Published November 20, 2014
The gunshots outside a synagogue and the grenade that shattered the windows of a kosher grocery spread fear into the streets — but caused little surprise.
Jews across France say anti-Semitic threats have escalated since a deadly assault on a Jewish school in the southwestern town of Toulouse this spring. The attack on the grocery store in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles came several weeks ago, and the synagogue in nearby Argenteuil was this weekend.
In all cases, police suspect Muslim extremists. The Toulouse attacker was a Frenchman trained by Islamist paramilitaries. And anti-terrorist police killed one man and arrested 11 in raids this weekend against an Islamist cell suspected in the Sarcelles attacks.
French Jews believe the danger comes from radical messages that appeal to young Muslims in France who are unemployed, angry, alienated and looking for someone to blame.
But France has struggled to address the problem head-on because of the social sensitivities. President Francois Hollande met Sunday with the head of an umbrella group of Muslim organizations, assuring him that the government would not stigmatize all Muslims for anti-Semitic acts committed by a radical fringe.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls urged respect for all religions in a country that is determinedly secular, but which has Western Europe's largest Jewish and Muslim communities.
"These are not terrorist networks that come from outside; they are from our neighborhoods," Valls said on the TF1 television network.
The French government remains haunted by its complicity in sending tens of thousands of French Jews to their deaths in the Holocaust. Two days after the Sarcelles attack, Hollande traveled to a place used during World War II as a transit point for people destined for concentration camps.
Anti-Semitic groups, he said, "don't have the same face as yesterday, but they have the same goal."
The recent attacks have unsettled Jews, many of whom thought that anti-Semitism had faded since the 1980s, when members of the far-right fringe tipped over gravestones and defaced synagogues with graffiti.
"Anti-Semitism previously came from the extreme right, and the movements expressed their attitudes toward Jews with posters, words, perhaps by desecrating a cemetery," said Yossi Malka, a Moroccan Jew who settled in Sarcelles in the 1980s. "Today, we have an anti-Semitism that doesn't end with words but goes into the realm of action."
Malka blames conflicts overseas as well as the wave of post-colonial immigration from North Africa that has left a generation of struggling young Muslims.
Malka, who works with a French organization dedicated to tracking anti-Semitic acts nationwide, says violent and harassing acts spiked after the March shootings in Toulouse, climbing from two or three a month to seven.
The Toulouse shooter, Mohamed Merah, had admirers online even before his death in a shootout with police, according to Abraham Cooper, an American rabbi in Los Angeles who has worked with the French government and Jewish community.
"To those disaffected Muslims in France and elsewhere, he is someone to be emulated," Cooper said.
Hollande said the jihadist network broken up over the weekend was ready to strike again in coming weeks. The man killed in the raids had been under surveillance since last spring, officials said — around the same time as the Toulouse killings.
France is widely agreed to have Europe's largest populations of both Muslims and Jews, estimated at 5 million and 500,000 respectively. France's Jewish population was decimated after the Holocaust, and many in the generation that followed, like Malka, come from former French colonies in North Africa or the Middle East.
Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary general of the European Jewish Congress, said France's problems are similar to those elsewhere in Europe, but more notable because of the larger Jewish population.
"The only group of people, of citizens in Europe who go and pray under police protection are the Jews. The only group who sends its kids to a school under police protection are the Jews," he said. "That's a real question — why?"
Many French Jews say it's impossible to separate anti-Semitism from France's problems with its disaffected youth — up to 50 percent unemployment in some heavily immigrant housing projects — or from anger about Israel's conflict with the Palestinians. Only a small part of that anger translates into anti-Semitism: Young people also target symbols of the French government, most recently in the northern city of Amiens, where dozens of youths faced off against riot officers in August in a night of violence that ended with 17 officers injured, and a pre-school and public gym torched.
Sarcelles, a short train ride from central Paris, is relatively new by French standards, with most of its population of 60,000 living in high-rise apartment complexes dating to the 1970s.
Malka finds himself speaking Arabic to Muslims from his native Morocco, moving easily between the Jewish quarter that was attacked to the enormous open-air market across the street, where hundreds of stalls sell meat, clothes and knick-knacks and he can find the fruits and vegetables of his childhood.
Malka said the tensions in Sarcelles became progressively worse as the year progressed. First, anti-Israel posters from an unknown group went up during France's election campaign, followed by anti-Semitic graffiti, and then a young Jewish man was roughed up in July.
Muslim leaders have condemned the attacks. Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the umbrella group of Muslim organizations CFCM, said the group "assures the French Jewish community of its support and fraternal solidarity in the face of all attacks." The government also changed anti-terrorism laws to more severely punish anyone trained abroad who commits terrorism in France.
Hollande said authorities should show "intransigence" toward racism and anti-Semitism.
"Nothing will be tolerated. Nothing should happen," he said. "Any act, any remark, will be prosecuted with the greatest firmness."