Saturday 18 July 2009

French Feedom

France celebrated Bastille Day last week. This year commemorates the 220th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, which was the precursor to the first French Republic and freedom for the French people from the feudal system and the monarchy. But how free is the French Republic these days? Whilst everybody's view of freedom is slightly different, certain recent events have brought some of France's current problems into sharp focus.

The event that I wish to specifically refer to is the trial of the members of the "Barbarians" gang who murdered Ilan Halimi. Halimi was a Jewish cellphone salesman who was kidnapped, tortured over a period of 3 weeks, and was found dying beside a railway track in February 2006. In addition to a financial motive that was put forward for the crime, there was a clear anti-Semitic motive for the murder. Not only are many of the members of the Barbarians gang Muslim, a number of incidents reported from the trial (which was held behind closed doors) indicate a strong anti-Semitic motive. Unfortunately, many Gallic French do not subscribe to the fact that the trial has an anti-Semitic theme to it. Whilst they are generally abhorred by the evil nature of the behaviour by the gang and the crime committed, they seem to feel that jumping to an anti-Semitic conclusion is not justified. This may largely be as a result of the fact that the trial was forced behind closed doors due to the fact that some of the defendants were minors.

The gang leader, Youssouf Fofana, is a French national born to parents from the Ivory Coast. He is reported to have shouted during the trial that Halimi was murdered because he was Jewish. In addition, there were attempts to kidnap 8 others before Halimi was kidnapped. All 8 were Jewish. These facts seem to be more than simple coincidences. The fact that the trial verdict was passed down on a Friday evening after the start of the Jewish Sabbath, and thereby preventing many observant members of the Halimi family and the extended Jewish community from attending the only open session of the trial seems to lack sensitivity. But the action of the Barbarians Gang cannot be regarded in isolation from events that have been taking place in France over a number of years.

The number of Muslims in France is difficult to assess due to the fact that the French do not request to know the religion of their citizens in any national census. It is variously estimated at between 5% and 10% of the total population. Most of the Muslims originate from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, former French colonies. The French number a total of about 60 million, so this places the Muslims in France at between 3 and 6 million people. There are approximately half a million French Jews by comparison. French Jews have been feeling under increasing threat in recent years due to the Muslim threat. Whilst this is partially fuelled by events outside of France such as the 9/11 attacks in the USA and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, there has clearly been significantly increased tension within France itself. This tension has arisen as a result of a number of violent events aimed at degrading and threatening the Jewish population in France. This has contributed to more and more French Jews choosing to give up their comfortable lives in France and move to live in Israel. The number of French Jews arriving to live in Israel in 2006 was almost 2,500 and more than the combined total in the previous 5 years.

The election of Sarkozy as French President would appear to have slightly reversed the previously rising levels of anti-Semitism in France. The Halimi trial seems to reflect this to some degree. Whilst the gang leader was sentenced to life in prison with a minimum of 22 years behind bars without parole, other gang members seem to have escaped much more lightly. They were sentenced to a few months in prison, or suspended sentences. Immediately after the verdict and sentences were handed down, the French Justice Minister called the sentences too lenient for 14 of the 27 defendants and the office of the French prosecutor swiftly appealed to the Court of Appeals seeking longer sentences. It was announced last week that a retrial will take place for these 14 people.

The French have eagerly upheld their freedom over the past 220 years. Bastille Day is indeed a big occasion and celebration in France each year, and justifiably so. The nature of France's freedom seems, however, to be changing with the change in the mix of the population. Surely the freedom should not be exclusive to Gallic French or to Muslim French, but to all citizens of the republic including the Jews.

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