Paris under a gray winter sky does not see the morning light until 8:00 a.m., and nightfall is here by 5:00 p.m. The air is chill and damp. Still Paris is supremely beautiful, the cheeriness of more clement seasons being replaced by the cheeriness of Christmas decorations everywhere and Beaujolais Nouveau. A few days in Paris at this time of year are as memorable as “April in Paris,” though as I sat in the Café Flore, sipping espresso and reading of the blasé French response to terror and the weapons of mass destruction the old line echoed through my mind about how grand France is except for the presence of the French.
Actually the French have gotten much nicer over the past two or three decades. Yet some of the unpleasant facets of the French remain. They are among the most reluctant of our allies to support us in war against Saddam Hussein and the terrorists. They seem to have missed the terrorists’ boasts that angry Islam is at war with all Western countries. They have apparently not read the reports that terrorists have targeted monuments and buildings in their capital city. And let us remember that the French do have a problem with their army. Since Napoleon it has been perhaps the most polite army in Europe. Based on its recent history, I have even composed a motto for the French army, “Give No Offense.” No wonder they are reluctant to send troops against Saddam.
Yet there is another source of France’s reluctance to join us in war against the keeper of weapons of mass destruction and abettor of terrorism. I encountered a manifestation of it during an elegant meal in a posh Parisian apartment with a view of the Arc de Triomphe so intimate that I thought I might reach out the window and touch the great luminous heap. My dinner companion was telling me why the French are reluctant to go to war against Hussein. The reason is Israel. Yes, apparently were it not for Israel the Middle East would be a peaceful paradise of democracies and smiling Mohammedans. The only reason that the Middle East’s leaders are all tyrants (except for Israel’s) and that its youth occasionally transform themselves into suicide murderers of Westerners is aggressive Israel…and the Jews.
This additional source of France’s reluctance to fight Saddam is anti-Semitism, and it goes back in French history to at least the Twelfth Century when King Philippe Auguste, an otherwise distinguished French king, found himself sorely-pressed to pay the bills. So he had the Jews of Paris, who had amassed large commercial holdings, arrested, imprisoned, and forced to pay for their freedom. That was in 1180. Two years later he kicked them out of France and, by the way, grabbed their property. Such depredations against Jews continued in France for centuries. By the Twentieth Century out and out stealing had fallen into disfavor, but the sentiment of bigotry remained, becoming particularly invidious in the 1930s and taking a grisly turn with the Nazi occupation of Paris and cowardly Vichy.
In the years following the Holocaust French anti-Semitism has become more subtle. But it remains and now serves as the mood music for a new form of overt and criminal anti-Semitism, that carried by French-born Arabs — often the children of immigrants from former French colonies. They live in the suburbs around France’s major cities. They have grown increasingly ardent for militant Islam and are perpetrators of frequent acts of vandalism against Jewish properties, cemeteries and synagogues. The polite French wring their hands and say they will not tolerate it. But the depredations continue.
What are the French going to do? There is an escapism that the French adroitly practice. Mention their responsibilities to defend the West against the angry threats now mounted against us, and they slip away behind complaints that it is all about Israel. Mention that they have a proclivity towards genteel anti-Semitism and they change the subject or confess to it but insist it causes no pain. But it does. If the French squelched their anti-Semitism they would take serious action against the Arabs in their midst who now vandalize Jewish property. Moreover they would stand by the United States in the looming war with Saddam. They are as much at risk from weapons of mass destruction and terrorism as are we. But they are hobbled by old prejudices.