Few democratic societies are as rich in populations of diverse origins as France’s. This is one of the many traits France shares with the United States. Both are countries of immigrants where citizenship is universal and does not depend on one’s ethnic or religious origins.
In that mix of populations, a rich Jewish culture has always been a key component of France’s fabric. During the French Revolution, France was the first European country to grant Jews full citizenship. The Jewish community in France, at half a million, is the world’s third largest, after those in Israel and the United States. And it is thriving, with a lively social and communal life and many citizens of Jewish background contributing to French arts, science and politics. Two Jewish prime ministers — Léon Blum, in the 1930s, and Pierre Mendès France, in the 1950s — served at times when a Jewish head of government was nearly unthinkable elsewhere in Europe and in the United States.
Diversity is a point of pride for France, but it comes with challenges, especially in times of hardship. The crisis that hit Europe in 2008 was accompanied by a rise of extreme-right populism and tensions among populations of different origins, including communities originating from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, we have witnessed an increase in racism and anti-Semitism in most of Europe.
In spite of this deterioration, the number of anti-Semitic acts in France — including violence against persons, as well as bombings, arson and destruction of property — was 105 last year, half of the 200 recorded in 2004. The number of anti-Semitic threats, including hate speech, graffiti and the like, has similarly fallen, to 318 last year, from 770 in 2004, according to France’s National Consultative Commission on Human Rights.
As French ministers of foreign affairs and of the interior, we are coming forward to make three simple statements.
First, anti-Semitism is our common enemy. It is an existential threat to all of us, because it is in complete contradiction of our shared values — values we celebrated on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, when we marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day. And based on its history, France feels a special responsibility in fighting this scourge both at home and abroad.
Second, France is not an anti-Semitic country. Yes, there are lingering prejudices against Jews — and isolated incidents of hatred. But anti-Semitism is limited to a small (but still too large) fraction of the population. According to the most recent Pew Global Attitudes survey, released in May, fewer than 10 percent of the population of Britain, France and Germany hold a negative view of Jews. Another Pew Research Center survey, in 2006, found France the highest of 15 countries in the level of respect among people of different faiths. France was the only country in that survey in which a majority of Muslims, 71 percent, had a positive opinion of Jews.
Third, the French government has demonstrated its absolute determination to fight anti-Semitism by every conceivable means. As President François Hollande put it in simple terms recently: “The French government will tolerate nothing” when it comes to hatred.
The No. 1 priority is to ensure the physical security of the Jewish community through the protection of schools and places of worship. We are using the full extent of French laws that prohibit all forms of anti-Semitic expression and Holocaust denial. In January, French courts upheld the decision by the government to ban a series of performances by a so-called comic, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, with clear anti-Semitic undertones.
We are also opening new fronts in cyberspace. Last year, we negotiated an agreement with Twitter to remove illegal content and anti-Semitic hashtags.
Another key priority is education, to continue the long-term decrease in anti-Semitic prejudices. The teaching of Holocaust history, in particular, is compulsory in primary, middle and high schools.
On the international front, France is leading efforts to fight terrorism and fanaticism. In Africa, our forces crushed Al Qaeda in northern Mali. In the Middle East, we have joined forces with the United States on current conflicts, such as the one in Syria, that have attract jihadists who might return home and perpetrate anti-Semitic crimes.
In that multi-front campaign against anti-Semitism, the key is working with all possible partners, in particular the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, an umbrella organization. As its president, Roger Cukierman, also a vice president of the World Jewish Congress, recently underscored in New York City, the French government is firmly standing by the country’s Jews. Our partnerships with anti-racist groups and American Jewish organizations are also growing stronger every year.
The fight against anti-Semitism is our common moral duty, and we will only succeed together.
Laurent Fabius is the French minister of foreign affairs and international development. Bernard Cazeneuve is the French minister of the interior.