The Hope of Marseille

By Claire Berlinski

France’s most Muslim city offers a surprising model in the war on anti-Semitism.

I arrived in Marseille on a sweltering summer afternoon. From the train station I could see Marseille’s roseate castle glowing against the sunbaked Provençal hills. It was too hot to move quickly. Marseille is a city made for siestas. I walked slowly down the hill to the Canebière, the tree-lined street that leads to the old port. The cafés were filled with dark-skinned men, their faces lined from the sun; they were first-generation immigrants, to judge from the sartorial clues. They wore clothes few native Europeans would wear—button-down shirts with short sleeves, dress slacks pressed with unfashionable care. Some had missing teeth and some had gold teeth; many had mustaches. They were sitting quietly with their hands folded, marking time, or filling in racing forms while drinking their coffee and chatting in Arabic. There were few women in the cafés, although there were many on the streets, dark-skinned and sloe-eyed. Some were veiled, but most were wearing skimpy tank tops and low-rise jeans. They were, after all, in France, and it was the revealing dress of the women, above all, that made Marseille feel more like a European city than an Oriental one.
I found a hotel on the Canebière, run by a family of Maghrebis, then took a taxi to the industrial northern neighborhood where I was to meet Zvi Ammar, the president of the Jewish Consistory of Marseille. “It’s true that in Marseille we get along,” my cab driver told me. “I’m a Jew, my neighbors, they’re Arabs, we understand each other fine... it’s not like the rest of France. We’re cosmopolitan here, everyone understands everyone else.” But when I asked him why, he couldn’t tell me. “I’m not very political. I don’t know. It’s just the way it is. We have the sunshine here, the port.” The sunshine and the port: Everyone mentioned that. But if sunshine and ports were a recipe for peace, Lebanon would be a paradise.
Ammar was born and raised in Djerba, Tunisia, but betrayed the influence of the French educational system the moment he opened his mouth. The clue was his love of the schema. He approached the problem of anti-Semitism in France by breaking it into subsets; he labeled and defined those subsets, then presented his conclusions in a well-rehearsed lecture. “For four years,” he told me, “the Jewish community of France has suffered from acts of an anti-Semitic character. These acts have two forms: There are acts against the dead, and there are acts against the living. Acts against the dead are committed by the extreme Right. Neo-Nazis attack cemeteries and blaspheme tombs, defacing them with swastikas, Celtic crosses, and references to Hitler. The forensic signature of a neo-Nazi attack is the artwork. Their swastikas are carefully drawn and perfectly even.”
We were interrupted by his mobile phone. Ammar is fluent in French, Hebrew, and Arabic, and during our conversation took calls in all three languages. After hurling rapid-fire Arabic down the phone for a few minutes, he hung up and returned to his exposition. “The attacks against the living are committed by Maghrebis—mostly youths. They now commit about 90 percent of the anti-Semitic crimes in France. When Maghrebis draw swastikas, they are careless. Their artwork is sloppy and childish.”
The French intellectual system, I thought while listening to him, does indeed have a striking power to take over the souls of men and women whose native culture encourages forms of reflection as far from the French model as it is possible to get. When a man becomes French—that is, when he is educated in the French manner—he begins to think like a Frenchman. The problem has three parts, the solution has four. State, expand, schematize, analyze, conclude. It has been so since Descartes.
Ammar agreed that Marseille had been spared the worst of the French Intifada. “We’ve been a bit luckier here,” he said. One reason for this is that Marseille has benefited from vigorous police work. This is not unique to Marseille, but has been particularly effective there. In France, all law-enforcement initiatives are coordinated at the national level, not the city level. The government of President Jacques Chirac, under Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, has taken aggressive measures to combat anti-Semitism. Following the attack on Marseille’s Or Aviv Synagogue, the government deployed riot troops to every place in Marseille where Jews congregated. Outside Marseille’s synagogues, a heavy and visible police presence remains to this day. The police have worked in close coordination with the domestic intelligence services, which have ramped up their surveillance of mosques and Islamic radical cells. The government has set up a toll-free number for Marseille’s Jews to call; they have asked Jews to use it to report even the smallest aggression, such as casual insults on the street, so that officials may better spot trends and deploy resources to emerging hot spots. The police have been instructed to treat complaints of harassment with the utmost seriousness.
Foreign intellectuals and journalists have been quick to charge French officials with pusillanimity in responding to domestic anti-Semitism, arguing that the government has chosen to appease France’s large, Left-leaning Muslim population rather than protect its numerically smaller Jewish constituency. The Jewish leaders to whom I spoke in Marseille rejected this, insisting that Chirac’s response to domestic anti-Semitism has been appropriate and forceful.
While France’s socialists and leftists, I was told, had been “in denial” about the problem, the current administration was not. All agreed that Lionel Jospin’s Socialist government, which lost power to the conservative UMP in 2002, had responded tepidly to the mounting crisis. They had been ideologically blinkered, Ammar reasoned. “They didn’t believe we could speak of racism that came from the Maghreb community, which was itself victimized by racism. For the Left, this was an earthquake.” The Left held France’s Jews and Arabs to be natural class and ideological allies. Until recently, this was not so absurd as it sounds: In response to the rise of the National Front in the 1980s, Jews and Arabs united to form the pressure group SOS Racisme. Although allegedly apolitical, its leaders were close to important politicians of the Socialist Party. “No one else in France,” Ammar said, “had helped the Muslim community more than us, the Jews—through organizations like SOS Racisme—all the founding members of that organization were Jews. We were highly sensitive to their suffering.”
The national, coordinated violence on the day of the torching of Marseille’s Or Aviv Synagogue was a turning point, proof that the violence was not, as the Socialists believed, a transient problem or an expression of trivial juvenile delinquency. After this, the Chirac government moved swiftly and aggressively. Pierre Lellouche, a prominent security politician, sponsored legislation, the Lellouche Law, which came into effect in February 2003. The law called for the doubling of punishments for crimes committed with a racist or anti-Semitic motive, and was approved with rare unanimity in both the National Assembly and the Senate. French police delegations were sent to New York to study Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s zero-tolerance policy. Sarkozy, then the interior minister, briefed police officials on the Lellouche Law; referring to its double-punishment proviso, he announced that France would now adopt a double zero-tolerance policy toward anti-Semitic crime, a forceful if mathematically problematic declaration. He formed a new police unit to investigate these incidents. Demonstrators were banned from displaying swastikas or other anti-Semitic symbols.
Not one person in Marseille complained to me that Paris or the police were indifferent to attacks on Jews, or that official policy was tainted by any kind of anti-Semitism, subtle or unsubtle. “France is not an anti-Semitic country,” Ammar insisted. “An anti-Semitic country has anti-Semitic policies, like Vichy, with its anti-Semitic laws. Here it is the contrary. The contrary. We must speak the truth. You cannot say that because there are anti-Semitic acts, France is an anti-Semitic country.” Ammar did complain, however, that the judiciary had been slow to implement the Lellouche Law and to incarcerate offenders; this, he believed, was because the judiciary, reflecting the views of the French public at large, was not yet prepared to accept the gravity of France’s problem. Others to whom I spoke in Marseille had a different perspective on the judiciary’s apparent faineancy: Officials within the police force and at city hall held that the likely explanation was not indifference to the seriousness of the crimes; rather, most of the offenders have been juveniles, and the French legal system, in a long-standing tradition, is particularly protective of minors.

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