The recent massacre of Jews in Toulouse has again the raised the specter of anti-Semitism in France.
While Jews have lived in France since Roman times, they have faced prejudice, discrimination and violence throughout their long residence in the country.
There are now about 600,000 Jews in France, making it the third-largest Jewish community in the world, after the United States and Israel.
However, in recent decades, with the huge influx of Arab Muslim immigrants to France, anti-Semitism now has a decidedly Islamic flavor.
Mohammed Merah, the French-Algerian gunman who murdered four people – including three children – outside a Jewish school in Toulouse, reportedly claimed he wanted to take revenge for Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
The murder of Jews will likely influence France's presidential elections next month. The incumbent president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has called for national unity in the wake of the Toulouse killings.
However, earlier during the campaign, Sarkozy said that France had “too many foreigners” – a direct reference to the 5-million Muslims who now call France home.
Complicating matters is the presence of the extreme right wing National Front party, whose leader, Marine Le Pen is vehemently anti-immigration and has openly targeted and demonized Muslims in her rhetoric.
The National Front has also long espoused an anti-Semitic philosophy, particularly under Marine's father, the notorious Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Still, France's record of anti-Semitism long predates Le Pen and the National Front.
During World War II, the Vichy government of France collaborated with the Nazis and deported tens of thousands of French Jews to perish in the death camps. At least 75,000 French Jews died during the Nazi occupation of France.
Vicki Caron, Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at Cornell University said that about 75 percent of Jews in France survived the war, but the losses among the foreign-born Jewish population were the highest.
“Some two-thirds of all foreign born Jews were killed,” she noted.
France's complicity in the Holocaust remains a black mark on the country's psyche – names like Klaus Barbie, Maurice Papon, Paul Touvier and many others haunt the Gallic consciousness.
After World War II, France recognized Israel and established a number of economic and cultural relationships between the two countries. During this period tens of thousands of Sephardic Jews from North Africa migrated to France.
Caron stated that the size of the French Jewish community reached its peak in the post-WWII period, with the influx of North African Jews. She estimates that between 1950-70, some 220,000 North African Jews came to France.
But in 1967, after the Six-Day War, France's Middle East policy started favoring Arab nations under Charles DeGaulle, a preference continued by his successor, President Georges Pompidou.
“In 1967, De Gaulle hoped to improve France's standing in the Arab world, and he warned Abba Eban, the Israeli foreign minister, that if Israel launched a pre-emptive strike, France would condemn Israeli action,” Caron said.
“When Israel did launch such a strike, France announced an arms embargo. When French Jews expressed support for Israel, De Gaulle lashed out at Jewish domination in the French media. At a press conference, he made his famous statement that the Jews ‘were an elite people, sure of themselves, and domineering.’ This statement suggested that Jews were guilty of dual loyalties.”
Despite repeated anti-Semitic incidents from various corners of French society, Caron indicated that Jews in the country are actually very well assimilated.
“Of course, there are some orthodox Jews who live apart to a degree, but on the whole most French Jews are highly assimilated and integrated,” she said.
Moreover, quite a number of Jews have reached high political office in France.
During the 1930s (during the peak of the Nazi regime in neighboring Germany), a Jewish politician named Léon Blum was Prime Minister.
Caron noted that other prominent Jews in French politics have included Pierre Mendès France (who served as the Prime Minister from 1954-55); Michel Debré (Prime Minister from 1959-62, and who subsequently held other high-level cabinet posts); Simone Veil (who served as Minister of Health from 1974-79 under Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, and also as president of the European Parliament from 1979-82); and Robert Badinter (the Minister of Justice from 1981-86)
The current president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, also has some Jewish background, Caron added.
In addition, Caron opines that despite France’s troubling cooperation with Nazis during the Second World War, the government has taken responsibility for its past.
“In recent years, the French government has opened up most of the archives, and I think with [President Jacques] Chirac's recognition of Vichy's role, the government has owned up to its collaborationist past,” she said.
Of course, virulent anti-Semitism remains among certain fringe groups in France, particularly the extreme right-wing National Front Party. The party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, frequently made anti-Semitic remarks and downplayed the horrors of the Holocaust.
However, given that Muslims now greatly outnumber Jews in France, the National Front appears to have focused its ire entirely on the country’s Arab/Islamic population.
In fact, Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine, the new leader of the National Front and presidential candidate, immediately expressed her condolences to the Jewish community following the massacre in Toulouse and blamed what she called the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in poor French suburbs. Moreover, she has frequently described Islamic extremists as “fascists” and “Nazis” (terms that, ironically, many would use to describe her and especially her father).
Thus, the practice of violent anti-Semitism in France has been transferred from the old right-wing nationalists of the past to elements of the country’s burgeoning Islamic population.
Prior to the Toulouse killings, perhaps the most egregious physical attack on French Jews by Arabs in recent years occurred in 2006 when Ilan Halimi was kidnapped and tortured to death by gang led by Youssouf Fofana, a Muslim from the Ivory Coast.
Earlier this year, a report in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) suggested that one-fourth of the Jews in France wanted to leave the country due to rising anti-Semitism (primarily from Islamic peoples).
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a founder of The Israel Project, described the mood among French Jews as similar to a kind of severe depression.”
They felt attacked by anti-Semitism -- that could mean either verbally or some kind of pressure, not necessarily that they got beat over the head on the way to school, Mizrahi said. But it's like sexual harassment -- if you feel it, you feel it.