Anti-Semitism after Toulouse
Following the cold slaughter of three children and a rabbi outside a Jewish school in Toulouse last March, the theory was widely propagated that the Islamic identity of the assailant working in tandem with the toxic anti-immigrant political atmosphere would inculcate a fresh climate of hostility towards the non-white French, and Muslims in particular.
Jewish community leaders have complained in fact that over the past three months France has witnessed an uptick in violent, anti-Semitic attacks. For example, on June 3 in Villeurbanne outside Lyon, ten attackers armed with hammers and crowbars set upon three men wearing yarmulkes, causing injuries to the head and neck.
Richard Prasquier, President of CRIF – the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France – noted that there has been “a series of acts like the one in in Villeurbanne”, with Richard Wertenschlag, the Chief Rabbi of the Grand Synagogue in Lyon adding that the current atmosphere is “unbearable”.
Considering France’s Strategic Vision: An Essay
TOULOUSE – Lunchtime on any given sunny Thursday in the centre of Toulouse perfectly encapsulates everything Anglo-Saxons envy about the seemingly-idyllic French mode de vie. In the middle of the working day, employees take off an hour or oftentimes more to enjoy a two-course formule du midi or a seasonal plat du jour on a picturesque square like Place St. Georges, all for under $25 including a glass of cold, crisp white wine, locally sourced of course.
When contrasted with the ugly way in which workers in London and New York unhinge their jaws in order to swallow whole pre-packaged sandwiches on the dash back to the office – all in the name of additional, precious trading nanoseconds – the more languid and dare it be said chic Gallic lunch is made to seem all the more desirable.
And why ever not? I am not one to suggest for a moment that the French need to give this practice up, for it does sit rather well with me. Nor should they be required to surrender the practice of retreating from the cities during the month of August when they become veritable sweatboxes. But the Anglo-Saxon with a mild bout of indigestion can at least take some comfort in the fact that said Gallic lunch is a milder expression of all that is wrong with the present state of the French economy and society, one which is stumbling blindly towards a condition of stagnation and sclerosis.
Zbigniew Brzezinski neatly summarises the state of play in his bright if occasionally problematic new work, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power. When addressing the subject of Europe, its position in the world, and relative decline since 1973 in comparison to the United States, Brzezinski asserts that the continent has become “too self-satisfied”, and that it acts “as if its central political goal is to become the world’s most comfortable retirement home” (Brzezinski 2012, 36).
One of the faults with Brzezinski’s work is over-generalisation. Evidently, state largesse is not a continent-wide problem. The United Kingdom government, for example, has recently embarked on a series of austerity measures that seek to scale down the size of the welfare bill as a proportion of government expenditure. And, in Germany, the Hartz reforms of the early 2000s also restricted access to state benefits, reducing the claimant period for the full unemployment allowance to in the most part 12 months, down from 36.
Rather, when Brzezinski references “Europe” in the abstract, he clearly has in mind the profligate nations of Catholic Europe, as it were: those nations like Italy and Spain with bloated deficits and engorged welfare states. Though it has not suffered as awfully as these other Mediterranean states, France could just as easily be indicted for the crime of wanting to become “the world’s most comfortable retirement home”. It is a country which, in the immediate, is suffering the consequences of having a weighty and immobile public sector at a time when the economy needs to be nimble and agile in order to recover and renew itself in this globalised era of interconnectedness and economic interdependence.
Her extensive state structures which own sizeable chunks of ostensibly private companies and employ directly 5.3 million workers, or 20% of the labour force, allowed France to buffet the worst of a recession which destroyed other economics more exposed to massive fluctuations in the health of the private sector. But as the United States is pulling itself out of the doldrums, albeit ever-so-slowly, and the Germans are experienced their lowest rates of unemployment since unification in 1990, the French economy is struggling to pick up steam whilst the rest of the continent suffers the consequences of the single currency and sovereign debt crises.
After Toulouse, Reviewing the Politics of Hate
The slaughter of Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse, and the emergence of a Muslim suspect who claims ties to al-Qaeda, has focused a piercing light on the temporarily halted presidential campaign, and specifically the heated rhetoric that has characterised the argument over immigration.
Nicolas Sarkozy, in order to win over disgruntled Front National voters, has moved decidedly rightward on this subject. Appearing on France 2’s Des paroles et des actes, he proclaimed that integration in France was failing since there are “too many foreigners on our territory”. He proposed to “divide by two the number of people that we welcome”. In the same vein, in a later campaign speech Sarkozy threatened to pull France out of the Schengen zone.
The President even engaged in a debate with Le Pen over kosher and halal meat, following her assertion that “all the abattoirs of the Paris region have succumbed to the rules of a minority”. After initially dismissing her claims, Sarkozy flip-flopped, calling for all meat sold in France to have labels outlining the method of slaughter.
The Prime Minister, François Fillon, was promptly dispatched to repair relations with the Jewish and Muslim communities, yet the damage is already self-evident. In a campaign marked for its lack of ideas or substance, racial and religious minorities became the subject of demonisation and delegitimisation. Sarkozy’s Interior Minister, Claude Gueant, went so far as to openly use the old nationalist axiom, “les Français ne se sentent plus chez eux” – “the French no longer feel at home”.
Postcard from Nimes
I confess to being the stereotypical Englishman abroad, attempting to grapple with a modern foreign language. I am able to ask the necessary questions, but totally unable to comprehend someone’s response.
Thus I found myself in at the railway station in Nimes, attempting to decipher what exactly was wrong with the transport network. When reading the board, I was able to see trains leaving on time, “a la heure…”, and others that were running behind, “retard 20 mins”, for example.
But mine was “supprime” — a word I did not recognise. My guess was that had been cancelled, or at least suspended, but I had to ask a member of staff lest I be stranded in Nimes. Whilst the first did not understand English, the second was able to explain the problem: the train conductors had downed tools, and were on strike.
On this occasion, the CGT were not merely living up to their reputation of being on strike on the days when they are not on holiday. As it transpired, one SNCF employee had been stabbed eight times in the arm and abdomen on a train going from Lyon to Strasbourg. And, this was not the first time they had had to face grave aggression, either.
The disruption continued into the next day: In Carcassonne, I was on the only train within the space of two hours either side to depart to Toulouse. It demonstrates not only the power of the unions, but also the importance of the ordinary steward to the running of the railways.