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.

Mediapart: In the light of what you are saying, Dominique Strauss-Kahn would seem the ideal candidate for those who would like to resuscitate those stereotypes. His position at the IMF evokes rootlessness, his holiday home in Marrakesh means he is wallowing in riches, and as for his morals, the comedian Stéphane Guillon said alarms go off whenever he heads for Radio France headquarters.1

P.B.: We are heading for a presidential election where this type of metaphor and myth could well make a come-back if Mr. Strauss-Khan were the left's candidate. DSK2 is not a De Gaulle, as his position at the IMF demonstrates: it is a long way from the dispassionate, rational and moralising Gaullist vision of public service and the state.

In ‘The Church', a play by [Editor's note: the novelist infamous for his anti-Semitism, Louis-Ferdinand] Céline, written before his first novel, ‘Journey to the End of the Night', the action takes place in part at the Society of Nations, which is obviously under the thumb of the Jews. This allows Céline to rant to his heart's content about cosmopolitanism, money and unbridled sex, and all this running counter to the morals of French villagers.

It seems to me that the transitional period we are living through, with all its upheavals, noise and fury, could well see some deviations of this kind coming back to life through a certain innocent vision of the people as martyrs of capital, which is once again finding legitimacy in some people's eyes.

I confess to fearing the return of mythologies from an internal French war, myths that were spread relentlessly, starting with Joseph de Maistre [Editor's note: who opposed the separation of church and state in the wake of the French Revolution] via Édouard Drumont [a fierce anti-Semite], from Charles Maurras [see above] to Pierre Poujade [an anti-Semitic populist trade union leader], from the Jean-Marie Le Pen of yesterday to his daughter Marine today3.

There is an ideological backcloth to all this that should make people careful in choosing the words they use in the campaign we are building up to. Any resurrecting of certain metaphors, involuntary or unconscious though it may be, runs the risk of repeating the kind of excesses we saw in the darkest hours of French history, from Dreyfus to Vichy, or even Poujadism, whose influence on French society is sometimes underestimated.

Mediapart: Nor is the left immune from theoretical regressions mixing capitalism and Judaism.

P.B.: Take 'Qu'ils s'en aillent tous!' the book by Mr. Mélenchon4 who is a perfectly honourable man and who could certainly not be suspected of having any kind of anti-Semitic vision. Nevertheless, his vocabulary and the images he evokes are linked to a particular collective imagination. When he talks all the time about a wall of money, people who are loaded, who stuff themselves, or all the fat cats. Such a lexicon of moral condemnation goes beyond an analysis of capitalism, which as we all know, certainly is unequal and exploitative. And is it really necessary to use this rhetoric?

 

The radicals didn't invent these expressions explicitly to denounce Rothschild. But they were used by anti-Semites who assumed the wall of money was Jewish and that all bankers were Jews. Such vocabulary forms a chain, the images draw people in. In metaphors and pamphlets at the time there was always a fat Jew.

It's absurd, in the 19th and 20th centuries the fat cat bankers or factory owners weren't Jews but Catholics or Protestants. The historian Jean Bouvier has shown very well how the big banks in France still have provincial roots, like Crédit Lyonnais or Banque du Nord. That does not stop the banker being a Jew in the collective imagination: the Jew is money, and money is Jewish. The two images fit together. This is the risk hanging over DSK, since he runs the world's bank.

Mediapart: It seems impossible to fight against this hidden way of magnetising speech. And it always comes back. We had Joseph Caillaux accusing Léon Blum of not having enough French soil on the soles of his shoes in 1938, now we have Christian Jacob attacking Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2011 for not having enough links to terroir.

P.B.: Allow me to be more cautious. Christian Jacob is also an honourable man, we should not rush to accuse him. After all François Hollande [Editor's note: deputy for the rural Corrèze area and also a possible Socialist Party presidential candidate], who is fundamentally beyond suspicion on this front, also puts forward his belonging to the terroirs of Corrèze to draw a distinction with Dominique Strauss-Kahn's constituency in Sarcelles [a poor Paris suburb with strong Jewish and North African communities].

This vocabulary is neutral in itself and not necessarily a vehicle for anti-Semitic myths, but it nevertheless becomes magnetised, as you say. Mr. Strauss-Kahn was deputy [Member of Parliament] for Sarcelles, which symbolises the most impersonal dimension of a France that has lost its culture, a place which is foreign to France's real roots with its little churches à la Mitterrand.

There is nothing wrong with counter-posing rural and urban societies; sociology has always done so regularly. But unlike you, I would beware of necessarily linking everything. Nevertheless, in today's French society, with its particular history, such metaphors are a major stigma for a candidate who cannot make a claim to a terroir, and they lead to dubious schemes and more negative images.

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1: In February 2009 the comic Stéphane Guillon made an allusion in a live comedy programme to Strauss-Kahn's admission that he had had an affair with an employee at the IMF. Guillon warned the radio's employees to take cover since Strauss-Kahn was on his way over for an interview. Guillon, whose outspoken style caused several controversies with the Radio France management, was later fired, although not officially for the incident involving Strauss-Kahn.

2: Dominique Strauss-Kahn is commonly called DSK in France.

3: Jean-Marie Le Pen, who had been one of Pierre Poujade's deputies, founded the Front National, a far-right-wing anti-immigrant nationalist party in 1972. Marine Le Pen took over as leader of the party in January 2011.

4: (Book title: Out With Them All!) Jean-Luc Mélenchon was a prominent left-winger in the Socialist Party, which he resigned from in 2008 to found the radical Parti de Gauche (Party of the Left).

Mediapart: The terms all seem to come together in formation and make sense when they are all combined.

P.B.: I hope they won't be combined, that they will continue to belong to distinct registers of vocabulary. Combining them would be a regression that would once again point the finger at the ‘other' who is seen as unable to ever become completely integrated.

Mediapart: In any case being integrated would be an incriminating factor in the eyes of anti-Semites because the Jew becomes impossible to detect.

P.B.: The more they are on the inside, the more they look the same, the more dangerous they become: this is a constant component of anti-Semitism, this fear that the Jews are everywhere because they look the same as everyone else. No one knows how many of them there are. That leaves the door open to any fantasy.

Mediapart: So terroirs play the role of X-rays that allow us to detect what cannot be detected.

P.B.: You could say that. France for the French, Médoc for the people of Médoc, Normandy for the Normans, Berry for the folk of Berry. These are reactions that come up in every election campaign once a Jewish candidate stands. It is assumed he or she does not belong to the earth of an electoral constituency.

Mediapart: With reinforcement in the past from the French Communist Party, which espoused strong territorial allegiances to make everyone forget its allegiance to Moscow.

P.B.: The same opposing contrasts, the same myths and the same metaphors can unfortunately be found on the left or the far left, practically word for word, with less vehemence and in a less systematic way. This explains the alarming way the PCF [French Communist Party] in general and Maurice Thorez [PCF leader from 1930 to 1964] in particular talked about Léon Blum.

This goes across political currents, it is very deeply anchored and very specific to French society, which sees itself as homogenous and fights differences since the universalism of the French Revolution: religious, cultural and linguistic pluralism must be subsumed. In France the strong state gave rise to the state Jew, even to the point of making him a target, as opposed to the ‘court Jew' whose only legitimacy came from money.

Mediapart: But today we are seeing a weakening of the state, with no similar weakening in anti-Semitism.

P.B.: This observation relates to a time when the state in France is radically declining, which opens the door to a return to terroir. The more the state declines, the more the market becomes the single dominant value and the more the elite abandons public service. Mr. Jacob is, among other things, the author of a plan to introduce [shorter term] public service contracts, which is unthinkable for a society that is supposed to function with a strong state.

The fact that it has become impossible to claim an identity based on a strong state leads to invoking terroir, which is an attempt to forge a contrived reality in France, where 90% of the population lives, if not in Sarcelles, at least in urban areas.

Mediapart: So there is a return to a mythical Golden Age of the kind that characterises authoritarian regimes and those focused on identity?

P.B.: Such regimes are based on a return to the earth and involve a people bound up in the myths of their roots, religion and values in a crusade against roving capitalism, trans-nationalism, openness, the other, and differences.

This is why I believe that candidates and commentators should be careful of the vocabulary they use in the run-up to next year's presidential election, if they do not wish to open a Pandora's Box, or if not that, at worst, something that is at least a very frequent French failing.

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English version: Sue Landau

(Edited by Graham Tearse)

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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.