PARIS — Four years ago, a heartbroken Bernard-Henri Lévy found solace in more than a million Frenchmen marching through the city to protest extremism.
The march took place on Jan. 11, 2015, amid national mourning after Islamists gunned down 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo magazine and, two days later, four people at the kosher HyperCacher market.
The march was “something we have never seen before in France, and perhaps anywhere,” Lévy, a Jewish philosopher and author, said at the time. “It’s a kind of miracle, this national unity, this feeling of fraternity, this willingness by Parisians to go down to the street.”
He hoped it would be a watershed moment for French society, he told JTA four years on.
Change “alas did not come” and the march’s “spirit and promise have been betrayed,” he said. What started in the fall as protests against fuel prices has been mired in violence against police and anti-Semitic hate speech.
“Instead of a million people in the street, today we have thousands of homophobes, xenophobes who are anti-republican, anti-journalist and sometimes anti-Semitic. For these demonstrators, it’s as if the bloodbaths never happened,” said Lévy.
Anti-Semitic incidents during protests by Yellow Vests, named for their reflective safety vests, have included signs and slogans describing French President Emmanuel Macron as a “whore of the Jews.” There have been many cases of protesters performing the quasi-Nazi quenelle salute, created by comic Dieudonné M’bala M’bala.
Dieudonné, a Holocaust denier who has been convicted of hate speech, now delivers his weekly hate sermons online while wearing a yellow vest.
These cases, as well as anti-Semitic graffiti and chants, are on the “margins” of the Yellow Vests movement, according to the National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism. But nonetheless they have been a feature of the movement since its inception, the bureau’s founder, Sammy Ghozlan, told JTA.
“According to all the indicators at our disposal, the prevalence of anti-Semitism in French society has only gotten worse since 2015,” said Roger Cukierman, a former president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities.
Violence against police, meanwhile, has become a hallmark of Yellow Vests protests. Hundreds of police officers have been wounded in confrontations, nearly 50 on Dec. 1 alone.
That Saturday, multiple cars were set ablaze in the Champs Élysées area. On Dec. 11, several officers were wounded in confrontations that turned streets into war zones. Some protesters flung paint on police, causing eye injuries. In response, police used water cannons.
Attacks on police are particularly troubling to French Jews, who for the past 15 years have depended on security forces for the protection of their schools, neighborhoods and synagogues.
But the emergence of anti-Semitism as a characteristic of the protests is more terrifying, Lolita Semama, who lives opposite the HyperCacher market, told JTA at the fourth annual commemoration of the killings there. About 300 people attended the ceremony, most of them Jewish. Candles were lit for the victims.
The official ceremony ended with the singing of “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem. Then, in a defiant move, rank-and-file participants began singing “Hatikvah.”
“We’re used to anti-Semitism showing itself in discussion and protests about Israel,” Semama said. “But this Yellow Vests business shouldn’t have anything to do with Jews. It shows that anti-Semitism is just below the surface, ready to spill out at any disturbance, to blame the Jews.”
More broadly, Lévy said, the protests have exposed the polarization in French society. In the 2017 presidential elections, Macron, an independent centrist, defeated establishment candidates from the Republican and Socialist parties. A self-professed globalist running on a platform of economic reform, Macron’s popularity galvanized opponents on the far right and the far left. Marine Le Pen of the anti-immigrant National Front party progressed to the second round, winning a record 33.9 percent. Jean-Luc Melenchon, an anti-Israel lawmaker from the far-left Unbowed France, won 19.5 percent in the first round.
It was the first time in post-World War II French history that half the voters chose far-left or far-right candidates. Many French celebrated Macron’s election as a triumph over extremism.
“But did you think the extremists would give up?” Lévy asked. “No, they were plotting their revenge. And the Yellow Vests movement is it. This is why there is such xenophobia, racism and also anti-Semitism in its midst, because it’s a collection of extremists.”
French Jews overwhelmingly voted for Macron. They credit him with keeping up security around potential Jewish targets, a policy begun under his Socialist predecessor, Francois Hollande. Macron is the first French president to declare anti-Zionism a form of anti-Semitism, provoking protests by the far right and the far left.
“The government provides security and encouragement for the Jewish community, but the government and police can only do so much,” said Frank Semama, Lolita’s husband. “They can’t be everywhere. Sadly, our problem is with parts of French society, not its government.”
There is ample evidence of the presence of far-right agitators in the Yellow Vests movement, including neo-Nazi activist Hervé Ryssen. Remarkably, they protest shoulder to shoulder with far-left supporters in a movement that has no coherent political strategy. Yellow Vests rallies feature calls to reduce taxes, bring down the government and even stage a revolution.
Despite the prevalence of extremism, the movement still has the backing of some centrists, including Marianne Esquit, a middle-aged supporter of the small Solidarity and Progress party.
“I abhor the violence and racism, but globalization has ravaged the countryside,” Esquit said. “I understand this rejection of the heartless corporate agenda of Macron. It comes from a place of great pain.”
Back at the HyperCacher commemoration, Frank Semama points at his kippah and speaks of his pain living as a Jew “in a country and city that has whole areas where I can’t go.”
The bloodbath at the market was a “trauma” that scarred his family, he said: Lolita had left the store 10 minutes before the killings started.
But French society, he said, seems indifferent.
“Look at this crowd,” he said. “There are 300 Jews here, and that’s it. Sadly, we’re so isolated that we have come to think of this as normal.”