French Lessons

By Simon Gordon
Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The saga that captured headlines around the world last week came to an end when Mohamed Merah—who had murdered four people, including three children, at the Ozer Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse, France—was shot dead by French police.  Before his death, Merah told police negotiators that he was a member of al-Qaeda.  He was on a French government watch list and an American no-fly list, and he allegedly spent time in NATO custody in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, the fact that the murderer turned out to be a violent Islamist came as a surprise to most of the media. 

Just after the Jewish school was attacked, the police confirmed that the same killer had murdered three French soldiers the previous week, two of them of North African origin and the third black.  The press adopted the working assumption that the killer must be a right-wing white supremacist.  That hypothesis informed an "exclusive" story on the website of the weekly magazine Le Point, which revealed that French police were looking for three men who had served in the same regiment as two of the murdered soldiers but were dismissed from the French army in 2008 for having neo-Nazi sympathies. 

One might have wondered why these men should have waited for four years after their dismissal to go on their killing spree, but Le Point did not wonder.  The police were "persuaded," the magazine said, "that the culprit is a soldier, whether or not currently on active duty," because of "his modus operandi, the way that he gets around, and the way he handles his gun—namely his ability to aim and fire from 10 meters away."  And Le Point offered its own somewhat counterintuitive argument to support this hypothesis: "The fact that his weapon jammed could also corroborate the fact that he was a former soldier."

Other media outlets were eager to pick up the story.  The left-wing daily Libération ran this headline: "The Killer on the Scooter: Former Soldier, Lunatic, Neo-Nazi?"  Across the Channel, the BBC's Hugh Schofield offered an even more expansive analysis.  Under the subhead "Deranged Far-Rightwinger," Schofield summarized the prevailing theory: "The killer has a clear affinity with guns.  Could he be a neo-Nazi type—maybe an ex-soldier or a member of the criminal underworld—with a hatred of all minorities, Jews and Muslims?"  Schofield did note a problem with his theory: There was no evidence that the murdered soldiers were targeted because they were black or Muslim.  But, Schofield assured readers, the absence of any evidence of such a motive was not fatal to the hypothesis: "This does not rule out that he is a far-Right fanatic, of course.  He may also have a grudge against the armed forces."

True, not all the media were so convinced.  The French right-wing daily Le Figaro produced a report headlined, "Killings: Islamist and far-Right leads."  Le Figaro also compiled a list of attacks on Jews in France over the previous 30 years, which testifies to a wider Islamist threat to Jews. The list includes several attacks on Jewish schools in areas with large Muslim populations since the millennium. Arson attacks damaged a Jewish school in Marseille in 2009 and two schools in the Paris suburb of Gagny in 2003 and 2006.  A week before the Toulouse shootings, a gang of Arab and North African youths assaulted two Jewish high school students as they left a sports field on the edge of Paris.  In 2002, a group armed with iron bars and wearing Palestinian scarves to mask their faces attacked 14 adolescent Jewish soccer players on the playing field.  In Toulouse in 2009, a car was driven into the gates of a synagogue and set alight with a Molotov cocktail; the police treated the incident as a response to the war in Gaza. Absent from Le Figaro's list was the most notorious anti-Semitic attack of the previous decade: the murder of the young Jewish man Ilan Halimi in 2006.  Halimi had accompanied a North African girl back to her apartment after what he thought was a date.  There, a group of Muslim-African immigrants known as the "Barbarians" tortured him for several days before leaving him to die, naked and bleeding profusely, near a railway line.

In this sequence of chillingly frequent attacks, the neo-Nazi theme is conspicuously absent.

The radical Islamist threat in France is not limited to the Jewish community.  In November, 2011, the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were destroyed in a firebombing after it announced that the Prophet Mohammed would be editor-in-chief of its forthcoming issue.  Ten people were injured when the Indonesian Embassy in Paris was bombed in 2004, most likely by a branch of al-Qaeda.  Another bomb exploded outside the embassy last week.  Indonesian officials insisted that this time, their embassy was not the target, but there is suspicion that the same group was responsible for both attacks.   

None of this history was enough to exculpate the French Right in the eyes of the left-wing press.  Before the murderer was identified, both Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, and President Nicolas Sarkozy were blamed for encouraging attacks on minorities with anti-immigrant rhetoric.  Indeed, even the identification of Merah as the culprit has not changed the theme: Now the Right is blamed for inflaming tensions and creating resentment among minorities. 

The fact remains, however, that French Jews do not lie awake at night worrying about whether they will be gunned down by President Sarkozy. Parisian Jews do not cover their yarmulkes with caps on their way to synagogue because they are afraid of being beaten to a pulp by white Frenchmen, after Marine Le Pen has given a speech appealing to the "français de souche," or true native French.  This is not Vichy France; the threat today comes not from Nazis but Muslim radicals. Pretending otherwise will not make it go away.

Simon Gordon is a Tikvah Fellow at Jewish Ideas Daily.

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