French President François Hollande met today with the heads of France's leading Jewish and Muslim organizations in an attempt to quell a public quarrel that erupted between the two men on Monday over a public statement that all violence against Jews is caused by Muslims.
The rift occurred hours before the two men were scheduled to sit down together at the annual dinner of the French Representative Council of Jewish Institutions (CRIF) — a 30-year-old tradition, which draws some of the country's top political and religious figures. The row began when CRIF President Roger Cukierman told the host of a popular morning radio show on Monday that "all [anti-Semitic] violence today is committed by young Muslims," before adding that, "Of course, it is a tiny minority of the Muslim community."
Cukierman was being asked about rising support among the French Jewish community for France's hard-right National Front (FN) party, which has traditionally been associated with old-school anti-Semitism — particularly through the incendiary comments of its former leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who in 1987 referred to the WWII gas chambers as "a mere detail of history" and has been convicted several times for racial hatred and anti-Semitism.
According to recent opinion polls, FN is expected to lead in the first round of forthcoming departmental elections — a rise in support that is largely credited to current party leader Marine Le Pen's efforts to mainstream her party and soften its often racist image.
Speaking on French radio station Europe 1 on Monday, Cukierman explained that only a "tiny minority" of French Jewish voters support the FN. The majority of the Jewish community, said Cukierman, is aware that "just behind Marine Le Pen, who is personally beyond reproach, lurk all the Holocaust deniers, and the supporters of the Vichy régime and of Pétain, and so, for us the National Front is a party to avoid."
When pushed by the host, Cukierman said that he, personally, "would never vote for the FN."
Later in the day, French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) President Dalil Boubakeur called the comments "unacceptable," and announced that he would boycott the CRIF's 30th annual dinner — which over the last few decades has become a symbolic event on the French political calendar.
Other Muslim leaders responded favorably to the invitation, such as Hassen Chalghoumi, the Imam of the Drancy mosque on the outskirts of Paris, who in 2010 stood out in support of the government's veil ban. Speaking to French daily Libération on Tuesday, Chalghoumi said that, "Considering what France is going through, now is not the time to argue. On the contrary, we need to learn to live together."
Chalghoumi also addressed Cukierman's controversial comments, pointing out that the teens who desecrated a Jewish cemetery and vandalized a monument to Holocaust victims in the rural town of Sarre-Union last week were not Muslim.
Hollande, who also attended Monday's dinner, echoed Chalghoumi's comments, describing the vandals as "so-called born and bred" French natives — an expression favored by the FN when referring to nationals with a non-immigrant background. Hollande's poor choice of words immediately stirred up controversy in the political sphere, with politicians from both sides of the spectrum taking to Twitter to denounce the faux-pas.
During his dinner speech, Hollande also announced plans to combat anti-Semitism and crack down on hate crimes, and said that, "Jews are at home in France — it's the anti-Semites who have no place in the Republic." He described anti-Semitism as a "plague," and alluded to its historical roots within "the French far-right."
Following a minute of silence for the victims of the January terror attacks that left 17 dead in Paris, Cukierman sought to appease the underlying tension caused by his earlier comments, declaring that, "Jews and Muslims, we are all in the same boat."
Cukierman also qualified his controversial remarks about Marine Le Pen — who was not on the guest list for the dinner — saying that the FN leader was neither "acceptable nor beyond reproach," unless she repudiated her father's comments. According to AFP, the CRIF president said that his organization would "continue not to invite Mrs. Le Pen to the CRIF dinner, and to advise [its members] not to vote for the National Front."
CRIF — a controversial organization
CRIF, which functions as an umbrella group for various French Jewish organizations, was founded in 1943, during WWII, in an effort to unify the various Jewish resistance movements. Its charter, which was ratified in 1944, describes the organization as "the interpreter of Judaism to the French government authorities" — a mission which puts it somewhat at odds with the guiding principles of French secular society.
Samuel Ghiles-Meilhac, a historian and sociologist who has written a book about the history of CRIF, told VICE News that CRIF's role as a representative organization is nothing short of "tricky," particularly considering France did away with "intermediary bodies" — groups and organizations that serve as go-betweens for individuals and the state — during the French revolution.
The CRIF, explained Ghiles-Meilhac, is the organization that "represents the most Jewish organizations, and the one that best represents the diversity" within these groups. However, he explained, the organization and its leaders — including Cukierman, who is known for his "strong opinions" — has a tendency to overshadow the diversity of opinions and agendas within its member organizations.
Because of France's core secular values, the political role of the CRIF has been subject to much debate over the years — a debate spurred on by conspiracy theorists and the French far right.
But according to Ghiles-Meilhac, the CRIF remains a secular outfit, despite its mission to "represent" the French Jewish community on the political stage. "Naturally, it is linked to Judaism as a religion, but it has no religious agenda," he told VICE News. "The CRIF dinner is a secular event, there is no prayer — it is a secular version of the Jewish political agenda."
While the two religious leaders have since agreed to resume dialogue, Cukierman will now have to appease French Jews who have been riled by his comments about Marine Le Pen. For Ghiles-Meilhac, the crux of the issue is that by describing Le Pen as "beyond reproach," the head of CRIF is "rubber-stamping" her, and saying "she is on the right side of history."