Young or old, the French love to hold big demonstrations, and, sometimes, related domestic political rivalries equal or take precedence over the cause itself. This past Saturday, Sunday and Monday, there were three demonstrations for three separate but related causes.
On Sunday, some 105,000 people gathered here in Paris, and 80,000 others throughout France, to protest against the huge increase in anti-Semitic incidents related to the current IDF bombing campaign and ground incursion in Gaza, in response to the inhuman massacres by the Hamas on Oct 7.
"Many Jews here are comforted by the massive presence of our non-Jewish neighbors," commented Karen, walking in the crowd at Invalides with her boyfriend, "but the participation of the extreme right wing RN party with its anti-Semitic history bothers many of us. For me, today the extreme right wing is the lesser of two evils, compared with the extreme left wing party, La France Insoumise."
The Rassemblement National (RN) party, the former National Front, was led for years by infamous anti-Semite Jean-Marie Le Pen, known for outrageous declarations such as "the gas chambers were a minor detail in WWII", that attracted masses of Gallic French who hated Jews, Arabs, and Blacks. Today, led by his daughter Marine Le Pen, the RN focuses on crime and immigration, especially from Muslim African and North African countries, and has gained votes from Jews and certain Blacks, mostly Christians from the Caribbean.
At the same time, La France Insoumise, or France Unbowed, led by charismatic leftist firebrand Jean Luc Melenchon, has attracted huge numbers of classic French leftists with his criticism of center-right former banker President Emmanuel Macron, and equally large numbers of French of North African Muslim origins with his tirades against the current Israeli government, and his refusal to call Hamas a terrorist group.
What are the numbers? There aren’t any, because it is illegal in France to identify people by their racial or religious origins, a law enacted after World War II to protect the two thirds of some 225,000 French Jews who were not deported by French police collaborating with the Nazis.
So what follows could never be published in French here. In the crowd of more than 100,000, including many elderly people, I saw no North African faces and few Black faces. I’m sure there were some. My friend and fellow journalist Michel saw a group of some 20 people walking under a Kabyle flag, a large Muslim minority from Algeria, generally very successful in France and not associated with radical Islamic movements.
Imam Hassen Chalghoumi, derisively labeled "the imam of the Jews" by many Muslims, was present, as were certain North African, some France-based, intellectuals. "The general absence of Muslims in the crowd was very regrettable," commented my friend Michel, himself of Sephardi origins, "but some people here, including Muslims, associate demonstrating against antisemitism with support for the Israeli government. They are very wrong, and I am a good example of how wrong they are."
A woman named Claire commented, "I was shocked by the Hamas massacres. And the destruction of Gaza is very worrisome, but this is France, not the Middle East. I am not Jewish, but we French must stand up against antisemitism here." Did she happen to notice who was not present at the demonstration, that the crowd was 99.9% white? "No, I didn’t notice this," she said. Most people did notice that President Macron was not present, but that reportedly up to 3,000 riot police were. There were no riots.
Television commentary Sunday night focused on French unity, politicians singing La Marseillaise, the national anthem. "The Republic and its values are threatened by antisemitism, more than 1,000 acts in the past month, more than in all of 2022, but this demonstration has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," said one analyst.
"Une belle image de la France, » said another. Then… "une certaine France, a well-educated, cultivated France." This is the closest any television or press analyst can come to saying that almost no Muslims were present. It is un-spoken French racism, to say the least.
A day earlier, at least half the crowd of several thousand marching from Republique to Nation for a "Free Palestine" was of North African or Middle Eastern Muslim origin, including many young people. The attendance, incidentally, was much lower than that for a similar demonstration held in London. "This has nothing to do with supporting Hamas," said Samir, of Lebanese origin, born in France. "It’s horrible what they did to the kibbutzim. But Gazaouis are being massacred by the Israelis. It must stop. We want peace."
He and several other people I spoke to pointed out the presence of two extreme leftist French Jewish groups at the march. I tried to catch up with them, but unfortunately could not.
For the record, they have few members, very few. They are not considered outcasts by mainstream French Jewish organizations; they are simply ignored, totally.
"There must be a ceasefire," insisted Nicolas, a film director. "Gazaouis suffer under the Hamas, it’s obvious. But it looks like the Israelis are wiping out Gaza, as they try to destroy the Hamas. I think all these kids whose families were killed will grow up to form a new Hamas, and will never forgive the Israelis. And what the Hamas did is inhuman. I’ve seen the footage. And yes, the amount of fake footage on social media is amazing but you know, you and I see it because we work with images. Most people don’t see it, and they couldn’t care less. It’s like two sides not talking to each other."
As marchers nearby lit red flares and chanted "Macron Accomplice, Israel Assassin", a young lady named Sara told me, "don’t you dare say that we are anti-Semitic because we demonstrate for a Free Palestine and for peace. You tell the truth. Hamas? What they did was awful, but the images from Gaza are unbearable, so many thousands killed by the Israeli bombs."
"Why do you keep asking about Hamas," a younger friend asked me angrily. "Nobody here supports Hamas," she said. "We support Palestine."
"You know, if years ago there had been a march against the Shoah, I would have marched just like I am marching now," Sara broke in. "In fact, in Tunisia, I had a Jewish grandmother." She smiles at me. She is hard to resist.
"So will you march against anti-Semitism tomorrow?" I asked her.
"No way I will march with the National Front politicians," she said. "They are fascist bastards. They hate Arabs, and you know they hate Jews too." As marchers nearby, some masked, began chanting "Allah ouakbar", she and her friends moved away…quickly.
But on Monday, there was another gathering, highly restricted this time, at the Bataclan Theatre, limited to the president, ministers, families of victims, registered press, and thousands of heavily armed police. It was the 8th anniversary of the 2015 attacks by Islamic radicals in Paris, including at the Bataclan, in which more than 100 people were killed.
Somebody read the names of the victims, of all origins. Then there was mostly silence. It was a cold, gloomy, rainy morning in Paris. Nobody I asked felt like saying anything.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on November 14, 2023.
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