Some events carry an exceptional symbolic charge. There have been more serious racist crimes in France, notably murders of Arabs, but the profanation of graves and the mutilation of corpses discovered on May 9 and 10 in Carpentras, where Jews have lived since the Middle Ages, was such an event. The revulsion against the desecration of the dead and the revival of the memory of the Holocaust combined to shock a nation, and on May 14 protest marches were improvised throughout the country. At the biggest, in Paris, some 200,000 participated for hours, their silence eloquently proclaiming “never again.” Joining the marchers were the President, the Prime Minister, dignitaries of most religions and leaders all political parties–except Jean-Marie Le Pen and his xenophobic National Front–and that was the main virtue of this consensus of indignation.
Perhaps because it is awkward for an atheist to walk behind the Cardinal and the Grand Rabbin and for a leftist to march in step with reactionary leaders–although rejoicing that we were so many and that the line of march, from the Place de la République to the Bastille, was so long–I kept asking myself a series of questions. France has the second-largest Jewish community in Europe, after the Soviet Union, and Jews were prominent in this procession. Would there have been so many of us if the victims had been Muslim? (It’s sadly true that there were not many Arabs in this demonstration.) Had the Jews from North Africa, who used to chant Algérie Française together with Le Pen, finally grasped that racism is indivisible, that it starts with wogs or gooks and ends with yids? Was the presence of Jacques Chirac, the former Prime Minister, and his conservative colleagues a sort of mea culpa? After all, deprived of office by the left, they had started a campaign attributing unemployment and insecurity to foreigners, only to discover that Le Pen could stoop lower still and beat them at their own game. And was the prominence of the left in general, and of the Socialists in particular, a sign that they have now grasped the fact that to fight racism you must have the courage of your opinions and act on them even if it means antagonizing a part of the electorate?
Those questions are not irrelevant, because in the past ten years race relations in France have regressed. The taboos brought about by Nazi crimes have been broken. You can now utter insanities about Arabs and even about Jews without preceding them with “I am not a racist but …” The National Front, whose leader has publicly proclaimed that the Holocaust is “a detail,” is credited with about 15 percent support in the most recent opinion polls.
And it is not merely a case of “French flu.” Wherever reason fails to offer solutions, unreason fills the space. As we were walking I thought. of Eastern Europe and the rediscovery there of the irrational heritage. Stalin, his henchmen and his successors did not solve the national question; they did not eliminate racism and chauvinism. General repression merely drove the symptoms below the surface, where they continued to fester until revealed by glasnost. One of the first “free” acts of the Bulgarians was to protest against equal rights for Turks, and of the Romanians, to stage a pogrom against Hungarians. Add to this the anti-Semitism without Jews in Poland and with them in Russia, the atavistic hatreds of Azerbaijanis and Armenians, and of various minorities in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and you will recognize that reason still has a tremendous field to conquer.
The disease can strike here, there and everywhere. And so it was an excellent thing that, reacting to the provocation, freethinkers and Muslims, gentiles and Jews, thousands and thousands of them, marched toward the Bastille, many of them wearing a yellow star to show they have not forgotten and will not allow history to repeat itself. It was also good that the same day all the French television channels showed Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog”), a fib about Nazi concentration camps. But what is at stake is not one procession, one mass or one joint service at a synagogue. This is a battle that is both daily and universal and, whatever may have happened to our dreams in the East, part of a broader struggle for a different kind of society.