Emmanuel Macron has just become the first president in French history to explicitly link the anti-Israel sentiment sweeping Europe in the present to the anti-Semitism that haunted Europe in the recent past.
In a fiery speech in central Paris, before dignitaries like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and decorated Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, Macron said France would “cede no ground to messages of hate, and we will cede no ground to anti-Zionism, for it is a mere reinvention of anti-Semitism.”
"Every desecrated or vandalized synagogue, mosque, church, temple, cemetery must be a warning to us,” he added.
The remarks Sunday came amid ongoing concerns about the safety and security of French Jews. While things have quieted over the past year, thousands of Jews left the country in recent years, following a dramatic series of terror attacks by extremist Muslims including the murder of schoolchildren in Toulouse in 2012 and an attack on a kosher supermarket in 2015. Other French Jews have complained of getting hostile stares or hearing hate-filled words while out in public. Some observant Jews had started only selectively wearing their yarmulkes as a precaution; some had removed mezuzot, the Jewish prayer box kept on the doorposts of Jewish homes, from their doors. In recent years there has also been a dramatic increase in anti-Semitic graffiti.
By explicitly connecting the problems of the past, to the concerns of the present, Macron has done what other leaders have purposefully shied away from. In essence, he has said that “never again” — the oft-repeated phrase connected to the horrors of the Holocaust — cannot be selectively applied.
“In our world,” he said, “where religious wars are reappearing, where ethnic conflicts are being rekindled, where intolerance and sectarianism are joining forces, we must do all we can to ensure humankind does not accept to fall so low.”
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Macron gave his speech on the 75th anniversary of one of Paris’s darkest hours: the roundup of more than 13,000 French Jews in July 1942. Some 8,000 were held for days under horrific conditions at the Velodrome d’Hiver, an indoor bike racing stadium. From there, they were sent on to Auschwitz. Almost all were murdered there.
While France has long commemorated the roundup, the anniversary took on special meaning this year because former French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen had used an April radio interview to deny any French responsibility for the roundup.
Macron didn’t mention Le Pen in his speech, but the remarks were a direct repudiation of the woman he defeated by more than 30 percentage points during May’s elections.
“It is France that organized the roundup [and] subsequent deportation,” which led to the death of its own Jewish residents, he said.
When Le Pen refused to embrace the role of the French state in the Second World War, she claimed it was about encouraging the youth of France to have a sense of pride about their past. Macron addressed that idea specifically.
“By acknowledging its faults, France has opened the way to repairing them,” he said. “That is the sign of a strong nation that can face its past. That is the courage of a people not afraid to examine its conscience and reach out to the victims and their children.”
But a speech about the past would have been relatively easy. Few publicly contest the trauma of the war, especially on the anniversary of the roundup.
Macron went further, drawing a clear line from the hatreds of the past to the problems of the present. “You only need to stop for a moment,” he said, “to see, behind the new facade, the racism of old, the entrenched vein of anti-Semitism.”
Macron listed the names of those murdered in January 2015 in the Hypercacher supermarket, as well as the three Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse shot in 2012, and the young Jewish man kidnapped, tortured, and murdered in 2006. For French Jews, the modern connections drawn in Macron’s address were unexpected, and welcome.
“It was a historic speech,” says Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, the director of the American Jewish Committee Europe, based in Paris.
“I think that he was not only right but also extremely courageous.”