An odd controversy was at the heart of Wednesday's annual dinner of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF). The organisation’s leader, Richard Prasquier, sought to explain why he had defended a man who had aimed a comment described by some as anti-Semitic at former French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius.
Georges Freche, a long-time president of the Languedoc-Roussillon region in southern France and a former member of the Socialist Party, caused a stir last month when he said one shouldn’t vote for Fabius because “he didn’t look Catholic”. Since Fabius is of Jewish descent, the remark was deemed by many to be anti-Semitic.
Fabius was offended and the Socialist Party was shocked; but Freche revealed that he got a letter of support from none other than the leader of France’s Jewish umbrella group.
Prasquier said Freche was not anti-Semitic, even though he considered his latest remark to be intolerable. Freche, who was expelled from the Socialist Party in 2007, is not new to allegations of racism. He once made waves by claiming there were too many black players in France’s national football team.
Observers say Prasquier defended Freche because of his past support for Israel. Defending the Jewish state is one of the CRIF’s main aims, as Prasquier repeated in his speech on Wednesday.
The CRIF is generally considered to be more traditional and conservative than Jewish organisations in other countries. But many say it has recently veered further to the right, while its defence of Israel has become more uncompromising than ever.
In the recent election of the CRIF’s executive committee, right-wing candidates gained significant ground. One of the winners was Gilles-William Goldnadel, a lawyer who defended journalist Oriana Fallaci when she was attacked for writing in The Rage and The Pride that Muslims “multiplied like rats” among other comments. But Goldnadel has also defended young Jews who tried to destroy anti-semitic manuals in book stores, and victims of anti-Semitic attacks. That might be one reason for his success.
Meanwhile, Socialist Party member and prominent anti-racism activist Patrick Klugman failed to make the cut. But contrary to media reports they can’t be deemed leftists regarding the
“Yes, we succeeded, that’s democracy,” Goldnadel told FRANCE 24. “The irony is that many Socialists voted for me too. People voted for us because they felt we would defend Israel better and fight against anti-Semitism in France.”
Goldnadel says the left failed to recognise the changed nature of anti-Semitism, and therefore failed to come up with an adequate response. “[The Socialists] failed to recognise it because they didn’t want to see it. Because it came from a new place they wanted to ignore,” he said, referring to claims of growing anti-Semitism among French Muslims.
In his speech, Richard Prasquier said anti-Semitic assaults had doubled in 2009, and most of the increase had taken place in impoverished suburbs. “People who live in wealthy neighbourhoods have little chance of knowing this,” he said.
CRIF figures show a spate of attacks in France mainly in January 2009, during the Israeli operations in Gaza. At that time, the Jewish organisation sought to demonstrate its support for Israel, but its marches were dwarfed by numerous rallies against the Israeli bombings on Hamas.
The Communist and Green parties, who had called for a boycott of Israeli products during the Gaza War, were excluded from Wednesday’s event by the CRIF.
Asked whether he felt lonely at the gathering, former Communist Party leader Robert Hue told FRANCE 24 “he would always come to this event”, adding that the shift to the right was “a reality not only within the Jewish community but also among the French population in general.”
For French writer Marek Halter, the shift to the right marks a loss of hope for a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “It’s just like in the Middle East itself. The left in Israel is weaker because of the circumstances. Peace seams unattainable. So pro-peace parties fail to gather support. But everything can turn around with a little spark of hope.”
At the dinner, the CRIF appeared at times more right-wing than the conservative politicians who were present. Christine Boutin, a former minister and a staunch conservative, even told FRANCE 24 she was “concerned about the CRIF moving too far to the right”.
But, as he wrapped up his speech, Prasquier dismissed such fears. “We’re not right or left-wing,” he told the audience. “We’re Jews, Republicans, French – and proud to be so."