The sleazy, easy anti-Semitism that blights French politics

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When a political ally of Nicolas Sarkozy recently labelled Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund and a potential Socialist Party rival candidate in next year's presidential elections, as lacking true French peasant roots, he was echoing a longstanding French tradition of anti-Semitic mud-slinging in politics. In this detailed interview with Mediapart's Antoine Perraud, the eminent historian and sociologist Pierre Birnbaum, author of several books on anti-Semitism and French politics, details the myths behind French intolerance of Jewish political leaders.

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When a leading parliamentarian in Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling conservative right UMP party recently taxed Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund and a potential Socialist Party candidate in next year's presidential elections, with not representing "the image of France", he was drawing, whether intended or not, on a long tradition of anti-Semitism in French political life.

Christian Jacob, head of the UMP group at theNational Assembly, said in mid-February that Strauss Kahn, who is Jewish, did not reflect "the image of France, the image of rural France, the France of terroirs1 and of territories, which we love, to which I am attached."

 

That was followed earlier this month by a similarly ambiguous comment from the French Minister for European Affairs, Laurent Wauquiez. "Dominique Strauss-Kahn is in Washington, he surely has a lovely house giving out onto the Potomac," he said. "That is not the Haute-Loire, it's not those same roots."

Their declarations echo an inveterate, historical tradition of anti-Semitism among a section of the French political establishment. This version of anti-Semitism criticises the Jew in political life for not having" enough French soil on the soles of his shoes", as Joseph Caillaux, a leading politician of the Third Republic, said of French head of state Léon Blum in the Senate in 1938.

Another example came in 1954, less than ten years after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, when Pierre Mendès France became President of the Council and Minister of Foreign Affairs. The philosopher and writer Pierre Boutang, a disciple of nationalist politician Charles Maurras, lamented in a far-right-wing review, Aspect de la France, that the tribes of Israel were now seated at the bureau de Vergennes2 in the heart of the foreign ministry.

These examples are quoted in a seminal work, Un mythe politique: "La République juive" de Léon Blum à Pierre Mendès France (Fayard, 1988) - A Political Myth: ‘The Jewish Republic' from Leon Blum to Pierre Mendès France3 - in which the historian and sociologist Pierre Birnbaum, dissected the long-running saga of anti-Semitism in French politics. Birnbaum, 70, is a professor at the Paris I University at the Sorbonne, the Paris Political Studies Institute and is a visiting professor of Jewish studies at Colombia University

Following the fracas of the declarations targetting Strauss-Kahn, Mediapart's Antoine Perraud chose this appropriate moment to discuss with Birnbaum how certain reactions, jokes or expressions of indignation - which are often anything but neutral - can feed a river of French anti-Semitism that has never yet run dry.

 

Pierre Birnbaum: du juif en politique... © Mediapart

 

Mediapart: Anti-Semitismis based on the myth of a Jew who is often seen as rootless, rolling in money and, even worse, perverted.

Pierre Birnbaum: We are indeed dealing here with the theme of the wandering Jew, condemned since being cursed by Christ's death to wander the world until the end of time without ever settling down or truly belonging to a country by having roots in its earth. The other supposed attributes flow from this. The less the Jew is anchored in the land, the more he is seen as linked to internationalism, either in its revolutionary form - Bolshevism - or its financial form - Wall Street.

At the other extreme, those assumed to be pure, upright, with their feet on the ground, having strong roots, virtues, and a strong character - from Joan of Arc onwards - are credited with having ethics that derive from a soil, from the earth which does not lie. This is the opposite of someone with multiple loyalties. What, then, is such a person's identity, what interests does he or she serve, and what manoeuvres might they be prepared to undertake behind the scenes?

And then you may or may not find grafted ontothis template things like killing children, the Plague and so on. The Jew then becomes the one who brings evil, who questions the dominant culture of a society and perverts it by bringing in exogenous values. Rejection of this Jew is firmly imprinted in the minds of some people. For Maurice Barrès, for example, even a Jew with a PhD in literature would be unable to understand a single verse of Racine.

This is a constant theme: Jews take over a culture but do not experience it from inside, do not feel it. They can explain and dissect it the way they study the Talmud4. However, explaining does not imply understanding. Jews derive from culture, not nature.

Up to the middle of the 20th century European societies saw themselves as fairly homogenous. Then, the Jew was the only ‘other'. Later, France would come to know other 'others' besides Jews, others displaying differences, in particular those from the former colonies.

Mediapart: The Jew is also seen as perverted in a moral or even sexual sense. We saw this whent he far-right took Léon Blum to court for having published a pamphlet on marriage in 1907 that took the concept of freedom and fulfilment for women very far for the time.

P.B.: Blum was totally caricatured, represented as a harlot and a Casanova, with both the lasciviousness attributed to homosexuals and the excesses of a predatory womaniser. In anti-Semitic mythology Jews are subjected to every possible interpretation as both the possessors and the possessed. Pierre Mendès France was also portrayed as having outrageous sexual attributes some 18 years after the Popular Front, in 1954.

Another thing. Both their names were questioned in petty ways. Can you believe that the 1960 edition of the illustrated Petit Larousse still contested Léon Blum's identity and suggested his surname was really Karfulkenstein, perpetuating a story peddled in the 1930s by the fascist journal Gringoire? Mendès France was also a victim of this kind of attack. People denigrated ‘the Mendès tribes' and said he had no right to use the name 'France'.

Both were Presidents of the Council and elected by regions producing alcoholic drinks with a national identity - Léon Blum represented Aude in south-western France with its vineyards, while Pierre Mendès France represented Eure in Normandy with its cider and liqueur distillers. Yet they stood out because they were not drinkers.

This gave rise to a recurring theme: who are these men who don't hit the booze? They don't come from round here, they don't lift a glass, they don't have the sociable side of drinking, so how can they represent the local products brought forth from this soil? There must be some mistake.

Mediapart: The impossibility for a Jew of being a true mirror of the people.

P.B.: Should representatives be in the image of those who mandate them? Must representatives share the same customs, religion, values and way of life as those they represent? Or, on the contrary, is representation in fact political, ideological, moral and prescriptive, with those who are elected being different from their electors but nevertheless able to represent world views in which others can recognise their own aspirations?

This question over whether democracy is universal or a simple reflection takes us back to the ambiguity of the French parliamentarian, who speaks to the nation while representing a constituency, and therefore roots, local issues and terroirs.

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1: 'Terroir' is an emotive term in French denoting the land. It often implies the character of the land in a specific rural spot, a character defined by the soil and environment, their history and evolution, and is a notion deeply rooted in rural communities of France. It is thus applied to the taste of wine, or food produce. No exact equivalent term exists in English.

2: A copy of a desk crafted by Michon in the (King) Louis XV era kept in the Salon de la Rotonde at the French Foreign Ministry. The original is in the Louvre.

3: Léon Blum and Pierre Mendès France are the only Jews to have been heads of state in France. The current French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has a Jewish maternal grandfather but he is a Catholic.

4: The Talmud is a collection of rabbinical discussions interpreting oral Jewish law, the Bible and ethics, written from about 200 AD to 500 AD, which formed the basis for Judaism in the Diaspora.

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Footnote number 3 on page 1 of this article was amended on March 9th. to make clear that French President Nicolas Sarkozy's Jewish roots are from his maternal grandfather.