Former Prime Minister Manuel Valls: France Is Getting Better at Responding to Antisemitism
by Ben Cohen
On March 19, 2012, an Islamist gunman named Mohammed Merah entered the schoolyard of the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in the French city of Toulouse. In quick succession, Merah, a product of jihadi training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, murdered Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and his two sons, 6 year-old Aryeh and 3 year-old Gabriel, and 8 year-old Miriam Monsonego. Three days later, Merah himself was killed by French police following a siege at his apartment.
Two months after that, Manuel Valls was appointed as France’s interior minister, and plunged headlong into the fallout from Merah’s killing spree – during which three French paratroopers were murdered and one more was wounded in the same nine day period as the attack on the Jewish school. Initially frustrated by the insistence, on the part of former domestic intelligence chief Bernard Squarcini, that Merah had acted alone, Valls fought back. He publicly repudiated the “lone wolf” theory in January 2013, hours before the first of Merah’s accomplices were arrested.
Almost five years on – and having served two years (2014-16) as France’s prime minister in the interim – Valls reflected on Merah’s atrocities during an interview with The Algemeiner at the offices of ELNET, a non-profit group working on enhanced relations between Israel and the European Union that hosted him in New York.
The imprisonment of Merah’s brother and sister-in-law last month on charges of abetting terrorism provided another demonstration of why the “lone wolf” theory was untenable, Valls said. “From the beginning, I said that you cannot defend the thesis of the lone wolf,” he stated.
But the most striking aspect of the trial of Merah’s relatives, Valls said, was the “primal” nature of their hatred of Jews, as emerged through a series of court testimonies. “What was obvious throughout the trial was that antisemitism was the ideological foundation of this family,” Valls said. “One of the other brothers was particularly courageous, and he blew the whistle. There was evidence of a great hatred for the Jews in that household.”
Valls is one of a handful of European politicians particularly attuned to the challenge posed by antisemitism, grasping that the doctrine of eternal enmity towards the Jews is integral to jihadi ideology. The unvarnished antisemitism in the Merah case was again on display in January 2015, when as prime minister, Valls led the response to the terrorist attacks in Paris on the magazine Charlie Hebdo and on the Hypercacher kosher supermarket.
“There will be some very important terror trials in France over the next two years,” Valls said. “The accomplices in the Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher attacks, some of the gunmen and their accomplices who were involved in the November 13 attacks (the murder of at least 130 people in six different sites in Paris on November 13, 2015) in France and in Belgium. It’s going to be a painful process for the victims and their families.”
Valls spoke in careful, methodical sentences, but his facial expression suggested that he too bears the toll of the violent Islamist outrages that have shaken France to its core over much of the last decade. The speech that Valls gave as prime minister to France’s National Assembly after the Hypercacher attack in January 2015 is remembered by many observers in France, particularly in the Jewish community, for having captured the central questions that emerged from those terrible few days in the French capital.
“The first subject we must deal with is the fight against antisemitism,” Valls said in that speech. As the 2006 kidnapping and murder of Ilan Halimi, a young French Jew, and the 2012 atrocity at the Jewish school in Toulouse both demonstrated powerfully, there had been, said Valls, “an intolerable rise in antisemitism in France.”
His voice rising, Valls asked the assembly, “How can we accept that shouts of ‘Death to the Jews!’ will be heard in our streets?” To loud applause from the parliamentarians, Valls denounced the “new antisemitism…hatred of the State of Israel, hatred of the Jew and all Jews!”
For Valls himself, that speech is recalled primarily as an expression of his patriotism. “Judaism is a part of French DNA and identity,” he argued. “What is France? It’s a land with Christian roots, it’s a country with a bloody history of conflicts between Catholics and Protestants — that cost us dearly, because thousands of Protestants fled — it’s a country where Islam is now the second religion, and it’s the home of one of the most ancient Jewish communities in Europe.”
But France is also, Valls went on, “the country of the 1789 revolution, which cut off the head of King Louis XVI, which wanted to suppress God. It’s the country of the great law of 1905 that separated church and state. It’s the country that recognized at the time of the revolution that Jews were full citizens. And at the end of the nineteenth century, the Dreyfus trial and the later exoneration of Alfred Dreyfus himself were turning points, because the victory of those who supported Dreyfus” — here, Valls cited such fin de siècle luminaries as the former prime minister Georges Clemenceau and the writer Émile Zola — “was a moral victory against antisemitism and against indifference.”
Valls underlined that a key reason for his January 2015 speech was his realization that the new forms of antisemitism that crystallized at the turn of this century had led to the departure of thousands of French Jews, as well as “breaking trust between French Jews and the Republic.”
“That’s why I say that France without Jews cannot be France,” Valls said. “It’s not just a struggle against antisemitism, it’s something deeper that’s linked to the soul of France.”
The shocking murder in April 2017 of Sarah Halimi (no relation to Ilan) — a Jewish pensioner in Paris beaten and then ejected from a third floor window by an Islamist intruder who showered her with antisemitic abuse — demonstrated graphically how many French Jews residing in poorer urban neighborhoods live with antisemitism on a daily basis, Valls observed. “We have to fight this antisemitism and state clearly where it comes from, which is within the population of Muslim origin,” he said. “We have to ask the Muslim community to fight it within themselves first of all.”
Valls asserted that the “Sarah Halimi affair has again awakened, and rightly, the fear among French Jews that we are trying to minimize antisemitism” — referring to the virtual silence around the murder in the weeks leading up to the presidential election in June. “But thankfully, the courts are now treating this crime as antisemitic.”
That development was presented by Valls as another indication that France has become less complacent about the threat of antisemitism since January 2015. There were, he pointed out, several opportunities in previous years to declare zero intolerance for antisemitism, for example the “barbaric killing of Ilan Halimi,” but each of these had failed “to trigger the outrage in French society as a whole that one might have expected.”
Part of the reason why Valls detects a change in the atmosphere in France lies in the country’s slowly growing willingness to understand the nature of antisemitism — and why, therefore, it presents a host of legal, educational and even national security challenges. If that is a far cry from the France of 2001 — whose leaders glibly dismissed the wave of antisemitism that followed the 9/11 attacks — then Valls is entitled to take much of the credit for the shift.
During the interview, Valls frequently used the word “intolérable” when talking about antisemitism in all its forms and from all quarters. It is a word, when heard in its French form, that carries a hint of the opening line of Zola’s famed 1898 defense of Dreyfus — “J’accuse!” — in its certainty that antisemitic beliefs are profoundly alien to France, its traditions, and its values. Adopting that moral and political stance has, Valls admitted, occasionally left him feeling isolated over the years. What it manifestly has not done, by the same token, is dampen his ardor.