Monday, June 23, 2014
It’s sad when one has to admit being embarrassed by one’s country of birth.
Normally, I’m almost stupidly proud of France. I defend the place and its inhabitants whenever detractors--and there are many--surface, and I’m pretty good at justifying French politics, even if they’re a mystery to the non-Gallic. I can cite a long history of intellectual brilliance, and I have at my disposal a veritable Yellow Pages of people who have influenced modern thinking, from Molière and Sartre to Edith Piaf and the Baron Bic (yes, the inventor of the disposable pen and lighter, and the windsurfer.) Recently, though, I’ve hit a wall. It shames me that the nation I truly love is quickly regressing and becoming, once again, openly anti-Semitic.
There’s always been a wide streak of anti-Semitism in Europe, dating back thousands of years. The Germans made it their business to eliminate all Jews. The Swiss helped, though they’ll deny it. The Brits pretend to be more civilized, though it’s often simply that they’re more discreet. The Spaniards invented the Inquisition, and the Italians created the openly anti-Jewish papacy. The Poles, Hungarians, Russians and other East Europeans have been no better.
In France in 1894, there was the Dreyfus affair, which split the country, and my family. My great-grandfather was convinced the Jewish Army captain was indeed guilty of treason, and when Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as a major, Great Grand Dad (Arrière Grand-Père) took to his bed for weeks and even forsook visiting his mistress.
During World War II, the defeatist Vichy government covertly assisted the Nazis in arresting and sequestering Jews. In recent times, the French have had to come to terms with a streak of historical denial that for decades averred that yes, we did apprehend the Jews, but we never shipped them to death camps. That turned out to be a horrendous lie. The government’s admission of a whole other truth barely a decade ago shook the French and ignited a debate on France’s role in the making of the Holocaust. The dispute still rages.
In 1972, Jean-Marie Le Pen, then a largely unknown French politician, created the highly protectionist National Front party which would eventually revive a misguided sense of French chauvinism, as well as an anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic polemic. Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, took over the National Front and is now its leader, while her father became a member of the European Parliament, to which he was re-elected six times by his followers. The National Front has made inroads and though it is now in decline in France proper, it received 4,712,461 votes in the 2014 European Parliament elections, finishing first with 24.86% of the vote and 24 of France's 74 seats. It was the first time the anti-immigrant, anti-EU party had won a nationwide election in its four-decade history. The party's success came as a shock in France and the EU and many politicians announced their concerns about the results. Germany's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, described the National Front as “fascist” and “extremist.”
In the wake of this success, the anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant movements in France have once again blossomed, partially fostered by Dieudonné M’bala M’bala.
Dieudonné (aptly named, God-given) is a Franco-African comedian who once campaigned against racism in France. About a decade ago his politics changed radically and he approached Jean-Marie Le Pen. The two became political allies and friends and Dieudonné described Holocaust remembrance as “memorial pornography.” He was convicted in court eight times on anti-Semitism charges and though often banned from mainstream media, he has become an internet sensation. A quasi-Nazi salute he invented where the arm is pointed downward rather than up, became notorious in 2013 and is now employed by every social misfit in the country.
All this astounds me, concerns me, scares me. That my birth-country has such a short memory is truly disturbing. That it would adopt an openly ultra-right wing spokesperson such as Dieudonné astounds me. Truly, I don’t know what to think.