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Where are France’s missing marchers?

Young people’s snubbing of a massive Paris rally against antisemitism must sound a warning for Europe’s left

More than 100,000 Parisians take part in a rally against antisemitism. Photo: Telmo Pinto/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty

On November 12, in response to a frightening rise in antisemitic acts since the eruption of the crisis in the Middle East, more than 100,000 people in Paris and 185,000 throughout France took part in a massive demonstration “against antisemitism” and “for the Republic”. We marched with the moving feeling of a great moment of fraternity, without slogans, without any noise other than the applause passing from the front to the back of the procession repeatedly, like waves of the sea.

With one or perhaps two exceptions, there were no Israeli flags, no Palestinian flags, no signs of religious or partisan identity. The only flags were French. And with the exception of Emmanuel Macron, the country’s most senior political figures from the right and left were at the head of the procession. Former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, parliamentary leaders, the prime minister and the mayor of Paris marched side by side. Together, they sang La Marseillaise.

The march was dignified, calm, powerful. The silence sent shivers down the spine, to the rhythm of applause that broke like waves. It was the solemn spectacle of a “national uprising”, as Libération newspaper named it on its front page the next day.

The marchers were messengers of that strange French speciality known as laïcité, which we proudly brandish as our common identity – a universalism that is wary of communitarianism, that prides itself on protecting minorities by emphasising what unites us rather than the identities that divide us.

But by taking a closer look, the march was hardly encouraging. If I’m honest, I’d even say it was depressing. For there was one notable invisible: the young. There were more white hairs and bald heads than under-30s. Teenagers were cruelly absent, except for those who had come with their families. French people of “diversity”, Arabs or Black people, weren’t there either.

Their absence was glaring, even though they did not shy away from other demonstrations in support of Palestine and the ceasefire in France and London. Let’s put things straight: the Paris march was an old white man’s march.

As of last week, 1,518 antisemitic acts or remarks had been recorded in France since the day of the Hamas attack on Israel. By way of comparison, 436 such acts were recorded for the whole of 2022. So where were the young marchers? How come the younger generations feel unconcerned about the fight against antisemitism, a particular kind of racism that has, for two millennia, been the first alibi for all misfortunes? What has happened to make it alarm old people only? What has happened to prevent a demonstration in support of French Jews, at a time when they are once again under threat, from being a clear sign of unity and rallying for young people?

Time has taken its toll. For Europeans over 30, the Jews remain the victims to whom we owe a common debt. For subsequent generations, and especially for teenagers, the Jews are guilty of the death and misery of the Palestinians. The absolute singularity of the genocide of the Jews is tending to be erased towards competing tragedies. Gaza has taken over the Shoah.

Ideologically, the cause of victimhood has changed sides. The left was initially dazzled by this young state born on the ruins of the Shoah, which appeared as a realised socialist project. Yet as the left embraced the Palestinian cause and condemned Israel for its settlements policy on the West Bank, the Palestinian has become the symbol of the universal victim in its collective mindset, while the Israeli is back to being the rich cosmopolitan capitalist who had fuelled far right antisemitism since the century of the Dreyfus Affair. Under the guise of anti-Zionism, antisemitism has shifted to the far left.

This political inversion was another feature of the Paris demonstration. Marine Le Pen and others from Rassemblement National, a party descended from the collaborationist and antisemitic far right, were present. They are trying to hijack the fight against antisemitism as a pretext to attract the anti-Muslim vote.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon and part of the far left were absent, trying to insinuate that fighting antisemitism in France was taking sides against the Palestinians. President Macron decided to miss this national event for fear of fanning the flames in a country made up of Europe’s largest Jewish community and of Europe’s largest Arab-Muslim community.

A new political correctness consists of making people believe that “anti-Zionism” is provoked by Israel’s policy of expansionism in the Palestinian territories. This policy is morally indefensible and reprehensible. But linking the two means forgetting that Hamas began its terrorist actions in the wake of the peace agreements signed in Oslo in 1993, and that nothing is more odious to it than the prospect of peace with Israel, as their charter provides for its eradication.

Social democracy’s leaders urgently need to restore its compass. It is distressing that the German vice-chancellor, Robert Habeck, and US senator Bernie Sanders were the only two left wing figures to make a statesmanlike speech on this fundamental challenge to the left.

Yes, the Palestinians are the unacceptable victims of an Israeli response that disregards international law. Yes, a two-state political solution is the duty of the international community. But legitimate support for the Palestinians cannot tolerate hatred of the Jews and the elimination of Israel. It cannot condone support for militant Islamism. Social democratic leaders, like Keir Starmer, must assert a left wing position that rejects anti-Zionism and seeks a point of balance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Social democracy is at a crucial point in history, when democracies can tip over into populism. A responsible left wing leader will never be a statesman if he leaves the fight against antisemitism to the right.

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