The sleazy, easy anti-Semitism that blights French politics

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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).

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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.