Report from France: Immigration is the Issue

Photos of Vieux Marais, Paris
Vieux Marais, Paris

By Robert Israel

There is a palpable uneasiness in the spring air.

The labor strikes that nearly crippled Paris last winter have ceased. But the economy remains troubled and unemployment is at 12 percent. Last summer’s terrorist bombs have stopped. But nearly every day entrances to the city’s subway stations are closed because of suspicions of bomb sightings, or bomb threats, largely by Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group.

Even picturesque streets with well-tended gardens in the showcase capital of the French Republic are deceiving. Punctuating the calm in many neighborhoods is the sight of police barricades that partially block sidewalks, surveillance cameras mounted on the sides of buildings and sentry posts. Frequently, one sees Paris police accompanied by armed military personnel walking three abreast as they make their rounds. Trash cans are sealed so that no one can use them as bomb repositories.

“The government has called this a temporary state of emergency,” says Shmuel Trigano, a sociologist. “They’ve asked everyone to be on the alert. But it’s not as if we are waiting for the other shoe to drop. The other shoe has already dropped. What we are left with is a malaise which has become our way of life.”

Nowhere is this sense of apprehension more keenly felt than in the immigrant or minority communities. The National Front, and its leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, blame the nations 3 million immigrants for the economic crisis. Le Pen’s rallying cry of “national preference” has attracted followers. Last summer, the National Front won gains in municipal elections in three southern cities.

Paris’ Jewish minority, in particular, sees itself as a crucial crossroads. Jewish leaders and residents alike say they either must accept complacently the current status quo of tolerance that brings with it security and a limited role in the republic, or – if they advocate for more – must face further fracturing and diminution as internal and external threats mount.

President Jacques Chirac has made personal overtures of support to the Jewish community, which is 1 percent of the city’s population. Last July, he became the first French president to apologize for the deportations of tens of thousands of Jewish citizens during World War II when the Vichy government openly collaborated with the Nazi occupiers. This was closely followed by another symbolic gesture, this time from Gen. Jean-Louis Mourrut, who declared that Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, the first Jew to serve on the general staff a century ago, was an innocent victim of an anti-Semitic conspiracy.

But more substantive efforts have not been forthcoming. There has been no response to the call made last summer by Jewish activist Serge Klarsfeld that the government make reparations to those Jewish whose property was confiscated during World War II. It does not appear like that such payments, which other countries in the European Union have undertaken, will occur in France during these cash-strapped times.

Jews here worry that assimilation and intermarriage will entice those Jewish in France who have already drifted from the faith to desert the ranks entirely. A more veiled intimidation to Jewish centrists here comes from the growing numbers of Jewish fundamentalists who are gaining a popular foothold.

The Jewish presence in this city is already a show of its former self. A visit to Rue des Rosiers, an ancient and narrow artery that flows through the Marais quarter, is a reminder. Jews have had a presence here for more than 800 years, but today most live int h e Paris suburbs of Sarcelles and Creteil, and trendy boutiques outnumber the kosher establishments. Jewish shoppers, motivated in part by nostalgia, fill the Marais on Sundays, but when they return to their suburbs at the end of the day, the area becomes swamped by young Parisians whose quest is night life, not culture.

Indeed, a growing number of French Jews are quitting the country to make aliyah, or immigration, to Israel, says Arieh Azoulay, who heads the Jewish Agency, an Israeli government immigration bureau here.

“French Jews have very close ties to Israel,” Azoulay says. “And there is a great sense of solidarity with Israelis, especially during the recent outbreaks of terrorist bombings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Jews who are unable to find work here are attracted to Israel because of the low unemployment. Israel offers greater opportunity. It is a place where a Jew affirms his or her identity. In France you must first be a loyal French citizen before you are encouraged to define yourself as a Jew.”

But there are those who dismiss Azoulay’s assertion that French Jews are increasingly attracted to Israel because of a mounting disenchantment with France.

“It’s propaganda,” say Jo Toledano, director of social affairs for CRIF, a Jewish philanthropic and policy making institution, in response to Azoulay. “French Jews are not just attracted to Israel for reasons of immigration. We are in close proximity to Israel geographically. We have family members living there. And French Jews go to Israel on holiday. In August, there are more French Jews on the beach in Netanya, a resort town on the Mediterranean, that there are Israelis. We call it the French Jewish Riviera. Sure, there are French Jews who immigrate to Israel. But the numbers are not so substantial as to indicate a mass exodus of Jews from France.”

The challenge, Toledano says, is twofold: to develop normalized relations with Israel that stress religious and educational goals, and to ensure that French Jews achieve self-reliance.

“We have to put into place a strategy against assimilation,” Toledano says. “We have to make a fusion with the many organizations and synagogues that are here. They need organizational help. They advetise classes, for example, and when students show up…often the lights are out and the doors are locked.”

Haim Musicant, a director at CRIF, says the Jewish community must “show that we are concerned not only with the Jewish community, but with all of French society.” He is busily scheduling public events, in an effort, he says, “for Jews to be more visible and more credible” in the greater community.

Albert Kadouche, the director of a cultural organization known as Centre Rachi, is trying to reach his fellow Jews through the programming of theatre and other performance pieces.

“As Jews drift away from the center,” Kadouche says, “and become absorbed in French society, they need Jewish art, music, and drama to capture their imaginations and to pull them back to their roots.”

He describes his efforts over lunch in a Tunisian kosher restaurant on Rue Richer, in the city’s 9th arrondissement. Seated at an adjoining table is a group of seven university students nibbling from a sample of appetizers: spiced carrots, pickled turnips, bread, smoke fish and tall bottles of wine.

“I come to this restaurant to meet my friends each week,” says Henri Kagan, 20, a university student from the suburb of Cretail. “We don’t keep kosher at home. My friends and I come because we want to learn about it.”

Kadouche invites the students to an event at Centre Rachi. “It’s OK to have hors d’oeuvres of Jewish life,” he tells them. “Maybe, as you taste more, you’ll come to enjoy the full course.”

Such efforts at strengthening Jewish culture in Paris help sustain a community that often feels under siege – or at least marginalized – by outside forces.

Meanwhile, Paris – so often equated with romance and whimsy – continues to gird itself against the threat of violence, whether it be by Algerian fundamentalists – intent on establishing an Islamic state in France’s former colony – or from those within, who want to shut out the immigrant and minority communities.

It is this cry that was heard behind a police barricade on a street near the Bureau of Foreigners’ Affairs here two weeks ago, when a crowd protesting immigrant workers yelled, “Workers’ rights for all workers!” The desire is not only for access to the perks of living in France, but also to gain respect from a nation that pioneered the concept of rights of all people, yet continually struggles with how to effectively implement these rights in the face of economic and political uncertainty.

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer. He can be reached at This story originally appeared in The Boston Sunday Globe.


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