French President Speaks Before French Jewish Associations
Paris, March 4 2014
President of the Senate,
Representatives of Religious Communities,
Chairman of CRIF,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We are meeting here this evening, as we do every year, for this dinner which provides the framework for the most fraternal relationship possible between French Jews and the French Republic. However, this year we are meeting at a time when exceptionally serious events are taking place in Ukraine, reminding us of a time we thought we had left behind, a time of military interference, interventions and demonstrations.
In a context that we know is difficult, Russia has taken the risk of starting a dangerous escalation. Under these circumstances France’s role, together with Europe, is to bring the necessary pressure to bear, including the possible use of sanctions, in order to impose the path of dialogue and find a political solution to the crisis on the basis of simple principles: respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, as well as respect for the diversity of Ukraine’s people and lastly, the holding of free elections under international control.
That’s the purpose of the measures that we’ve been taking with the minister of foreign affairs since the beginning of the crisis. Russia, with which we’re engaging in dialogue, must understand that it is facing a very important choice for the future of its relations with Europe and that the only option – and I mean the only reasonable option – is negotiation. As for Ukraine, it must be able to choose its own destiny while recognizing its historical, cultural, and human ties with Russia, which no one disputes.
These events remind us that achieving peace is truly a difficult and delicate task and that there’s a chain of events in motion that could jeopardize it at any time. These events also remind us that current events always summon up the past and that if we forget the past, we cannot resolve the crises that arise.
I also talk about the past because I stand before you here, friends of CRIF, and because your annual event is, as I said, a high point when you vibrantly express your attachment to our country and to the Republic. At the same time, the CRIF dinner is an opportunity – as the chairman said and this isn’t always pleasant to hear – to express an opinion on the reality of racism and anti-Semitism in our country and to do so with clarity and truth. Mr. Chairman, that’s what you managed to do once again this evening.
In 2013, we thought we’d seen a lull and even a decrease in anti-Semitic acts and rallies. Unfortunately, that was an illusion. Why? Because although the number of acts had decreased by 30%, the level that allowed us to make this comparison was exceptionally high since it related to 2012. Do I need to remind you what happened in 2012 and notably on March 19? It was an illusion because the number of complaints – 423 to be exact – did not take into account everything that wasn’t reported, wasn’t known, wasn’t admitted. Lastly, it was an illusion because in January the level of violence was twice as high as in December 2013 and because there was even a three-fold increase in anti-Semitic threats.
Beyond the statistics and the figures, what’s going on, what is the issue here? Jews are being attacked on the streets because they are wearing a kippah. Children in French schools are being insulted because they are Jewish. Synagogues are being desecrated with swastikas. This is the reality of anti-Semitism.
This wave of hatred doesn’t just come out of nowhere. First of all, let’s not blame the crisis. The crisis is a good excuse! It’s not a horde of unemployed people who are shouting “death to Jews!” It’s not the “wretched of the Earth” who are using words of hate. It’s not the poorest people in society who are promoting these destructive ideas. It’s a bit too simplistic to think that it’s the crisis! It would be convenient: we’d just have to resolve the crisis – and that’s not easy – and then everything would be fine…
No, the problem goes deeper. And it’s not just a French problem, let’s stop just looking at the situation in our own country. It’s a European problem, perhaps even a global problem. There are countries where there’s no unemployment, where growth is high, where purchasing power is among the highest in the world, and where foreigners face suspicion, where people think others are dangerous, where they want to restrict the freedom of movement. So let’s not think that this is just a bad period, a bad time. No the context is, as you said, more fraught.
What we heard in the demonstration on January 26 is exceptionally serious, with slogans from the 1930s, conflation, confusion… Groups, who had nothing to do with each other, came together with the same goal, the same hatred, the hatred of Jews, searching for someone to take the blame. They always need someone to blame in order to drive out their fears, their misfortunes and their resentments. And again, this isn’t something new. We’ve seen this in the past, except that now the propagandists are no longer hiding, they are publishing books, they’re marching in the streets, they perform, they use modern technology, i.e. the Internet to spread rumors which become tumors.
We know how this infernal mechanism ends. It always leads to violence and tragedy.
That’s why, Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, the French government will tolerate nothing.
We must come together – and when I say together I mean through all communities that are represented here, all those who belong to the Republic – to defend the values that make up France. I say it here now: in the face of threats – and anti-Semitism and racism are included among them – there’s no room for division, polemics or one-upmanship.
If we succumb to the temptation to use these excesses and this behavior for political purposes, we will be lost. Fortunately, there are causes in the Republic – of which I am the guarantor - that allow us to come together in order to focus on what really matters. This is also what it means to be a French citizen and beyond the objections that must exist, the divisions that may be justified and relevant, France is united when it comes to combating racism and anti-Semitism.
As you recalled, Mr. Chairman, the government remains absolutely uncompromising with respect to anti-Semitic acts because these are all attacks on France. The laws are there. The temptation is always to invent others and not use those that are in effect. They must be strictly and firmly enforced by the public security authorities and by the justice system.
And the victims themselves must not be afraid to come forward and report all the facts. It’s up to us to help them. The Keeper of the Seals gave instructions to that end and I think that with respect to insults she knows what racism means. But even though the police are doing their work and the courts are convicting the perpetrators, the sentences that are handed down must be enforced. Avoiding a sentence is a further act of dishonesty and an incentive to continue. Some people have gone too far. Too far.
Let’s be quite clear: The freedom of expression, the freedom of creativity, and the freedom to demonstrate are fundamental values of the Republic, but that doesn’t give racists and anti-Semites a license to spread their views. The freedom to mock is not the freedom to hate. Again, there is a law to prevent these transgressions. It has been enforced by the minister of the interior within the limits set by the courts, in this instance the administrative courts.
We have demonstrated that laws do not prevent action from being taken but can enable us to intervene, including in a preventive way. Legislation, all legislation, and nothing but legislation, including legislation to ban splinter groups whose only purpose is to spread ideologies that incite discrimination, violence and hatred. That’s what we did following a tragedy that cost the life of a young student, Clément Meric. Splinter groups were blamed; we knew that these groups could be behind this type of tragedy, at least with respect to the views being spread.
Mr. Chairman, you mentioned the new Internet threats. Digital technology is a wonderful tool for disseminating and exchanging information, but like books in the past, it can also serve as an outlet for intolerance, insults and indoctrination. There have, unfortunately, been books that have played this role in the past. It’s therefore not the tool that’s being called into question; it’s the views that are being spread. In France and abroad, manipulators and criminals are teaching what Poliakov called the “bréviaire de la haine” (Breviary of Hate). And we’re seeing those who listen to, those who adhere to these views, these lies, and who are making themselves into proselytizers.
That’s the danger of the Internet: it’s the increase in, the outpouring, and spread of lies and insults to a level never seen before. Digital technology must therefore have its rules. Service providers as well as operators must comply with these rules without using extraterritoriality as an excuse. Mr. Chairman, I take note of what you have proposed. If we can combat pedophilic images, then we must also be able to combat deliberately racist and anti-Semitic messages.
I have therefore asked the government to make swift proposals to improve our responsiveness and ultimately our law enforcement instruments with respect to the development of cybercrime.
I would like to recall what happened with respect to Twitter last year. The government negotiated concrete commitments with this major company: removal of illegal content, freezing of survey data, delisting. We will act in the same way in France, in Europe and around the world in the face of the global giants in the digital sector in order to achieve this goal.
But France’s ambition isn’t just to use penalties. It must ensure that its prevention measures are as effective as possible. Our ambition is to be able to raise public awareness through education. That’s the goal of the secular morality that is now taught in our schools: to provide all French students with a foundation of common values that form the basis of our identity. What are the hallmarks of our identity? Respect for the individual and his dignity, his origins, his religion and his beliefs; a rejection of any form of discrimination. That is secular morality; it excludes no one, brings us all together and protects those who, by dint of their history, experience, origin or skin color, have reason to fear being looked down upon. France’s schools must remain a place where, for generations, children have learned to live with others under rules that apply to all. This lesson about life, this lesson of the Republic, must be taught as early as possible.
In 1936, education minister Jean Zay — who, as I’ve announced, will be entering the Pantheon along with Geneviève Anthonioz de Gaulle, Pierre Brossolette and Germaine Tillion next year — became the first to write a circular on religious symbols at school. Which just goes to show that we always think we’re the first to come up with something, only to find out we’ve arrived too late. Be that as it may, Jean Zay’s text was most timely, as such threats already existed at that time. He wrote: “Those who would disrupt the educational experience have no place in schools, which must remain inviolable havens where the quarrels of men do not enter.” That remains true to this day.
Our Charte de la Laïcité is a contemporary expression of that need. It is now posted and studied in all educational establishments. The minister made sure of that. We must also add it to the permanent teacher training program. All initiatives must be supported that take this line: establishing academic “Remembrance and Citizenship” guideposts to coordinate activities in schools promoting the remembrance of genocides, particularly the Holocaust and all crimes against humanity; instituting specific training units in teaching programs; and making it a priority, beginning this fall, to make fighting discrimination an educational objective.
The Education Ministry supports all of these initiatives as well. There are many I won’t mention them all. The initiative by the Union des Etudiants Juifs and SOS Racisme to fight prejudice through the CoExist program is one of them. I also want to stress what’s being done at the Academies of Lyon and Grenoble with LICRA to award a prize, the Prix Gilbert Dru, to those who have exhibited exemplary behavior in combating racism and anti-Semitism. I also want to hail the efforts of all the major philosophical and spiritual communities in our country that are striving to promote mutual understanding among the French.
A few minutes ago, you paid tribute to Father Patrick Debois. Through his family history, he discovered the tragedy of Ukrainian Jews. He worked hard to bring about the recognition of the “Holocaust by Bullets.” It’s very important to know exactly when a genocide begins and how it reaches the point of extermination camps. Father Desbois is now director of the National Commission for Relations with Judaism at the Bishops’ Conference. I want to hail the interreligious dialogue, which does not seek to erase the difference between faiths but to oppose all those who exploit them.
Fanaticism is not a religion. It subverts religion. It was fanaticism, not Islam, that guided the murderous hand of Merah in Toulouse and Montauban, when he slaughtered Jonathan, Gabriel, Arie, Myriam, Imad Ibn Ziaten, Mohamed Legouad and Abel Chennouf—four Jews, three Muslims, seven French. And an equal number of attacks on the Republic’s most symbolic institutions: school and the army.
Last week, the CRIF in Toulouse paid tribute to Latifa Ibn Ziaten, Imad’s mother. I too want to praise her courageous battle, of which I am aware, and that of all those who are actively promoting Jewish-Muslim friendship, with the support of the highest authorities of the Muslim faith, who are represented here this evening. I want to thank them for their commitment to tolerance and peace.
Ladies and Gentlemen, 2014 will be marked by two major commemorations: the centenary of World War I and the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of our country. I want to make them occasions in which our fellow citizens come together, occasions of remembrance for all.
That is why I paid tribute to Muslim soldiers at Paris’s Grand Mosque on January 18. At Mont-Valérien, on February 21, I paid tribute to the Manouchian group and hailed the initiative taken by Robert Badinter to have the names of the 1,010 people executed there engraved on a bell at Mont-Valérien. Naming the dead to engage the public, that’s the meaning of these monuments. At Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which I visited, on the Wall of Names and the Wall of the Righteous in Paris and so many other places… so that nothing is forgotten, misrepresented, transformed or concealed, and we are reminded each day of our duty.
What do we demand? To know. To know everything. Where we come from, the ordeals our country experienced to be free today. To be aware of all past tragedies in order to better prevent them. To know history, yes, to know history, to acknowledge our responsibility to write it ourselves.
I know you are particularly dedicated to remembrance. To remembrance here in France, and to remembering the relationship between France’s Jews and Israel. I understand your ties to Israel. Israel, for the Jews of France and for those worldwide, represents first and foremost a nation of refuge. It is said—and it’s true—that it was by watching the public degradation of Dreyfus in the Cour des Invalides in 1895, and the spectacle of defiled innocence, that Theodore Herzl concluded that the Jews could only be guaranteed a free and dignified existence the day they had a homeland.
Israel, for the Jews, is also the realization of a hope. A very old hope, as ancient as Judaism itself. The relationship that French Jews have with Israel is made up of multiple ties—human, intimate, personal, familial, professional… Yet that solidarity never distances you from your motherland. It draws you closer, given that you so strongly expect France to play a useful role in the world, and particularly in the Middle East. That was the purpose of my visit to Israel and Palestine. I was accompanied by a CRIF delegation. You accompanied me to both Israel and Palestine. Tonight I would like to thank you for that.
At the Knesset, I spoke candidly and freely. I reiterated France’s position: two states for two peoples, the State of Israel and the State of Palestine, both with Jerusalem as their capital, coexisting in peace and security. We need a solution that will bring an end to all demands and settle this conflict once and for all. But that agreement will be meaningless unless Israel’s security is strengthened and all new threats are eliminated. Those are the words I used with both Benjamin Netanyahu, who gave me a very warm welcome, and Mahmoud Abbas, who was very attentive to the position of France, which he already knows.
Without recognizing the other party, there cannot be peace. That is the essence of what we must seek, as the Americans have also emphasized. Even as we speak, Israelis and Palestinians are seeking peace. The continuation of negotiations — for that is now the challenge — represents a decisive opportunity. Any failure would further aggravate the situation in the region and thereby threaten the State of Israel.
Now, the Middle East is already profoundly destabilized by the Syria crisis. You might say, “The destruction of chemical weapons has already begun.” And yet! The Geneva Conference was a failure, it led nowhere. During that time, there was one massacre after another. And in an atmosphere of general indifference, that only France intends to break.
While refugees are crowding into Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, with the risk of a widespread conflagration, tomorrow, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and I will welcome the International Support Group for Lebanon, to preserve that country’s unity and integrity and provide it with humanitarian assistance. As it happens, both the U.S. secretary of state and the Russian foreign affairs minister will also be here. We won’t only talk about Lebanon. But if we could also talk about Lebanon and Ukraine, that alone would make this initiative worthwhile.
I am thinking about Lebanon because it is a country that’s dear to France and a country that must absolutely be kept out of this conflict. I am aware of the forces that are working to undermine its stability. We are deeply concerned by what is going on in Syria. As you mentioned, Mr. President, 700 French citizens or residents are now involved, coopted by jihadist groups. Sometimes they are killed—that’s what happened recently—or return home, with all the risks that implies for our own security.
The interior minister has been particularly active in dissuading all these potential jihadis who could not only lose their lives but, at some point, place ours at risk. Let me remind you that two members of the cell that attacked the kosher grocery store in September 2012 in Sarcelles have been arrested. They had been in Syria. The links have been established.
You can’t talk about Syria without talking about Iran, which bears such an enormous responsibility in the war that Bashar al-Assad is conducting against his own people. Vis-à-vis Iran, France will not be satisfied with words, but wants to see actions, as it clearly demonstrated on the nuclear issue. This is a topic of major concern, not just for Israel, but for the entire region and for world peace. That’s why France did everything it could to ensure that the interim agreement with Iran was both solid and credible. But the hardest is yet to come. France’s position is that a final agreement must provide guarantees for Israel and the rest of the world that Iran will never—and I mean never—have nuclear weapons.
This, Ladies and Gentlemen, is what I came to speak to you about: the concern of the entire government over the climate I described, the efforts we are taking to combat anti-Semitism and racism, to prevent it and to punish it. I also wanted to convey France’s position on a certain number of situations in the world. I mentioned Ukraine and I concluded with the situation in the Middle East, and notably Iran.
But I also want to convey a final message. The Jewish community is fully at home in France. It has given so much for our country, so much, through its talents, successes, dedication, sacrifices and most important, through the love it has always shown for France. So to all those who wonder—and some here do—about the protection the Republic can offer, about France’s love for all its citizens and in particular the Jews of France, I want to reaffirm that our country will be worthy of the hope you place in it. Because France needs you, because France needs everyone, because France must succeed thanks to you. Thank you.