to Knoll’s public housing complex. I went to see for myself. Some held signs that read, “In France, we kill grandmothers because they’re Jewish.” Others wore buttons with Knoll’s picture. It had been an intense day. That morning, President Emmanuel Macron delivered a eulogy at the state funeral of Colonel Arnaud Beltrame, a gendarme who had served in Iraq and was hailed as a national hero after he took the place of a hostage in a jihadist attack in southwest France last Friday, the same day as Knoll’s death.

As people began gathering at the start of the march, I ran into Alain Finkielkraut, one of France’s most prominent public intellectuals, a philosophy professor who had participated in the French student uprisings in 1968 but shifted rightward over the years and whose 2013 book, L’Identité Malheureuse, or The Unhappy Identity, is about immigration and its discontents. “It wasn’t even a question for me to come and express my fear and my anger,” Finkielkraut told me. In 2006, there had been a large demonstration after a Jewish man named Ilan Halimi (no relation to Sarah) was tortured and killed by a violent band in what French authorities were loath to call an anti-Semitic attack. “Only Jews came to the demonstration in memory of Ilan Halimi’s barbarous assassination. They had been abandoned by the international community,” Finkielkraut told me. Today, he said, things were changing. “I think the denial is slowly disappearing, the denial about a new anti-Semitism,” he told me. “For a long time, we didn’t want to stigmatize fragile youth from bad neighborhoods, so we minimized the effect. We looked for excuses—in exclusion, in discrimination, in segregation, in all the ‘-ations’ you can find. I think this narrative is in the process of extinction, and I think, in this sad moment we’re living, that that’s good news.”

I reminded Finkielkraut that I’d last met with him—to discuss Michel Houellebecq’s best-selling novel Submission, which imagines a Muslim president of France—in early January 2015, a few days before the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher supermarket. Those attacks, followed by the bloodbath of November 13, 2015, when jihadists killed 130 people and wounded 400 more in a series of attacks in the same area of eastern Paris where Knoll and Halimi lived, were a major turning point—for France, but also for the Jewish community. Leaders of the organized Jewish community said they had felt a lack of national empathy after Ilan Halimi’s death, but also after Mohammed Merah murdered three French Arab paratroopers and, later, a rabbi and three children outside a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012. The 2015 attacks gave a sense that all of France was in this together, whatever this was, exactly.

Wednesday’s rally drew thousands, not the massive outpouring that took to the streets after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, but not small, either. “We’re not Jewish, but we’re revolted by what happened,” a woman in the crowd named Mariethé Bernard told me. She said she hadn’t been at the march in 2006 after Ilan Halimi’s death, but she now regretted that. Nearby, Carolina Camacho Cruz, who is Mexican but has lived in Paris for 20 years, teared up when I asked her why she had come to the march. “It’s devastating to see this in 2018,” she told me. “The way she was killed, especially since she was Jewish.”

Politicians from across the spectrum attended, including the mayor of Paris. They were eager to show their solidarity. No matter where they stood on other hot issues in France—including immigration, multiculturalism, or laïcité, the country’s unique insistence on excluding religion from public life—in 2018, the murder of a Holocaust survivor is not something to take lightly. But their participation would prove complicated.

The umbrella organization of Jews of France, the CRIF, had said that Marine Le Pen, the leader of the right-wing National Front, founded by her Holocaust-denying father, Jean-Marie, wasn’t welcome, and neither was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leftist presidential contender whose critique of Israel has offended right-leaning Jews. Then, on the day of the march, Knoll’s son gave a television interview saying anyone was welcome to attend. Both Le Pen and Mélenchon showed up, but left early after they were booed.

I spotted Laurent Wauquiez, the new leader of the Républicans, whose rhetoric on immigrants had brought that center-right party closer to that of the National Front. At one point, an association of Jewish students started a somewhat feeble rendition of La Marseillaise, and journalists with cameras and microphones ran to film it. Along the route, I struck up a conversation with a 73-year-old man named Michel Ladovitch, who had come to the rally from a suburb of Paris. He was outraged by Knoll’s death, but didn’t like how politicians seemed to be exploiting the march. His father had voted Communist, he told me. “We had the image of the Red Army freeing the camps,” he said. He himself had once been a Trotskyist but now was more right-wing. “The truth is, there are too many immigrants,” he said.

The rally was a call to decry anti-Semitism, but it also ran up against a total aversion in France to what’s called communautarisme, which can loosely translate as American-style identity politics, in which members of ethnic or religious groups derive a strong part of their personal identity—and political clout—from their backgrounds and histories. The opposite of universalism. This is also why French intellectuals have been tying themselves in knots over how to deal with anti-Semitism. How do you call it what it is without asking for special treatment? The journalist and humanitarian interventionist Raphael Glucksmann wrote on Facebook that he was attending the march not because he was heeding the call of the CRIF, but “because millions of people, Jews and non-Jews, people who belong to one community or to none, feel the same anguish I do and feel in some way that they also lost their grandmother on March 23, 2018.” Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, from a liberal synagogue in Paris, tweeted: “I dream of a France that knows that someone killed a grandmother, and not just ‘mine.’ A nation that rises up to confront the horror and doesn’t send its condolences to a ‘community.’ #MyFranceHadaGrandmother.”

As the marchers turned down Knoll’s street, I struck up a conversation with Hervé Timsit, a composer. “I came because I think we need to act and to confront the  normalization of anti-Semitism,” he told me. He was Jewish, an atheist, and had come on his own. “I would have come if a black woman had been killed, or if black people had been killed in the same pattern, or Arabs, but that’s not the case,” he said. He also came because he was distressed by larger developments in Europe. The soft autocracy in Hungary. Poland’s new law criminalizing mention of Polish complicity in the Holocaust. “When you step back and look at what’s happening it’s scary,” he said.

It is, but how scary? How worried should we be? I’m not an alarmist. A few years ago, Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of The Atlantic, published a cover story that asked, “Is It Time for the Jews To Leave Europe?” The story was complex, but to answer the basic question, I’d say no. Yes, anti-Semitism is a problem in France. But France has strong institutions and one of the most respectable governments in Europe, one whose election has brightened the mood considerably. The sense I have living here isn’t one of fear, but of watching a country slowly acknowledge and try to grapple with seemingly intractable problems. Which is better than ignoring them, as it had in the past.

After the march, I walked back toward Bastille. I passed La Bonne Bière, one of the cafés where jihadists opened fire in the November 2015 attack, killing the Muslim wife of the bar’s Jewish owner, among others. Eastern Paris is a vibrant place, filled with public housing developments and natural wine bars. Things are bad, and yet we carry on. When the attack happened in Trèbes last Friday, I followed it closely, then when the attacker had been killed, I shut off Twitter, and got on with my day. The new normal.

Last week, before Knoll’s death, I had met with Elisabeth Badinter, one of France’s most influential intellectuals and old-school feminists, and had asked her what she thought could be done to stop anti-Semitism, radicalization, terrorist attacks, everything we’re seeing in France today. “To be very frank with you, I don’t know, and I’m worried,” she told me. Her blue eyes were piercing, her composure formidable. She weighs in on French public life only selectively, and had given an interview last September decrying what she saw as a media silence around Sarah Halimi’s death.

“I think that the more immigrants who arrive in Europe from Muslim countries, the more difficult it will be,” Badinter continued. Integration will be difficult, and they’ll be unhappy, she said. “And who does one immediately point the finger at? Americans and Israelis, with this radical conflation between Israeli citizens and diaspora Jews, which they see as the same. So I have to confess that one, I have no idea how we’re going to fight this cancer of anti-Semitism. And two, I’m worried.”

She’s not alone.