Jun 2002 Journal

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Holding the demons at bay

Whereas the antisemites of the interwar period peddled raw hatred, their contemporary successors resort to lacerating ridicule. Jörg Haider waxed ironical about the fact that Vienna's Jewish community leader Ariel Musicant - a property developer and therefore automatically suspected of underhand (i.e. dirty) deals - was named after a washing powder.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, on whom Haider models himself, produced the ultimate antisemitic black joke by calling the murder of six million Jews a detail - bagatelle - of history. In other ways, too, France is Austria writ large. For fully half a century after the war both countries were in denial. Both concocted myths about themselves as passive victims of German occupation and impotent eyewitnesses to the Shoah - whereas both collaborated (albeit to varying degrees). In both cases, Catholicism was the historic seed bed of antisemitism, and Jews were attacked as - among other things - subverters of the Christian faith.

France, starting point of the Crusades and the realm of Louis IX, the most important medieval monarch to be canonised, long considered herself the eldest daughter of the Church. And just as she set an example to the rest of Europe in religion, so she did in statecraft: Louis the Fourteenth's absolutism became the model for princes all over the continent. But the country also proved capable of generating another tradition entirely. The 1789 Revolution, with its Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, was a key event in both French and world history. Since then the French body politic has been gripped by a two-century-long tug-of-war between those who want to go back to the day before yesterday, and the would-be modernisers of the Republic.

The most significant showdown between the two camps occurred in 1940. Backed by German bayonets, but also by the approval of many of his fellow countrymen, Marshal Pétain created the Vichy regime - a throwback to the Middle Ages, with citizens reduced to mere subjects of a Church-supported authoritarian state.

And just as Vichy tried to blot out all the advances of the previous 70 years - from parliamentary democracy to the separation of church and state - so Le Pen is today calling into question the defining main achievements of the last Republican half-century, namely the European Union and a humane immigration policy.

For all the liberal principles underlying it, the latter has, alas, produced a most reprehensible side-effect. France is currently host to a six-million-strong Muslim community which - unlike that of the UK - comprises mainly Arabs. Hotheads among them have not shied away from supporting the Palestinian intifada by vicious attacks on Jewish targets. The burning down of synagogues in Marseille and Strasbourg has, apart from demonstrating the authorities' lax law enforcement, boomeranged on these arsonists, because increased public disquiet over criminality plays straight into the Islamophobe Le Pen's hands.

If the Jospin government has rattled the electorate by lax law enforcement, its conduct of foreign affairs has not been particularly distinguished either. Foreign Minister de Villepin is guilty of a grave sin of omission by not tying the EU's lavish subsidies to the Palestinian authority to Arafat's interdiction of the terrorists.

As of now, though, Jospin and the Israelophobe de Villepin are yesterday's men, and Jacques Chirac - the first French President to acknowledge the Vichy state's collusion in the Holocaust - occupies pole position.

Le Pen is held at bay, but the six million who twice voted for him prove that the ghosts of the judicial officials who framed Dreyfus, and of the gendarmes who diligently rounded up Jews for Drancy, have not, as yet, been laid.
Richard Grunberger

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