The Yellow Vest movement of street protests began in France just around the time I left Paris to move to Atlanta. Like many French people, I initially supported the movement. I remember many Christmas parties that I went to where I tried to explain the “Saturday marches.”
At the dawn of this protest, people demonstrated against the rise in fuel prices, but their demands extended quickly to actions to improve their living conditions, and fight poverty and precariousness. Their main motive was to be heard for the first time (90 percent of the yellow vests are non-voting).
But very soon, my sympathy faded away. I began to experience these Saturdays through the comments of my friends who saw the cars burned in front of their homes, the streets blocked, the shops closed.
But beyond that, in the Jewish community, many of us heard the hateful screams and saw graffiti and even banners directed against Jews. Here and there. From time to time. Spreading like poison. But in the media, no words about this. “It is weird that with the yellow vests, we kept silent. No one seems responsible, and there is this idea that everything is acceptable when it comes from a crowd of struggling and poor people,” Joann Sfar, cartoonist, movie director and author of the film, “The Rabbi’s Cat,” wrote Feb. 10 in Tribune Juive.
But one can’t remain silent anymore, at least. On Feb. 9 and Feb. 10, I received a barrage of messages from my friends about a flurry of anti-Semitic acts, and I was in shock. In only two days in Paris, swastikas were drawn on post boxes bearing portraits of Simone Veil, a politician who was a concentration camp survivor and who campaigned for women’s rights. “JUDEN!” was sprayed on the window of bagel bakery Bagelstein in the heart of the capital. A tree planted in a southern Paris suburb in memory of a Young Jewish man who was tortured to death in 2006 only because he was Jewish was also chopped down.
Walking on the street, Alain Finkielkraut, a member of France’s most august intellectual body, was called “dirty Jew” and “Zionist” and told “Go back to Tel Aviv, … France is our land.”
The incident was filmed and showed angry men spewing a torrent of hate speech directed at the philosopher, who was simply accompanying his mother-in-law to her Left Bank home. And as if it was never enough, as I write these lines on Feb. 18, 80 graves have been desecrated with swastikas at a Jewish cemetery near Strasbourg, in Eastern France.
Echoing the condemnations of these acts by President Macron and his government, many demonstrations took place all over France (20,000 in Paris alone on Feb. 19). In that context, some members of the Parliament have proposed new legislation that will classify anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism. In Israel, President Reuven Rivlin wrote to President Macron Feb. 20: “This week, we have seen several serious and disturbing acts of anti-Semitism. They are an affront to the Jewish people, to the French Republic, and to all humanity.”
Rivlin also spoke with Finkielkraut. “I want to send you my full support. … This is a shocking reminder that anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activity are irretrievably linked.”
In Atlanta, I was very quickly asked to answer: What is happening in France? Is Paris dangerous? Is it better to avoid going there for the time being, especially if you’re Jewish?
Let’s try to understand.
The Yellow Vest movement is not intrinsically an anti-Semitic movement, of course, but as the philosopher Pierre Birnbaum explained it Feb. 13 in Le Monde, “It flourishes in a context conducive to the expression of this anti-Semitism which associates Jews with power and power with Jews.”
On Feb. 12, the government announced a 74 percent rise in the number of anti-Semitic incidents last year. (It should be noted that in the United States, 2017 showed a spectacular 60 percent increase in anti-Semitic acts). But the French Commission of Human Rights revealed the entrenchment of this anti-Semitism in everyday life that we might have thought had disappeared. This is not the case. The commission’s study showed that 22 percent of the French believe that Jews have too much power, 19 percent that there is too much talk about the Shoah, 35 percent that Jews have a particular relationship with money.
In that context, it is easy to understand that because the yellow vests movement refutes the legitimacy of the French state, which is perceived as the state of the rich, and by extension for some of them, mostly individuals with left-wing Islamic ideology, the state of the Jews. “If Macron had worked for the credit union, no one would have said anything about it, but the fact that he worked at Rothschild bank fuels rumours,” explained historian Marc Knobel Feb. 12 in Libération.
The yellow vests are in a nauseating spiral. “It is time to see that some people cross the line,” said a Senat member. “It is urgent to clean up.”
The Jews of France are worried. Many think about leaving. Danny Trom, a sociologist, released a book in June 2018 with the alarming title: “La France Sans Les Juifs?” (Editions Payot).
Thousands of Jews emigrate every year to Israel. Some people keep quiet, even if the internet allows a level of hatred never reached before. “Nothing new,” will be said by some. But this contestation with power by the yellow vests, amalgamated with the power held by the Jews, comes at a time when France’s Jews are being killed because they are Jewish: Ilan Halimi, Mireille Knoll, an old Holocaust survivor murdered, the killings in Toulouse, the tragedy of the Hyper Cacher market.
So to answer the daily question that keeps popping up from my friends in Atlanta: Is it dangerous to go to Paris? I answer: Paris est une fête, (French title of Ernest Hemingway’s novel “A Moveable Feast.” And Paris will always be the city that resists hatred on all sides. It is with joy that I have heard intellectuals, politicians, people, emphatically expressing their support for Jews. Because to attack the Jews, as we know, is to attack humanity.
Martine Tartour is a journalist, writer and author of “Portraits d’Atlanta” (2018, Editions Hikari).