A Jew in France

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

W.B. Yeats, 1920

A lot has been written lately about the rise in anti-Semitism in France. The New York Times and The Guardian have reported in the last week on increased incidences of the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues with the painting of that most recognizable symbol of hate: the Nazi Swastika, and the denunciation of these acts by the Macron government. An article in Le Monde quoted Macron as saying in a speech to CRIF, a coalition of French Jewish organizations: the resurgence of anti-Semitism in France is unequaled since the second world war. In contrast to Mr. Trump, President Macron and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe unequivocally denounced hatred and the haters, saying “this is not the country we are.” It may not be the country they want, but it is undeniable that there is a long history of anti-Semitism in France, a country with the largest Jewish population outside of Israel and the United States, and a country that deported 78,000 Jews to Nazi death camps.

Entrance to Camp de Rivesaltes
Camp de Rivesaltes

There is certainly an alarming increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents but it is unclear if this reflects a burgeoning hatred in the population or the increased freedom to broadcast opinions that used to be kept quiet. There is no doubt that as this and other western countries become increasingly polarized, the rhetoric becomes more heated and people gravitate to the extremes of left and right as moderates disappear. In France, Macron’s election destroyed the centrist Socialist and Republican parties; in Britain, Brexit has fractured both the Conservatives and Labor; and in the US, Democrats have moved to the left as Republicans lined up behind Trump. The void in the middle opens a path for populist demagogues as has happened in Brazil, Austria, Hungary, Italy, and the United States.
Macron seemed to be aware of this dynamic when in his speech to CRIF he supported the adoption of a definition of anti-Semitism that is enlarged to include anti-Zionism.

What to make of this?

It can be perceived as a political act, both in attempting to woo a frightened French Jewish community and as a lightly veiled reference to the left-wing leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon who has been accused of cloaking his anti-Semitism in criticism of Netanyahu’s policies. Tarring the left with the same brush of bigotry that sticks to Marine Le Pen on the right, leaves Macron as the only acceptable choice for a majority of the country. Opposition to the Zionist policies of the Israeli government is not anti-Semitic.
I support the right of Jews to a homeland. I oppose the destruction of the Palestinian people to annex more land for Israel. I am not an anti-Semite, but including opposition to Zionism in a definition of anti-Semitism seems to put all Jews in the same boat which is not very different from saying all Muslims are terrorists.
Macron also spoke of additional laws to ban online hate speech by anonymous postings and an investigation into the increasing number of Jewish students who have left school under the fear of violence.
Macron had to respond with more than words of sympathy. It remains to be seen whether his initiatives will become effective actions but it may not matter. Prejudice is as old as humanity and cannot be legislated away.
©2019 Ron Scherl

Camp de Rivesaltes
Camp de Rivesaltes

Election 2017

Sunday morning. I shaved my face, donned a fresh black t-shirt and walked up to the Mairie to witness the climax of this most confounding and portentous election.

Charlie, the mayor of Maury, did a double take, smiled warmly, said “Ah, Ron”, and came to shake my hand. He introduced me to all the other poll workers, who nodded as they recognized “le photographe’, and said of course it would be fine for me to take photos as people voted. I shook hands all around the room and one woman said I had taken a beautiful picture of her father, Adrien. I remembered it, found it on my phone and showed it to her. “He died last year,” she said.

Charlie asked: “What’s going on in America, this Trump?” I gave my best French expression of disgust, a vehement “Beh!” Then said: “C’est pourquoi je suis ici.” “That’s why I’m here.” Everyone laughed and welcomed me back to town.

Voters select names to take in the booth.

There are stacks of cards for each of the candidates and I asked if voters had to take all of them into the booth. “No, no, minimum two.” So you present identification, take at least two cards and an envelope into the booth, put one in the envelope, throw the others away, have your name checked off against the roll of eligible voters and your voting card stamped, deposit the card in a clear plexi box as the official calls your name and adds: “à voté”. But I noticed some voters took no cards, apparently intending to deposit an empty envelope in protest against all the candidates.

I told Charlie I’ll return for the results and went home to lunch.

Charlie, the Mayor

The Count

Envelopes are collected into batches of 100 and placed in larger envelopes, then opened, passed to someone else who reads the name aloud, which is then hand-tallied by two other officials. When the envelope is finished the count is read aloud, agreed and recorded. The room is absolutely silent except for the reading of names and results. No groans, no expressions of dismay, no wringing of hands although everyone I had talked to was appalled at the thought of President Le Pen. I had a good chat with Charlie, a test for my French but we made it. He really didn’t think she could be elected but he was certainly aware of the anger and uncertainty here, and everywhere and understands the decline of the traditional party structure and how many fear globalization and, of course, the anti-immigration fear of the “other”. And the alternatives are not terribly attractive. Mélenchon is a demagogue from the left, Fillon, a dinosaur on the right, Macron is pretty but who knows what lurks behind the façade.

Maury gave Le Pen a victory by about 25 votes over Macron, Mélenchon third, Fillon fourth. It surprised me—this area is traditionally solid Socialist—but maybe it shouldn’t have. Like many small villages, Maury is suffering. There are many houses for sale as the older generation dies off, few services for those who remain, and no jobs for the young. People are angry, confused, certain traditional politicians have let them down, but unsure where to turn. But it’s worth noting that about 75% of the Maury electorate voted, about a dozen cast blank ballots. Democracy may be unsettled in France, but people still care enough to participate.

Elle a voté

Conventional wisdom says the French vote with their emotions in the first round, their brains in the second. We’ll see. I was watching Charlie during the count and saw him receive a text, smile, and raise a clenched fist. I’m guessing Macron is doing well nationally.

Late results before a dinner of leftover chicken and salad: it appears to be a Le Pen/Macron runoff with Macron, supported by the political establishment, the heavy favorite. Le Pen will no doubt run hard against the elites, charging them with abandoning hard working and struggling French citizens by allowing manufacturing jobs to disappear, then opening the public treasury for immigrants.

The count

Sound familiar?

Whither France?

 

©2017 Ron scherl