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The Uncivil Servant: Deflated France

Mitchell Abidor
March 12, 2016

by Mitchell Abidor

47eaf8606b8f2a1dadb5eaf609afb215AFTER TWO WEEKS traversing France working on a book on the events of May 1968, speaking to leftists both Jewish and non-, I took a while find the right word to describe the state of the country, but I think I’ve hit on it: deflated. The economic situation, the political situation, the ethnic situation (for want of a better word) are all pretty despairing. Although daily life goes on as normal, as soon as you start talking about bigger issues, a dark cloud settles overhead.

The Jews I spoke to were surprisingly unanimous when they talked about the outlook for Jews here. All of them — and all of them are on the far left — felt that the Jewish community in France was in no way under threat as a community, but that at the level of the individual, it’s quite a different matter. Pauline, a retired teacher in the immigrant suburbs, told me she had stopped wearing a Jewish star to school for fear of remarks or attacks. Virginie, the daughter of one of the most important figures of the French far left in the 1960s, told me that she forbade her daughter from wearing a star to school as well — and she added that Jews like us, secular, eschewing any outward signs of identity, had nothing to fear, but that the situation was quite other for those visibly Jewish.

When I spoke to Virginie, I brought up the paradox that while in the late 1890s there had been a mass anti-Semitic movement, with people elected to the Chamber of Deputies as representatives of the Anti-Semitic Party and sitting in an anti-Semitic faction in the Chamber, and while in 1898-1899 there were mass demonstrations all over the country against the “kikes” and attacks on Jewish businesses, there were never any deaths during this burst of anti-Jewish activity. Now, however, although there is no anti-Semitic movement, Jews have been attacked and even killed for being Jews.

Virginie rather harshly brought me up short, reminding me of attacks on synagogues during the Gaza invasion and of people chanting “Death to the Jews” at demonstration at the Bastille. She insisted it was “Death to the Jews” and not “Death to Israel,” and she was adamant that there was more of an anti-Semitic “movement” than I was acknowledging.

Similarly, Sonia Fayman, a humanitarian aid worker and spokesperson for a leftwing Jewish Palestinian solidarity group, correctly stressed that Islamophobia was a far greater problem. But when I again repeated my analysis and said that there were no equivalents to the anti-Semitic propagandists like Edouard Drumont of the Dreyfus years, she reminded me of the Jew-baiting comedian Dieudonné.

HOWEVER WARY and depressed these Jews were, everyone was even more so when I moved beyond the Jewish Question to discuss the political state of France. The revolutionary tradition has died a sad death, and one of the leading far-left parties, the Nouveau Parti Anticaptialiste, has a membership in only four figures. The constant — and justified — lament was that France has a leftwing government that is doing the job of the right, working actively to gut French social programs and labor laws. Though thousands demonstrated on March 9th against new laws that would, among other things, make it easier to fire workers (thus making France more competitive and modern), I saw no sign of it as I went to visit people on that day just a couple of kilometers away. As one person told me, they now hold “virtual demonstrations” -- the union delegates leave work to attend, and everyone else continues as usual...

The future is bleak because the past is fading. Meeting with a publisher, I asked him how it was that he knew a professor in provincial Rouen with whom I’ve worked. He explained that there are so few academics working in labor history that it would have been hard for him not to know my friend.

May ’68 is subject of regular attacks by those in power, as well as by former leaders and participants, as the cause for all of France’s ills. Some of the people I spoke to were Americans who had moved to France over fifty years ago, out of distaste for America and in admiration of France’s revolutionary tradition. The country they moved to is no more, however, and they live in a country that is in many ways “America lite.” (The creeping Americanization of the country has gone on for years, but on the metro I saw what I thought was the height of its absurdity: a man with an orientation package from his company, the cover of which, in a silly mix of English and French, said “Manuel de Front Office.” What “front office” can possibly mean to a Frenchman is beyond me.

The frustration, indeed the disgust of longtime leftists was best expressed by a woman I interviewed whose political life goes back to assisting the Algerian FLN in its war for independence, which they obtained in 1962. She’d been involved in every leftwing cause for over fifty years, but she’s had enough. She described her fellow citizens as “disgusting,” and is trying to move to China (whose language she doesn’t speak) because she finds the people there “nicer.”

The only people I saw who still had any hope for the French future were those whose theoretical foundations were so strong that they couldn’t be shaken by reality: “It’s a long-term fight,” was what they said. They didn’t expect to live to see a better day, but they were certain it was coming.

In the meanwhile every metro station has homeless people sleeping in it and every entrance has a beggar with his or her hand out. The state of emergency allows for arrest for almost anything the government deems threatening, and the values that really made France a light for the nations — not the mythical and empty “French values” preached by President Hollande, but the ideals of the French Revolution and its heirs of 1830, 1848, the Commune, 1936, and 1968 — have been buried. Their fall has been far steeper than ours, which makes it all the sadder.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new books are Voices of the Paris Commune and his collection of writings by and about the anarchist “propagandists of the deed,” Death to Bourgeois Society.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.