French Jews were only partly reassured when more than 100,000 people, including the prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, and two former presidents, turned out to demonstrate in Paris last month against antisemitism and in defence of the secular republic. Why did the president, Emmanuel Macron, not attend, many asked? Where were the leaders of France’s Muslim community? And where were the cultural, intellectual and sports celebrities so often eager to take a public stance on a worthy cause?
Since Hamas fighters poured into Israel from the Gaza Strip on 7 October, slaughtering around 1,200 Israeli men, women and children, a wave of antisemitic attacks and hate speech has swept over France, home to Europe’s biggest Jewish community (of around 440,000 people) and its largest Muslim population (of around 6 million people).
“The Jews of France are afraid. What can we do?” a caller who identified herself only as Martine pleaded on a breakfast-time news programme this week. Yonathan Arfi, president of the Jewish Representative Council in France, says he hears from parents who have told their children not to wear kippah skullcaps or Star of David chains in the street or on public transport for fear of being attacked. Some Jews have taken their names off letterboxes and doorbells or changed the name on their Uber account for safety.
One of the country’s most popular radio and television entertainers, who uses the stage name Arthur (real name Jacques Essebag), shocked many fans when he revealed that he had been living under guard since the day after the Hamas attacks. “This is France in 2023. I live in Paris and I have agents protecting me and my family because I’m Jewish. It’s crazy, no?” he said.
The interior ministry recorded more than 1,500 incidents in the six weeks following 7 October, ranging from the desecration of cemeteries to antisemitic graffiti and banners, social media attacks, vandalism against Jewish property, threats against Jews and a handful of assaults. This is more than three times as many as during the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in the early 2000s – the previous high-water mark for anti-Jewish hate offences.
Around Paris, hundreds of buildings were daubed with blue Stars of David in a chilling throwback to the second world war Nazi occupation, when Jewish businesses and homes were marked for boycotts or roundups and deportations to death camps. Police now believe this was a Russian-inspired destabilisation operation rather than a home-grown intimidation campaign.
France is not alone in experiencing an upsurge in antisemitism. Similar spikes have been recorded in the UK and Germany. Old demons sometimes have new faces. Whereas it used to be mostly an extreme-right phenomenon, police say some of the most virulent antisemitism now comes from young people of Muslim origin, who identify with the Palestinians as victims and conflate French Jews with their Israeli oppressors. This generation has little awareness of the Holocaust, which history teachers struggle to teach in many schools, or of the establishment of Israel as a refuge from persecution.
In June, the fatal police shooting of a 17-year-old driver of Moroccan and Algerian descent in a Paris suburb sparked almost two weeks of riots across the country in which schools, buses and police stations were torched, shops looted, mayors assaulted and police attacked in nightly clashes. The violence, which did not specifically target Jews, was fuelled by widespread resentment of perceived police racism.
After earlier bouts of antisemitic violence, many Jews moved out of the ethnically mixed suburbs that ring the capital. Some left France altogether and emigrated to Israel – at the peak in 2015, the numbers reached 8,000 a year. Forty of those murdered by Hamas on 7 October were French citizens, and eight French nationals were among the hostages abducted to Gaza.
Nowhere feels safe. In the southern town of Beaucaire, near my home, the local imam was given an eight-month suspended prison sentence and barred from preaching for a year for having published comments on Facebook quoting a hadith calling for “fighting” and “killing” Jews, following the Hamas attacks.
Criticised by politicians, commentators and some Jewish leaders for staying away from the Paris rally, Macron said his role was not to demonstrate but to act to protect French Jews and preserve national unity. The government initially banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations as a threat to public order, but the highest state administrative court overturned the blanket ban in the name of freedom of speech.
Macron is walking on eggshells because he is afraid of importing the Middle Eastern conflict into France. Each statement of support for Israel has been balanced by criticism of civilian casualties in Gaza and calls for a ceasefire.
In a primetime television address a few days after the Hamas massacre, Macron warned openly of the risk to civil peace in France. “Let us not embark on ideological adventures here out of imitation or projection,” the president said. “Let us not add national fractures to international fractures, and let us not tolerate any form of hatred. I appeal to you tonight: let us stay united – united for ourselves, united to jointly carry a message of peace and security for the Middle East.”
Yet the longer the Israel-Hamas war lasts, the harder it will be to insulate France’s fragile internal security from conflict across the Mediterranean.
Paul Taylor is a senior fellow of the Friends of Europe thinktank