Beyond the Numbers Games: A Closer Look at the Statistics on Anti-Semitism and “Islamophobia” in France

by John Rosenthal

On 25 July, the French Ministry of the Interior announced a seemingly stunning success in the battle against anti-Semitism in France. According to Ministry statistics, anti-Semitic incidents in the first six months of 2005 had fallen by a whopping 48% by comparison with the same period the previous year. The announcement could not have come at a better time for the purposes of French diplomacy. Just one day later, Ariel Sharon would be received by Jacques Chirac at the Elysée Palace in a highly publicized state visit widely hailed as marking a turning point in recently turbulent Franco-Israeli relations – and thus opening the way to a more active role for France in Middle East politics.[1] Virtually all the news reports on the Sharon visit, both in the French and the English language media, took the opportunity to highlight the fall in anti-Semitic episodes. The BBC and the International Herald Tribune, for example, spoke of anti-Semitic incidents having fallen by “half” or “almost half”.[2] Mr. Sharon politely played along – he had, after all, been put on warning a year before that he would not be welcome in France so long as he continued to draw attention to France’s problems with anti-Semitism. In an official statement,[3] he praised Mr. Chirac for his “determined struggle against anti-Semitism”, and in an interview published in Le Monde on the day of his arrival he even went so far as to suggest that “what has been done in France can serve as an example for other European countries”.[4] The gist of this latter remark became part of the standard text in the rest of media. From hotbed of anti-Semitism, France had now become the “model” in the battle against it.

A Highly Relative “Success”

But if France had indeed undergone such a remarkable transformation, what was even more incredible was the speed with which it had happened: so incredible indeed that the claim is precisely not credible. On 21 March, only four months before Mr. Sharon’s visit to Paris, the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH), the official body charged with monitoring anti-Semitism and racism in France, published its annual report.[5] The tenor of the report was anything but reassuring. On the contrary, as was widely reported in the French media at the time, the members of the Commission had, in effect, sounded the alarm. The report spoke in bold letters of “exceptional and worrying levels [of anti-Semitism and racism]”[6] and of “manifestations of anti-Semitism and of racism and xenophobia at a level never before reached”[7] – that is to say, higher than the previous and much publicized peak of 2002. As has been the case since 2000, anti-Semitic incidents constituted more than half of all recorded incidents.

What follows is the CNCDH’s summary of its findings specifically as concerns anti-Semitism.[8] The source for the cited statistics is the Ministry of Interior.

Anti-Semitic acts increased by 61.4% in comparison to the previous year, reaching a level higher than the peak of 2002. In 2004, they constituted 62% of the total number of manifestations [of anti-Semitism and racism], whereas the percentage of the national population with Jewish origins is estimated to be 1%. It should be noted that in 2003, anti-Semitic acts constituted 72% of the total.
The gravity of anti-Semitic violence is increasing, with 117 physical attacks of which in 53 cases the targets were minors.
Anti-Semitic and revisionist threats[9] also increased, going from 474 in 2003 to 750 in 2004, the highest level in the last decade.

The Ministry of the Interior reported 133 anti-Semitic incidents in the schools, or, in other words, 14% of the total, and the gravity of such incidents also increased, with 43 involving violence. There were 47 such incidents in the schools in 2003, thus their number has tripled.

The police estimate that the part played by milieus of Arab-Muslim origins [sic.] in this anti-Semitic violence constitutes 26.8% (260).[10]

Speaking globally, if over the course of the last years a correlation could be noted between anti-Semitic outbreaks and developments in the international arena, in 2004 this same schema seems not to have been reproduced. The month by month evolution of anti-Semitism does not show peaks corresponding to major events in the Middle East, as was the case in the previous years. This observation seems only to indicate that the perpetrators of the anti-Semitic acts seem to be less reactive to current events. But the cause for concern is no less great, since one can deduce from this that anti-Semitism has become established at a high level in a continuous and durable way.

The only seemingly “positive” development to which the commission could draw attention in its summary was the fact that the amount of anti-Semitic incidents as a percentage of all racist incidents had fallen somewhat from 2003 to 2004, i.e. because in absolute terms the number of other sorts of racist acts had risen even more dramatically. As we will see momentarily, this statistical detail – of even greater ideological interest in the current political climate, since the majority of the targets of the other reported incidents were Muslims – would be seized upon to relativize the importance of the problem of anti-Semitism. A closer look, however, will reveal the true significance of the detail to be quite different from what it appears on first glance.

The Interior Ministry statistics surveyed in the 2004 CNCDH report are needed to put in perspective the allegedly spectacular decline in anti-Semitic incidents successfully touted by the French government on the occasion of Ariel Sharon’s July visit to Paris. A fall by “almost half” in anti-Semitic episodes in the first half of 2005 is certainly an impressive figure – unless, that is, one knows that such episodes had almost doubled in the same period the previous year, i.e. by comparison to the already alarmingly high levels registered in the first semester of 2003. 562 anti-Semitic incidents were recorded by the Interior Ministry for just the first six months of 2004 as compared to some 308 for the first six months of 2003.[11] Violent episodes more than doubled, from some 67 to 148. By the second half of 2004, these numbers were already again on the decline.

Most English-speaking observers, however, will precisely have had no idea about the spike in anti-Semitic incidents in France in 2004 and, more specifically and most spectacularly, in the first semester of 2004: the very period that was conveniently used by French authorities as the basis for the comparative statistic it filtered to the media in July. This is because the same media that dutifully parroted this statistic in virtually every report on the Sharon visit had massively downplayed or even outright ignored the dire prognosis of the CNCDH four months before. The International Herald Tribune, for example, dedicated all of 71 words to the findings of the nearly 500 page report.[12] The home market version, i.e. the New York Times, managed to tack on another dozen or so.[13] A Factiva search for BBC’s English-language service turns up nothing at all.

It needs to be stressed in this connection that the concrete measures taken by French authorities in the name of combating anti-Semitism were in place already before 2004 or, at the latest, by early 2004. Thus, the “Lellouche Law” classifying crimes with anti-Semitic motives as, in effect, “hate crimes”, and thus making them liable to more severe penalties, was passed in February 2003. The designation of so-called “referring magistrates” attached to the public prosecutors’ offices, and tasked with “on the one hand, maintaining relations with the Jewish community and the associations engaged in the struggle against racism and anti-Semitism and, on the other, monitoring the coherence of the penal response”,[14] dates from January 2004. In marked contrast, however, with Ariel Sharon’s glowing and much-publicized assessment of France’s “model” struggle against anti-Semitism, on the assessment of the CNCDH, the official organism charged with monitoring said “struggle”, the efficacy of these measures had proven “feeble”.

Referring now to statistics compiled by the French Ministry of Justice, the CNCDH report notes:

Of some 387 reported cases, there were 92 arrests, including 71 of minors…. Of these 92, 68 cases were prosecuted, 12 of which resulted in convictions. It follows that 319 cases were not the object of criminal prosecutions, either because the perpetrator could not be identified (219) or because the cases were dismissed…

Thus, despite comprehensive French legislation, a heightened sensibility of the prosecutors’ offices and particularly of the referring magistrates, the formation of work groups and the improvement of public information, the “return” on repressive measures was feeble in 2004.[15]

Of the 387 cases of grave anti-Semitic crimes reported by the Ministry of Justice, comprising attacks on persons (95), attacks on property (210), and disturbances of public order (82), in only 12 cases – comprising just 3% of the total – was the perpetrator apprehended and convicted. How could repressive measures the efficacy of which the CNCDH judged “feeble” in March have become “exemplary” by July?

France: a Hotbed of Anti-Semitism… and “Islamophobia”?

To the degree, moreover, that English-language media took notice of the CNCDH report at all, the emphasis was placed not on the rise in anti-Semitism but rather on a supposed global increase in racism in France, in the context of which acts targeting “North African Arabs” or “Muslims” appeared now to have a place roughly equivalent to that occupied by acts targeting Jews. Thus, the Times “brief” notes,

The number of hate crimes, most notably against Jews and against Arabs of North African origin, nearly doubled last year, to 1,565, from 833 a year earlier, according to a report to the government by the National Consultative Commission for Human Rights….Acts against people of North African origin totaled 595 in 2004, up from 232 in 2003.

In a similar vein, the headline in the Guardian, one of the few English-language media outlets to give somewhat more prominent coverage to the CNCDH report, blared: “Attacks on Jews and Muslims Soar in France”.[16] The Guardian summarized the CNCDH findings as follows:

The report said anti-semitic acts represented more than 60% of all the incidents recorded: 970 compared with 601 in 2003, mostly committed by people “of Arab-Muslim origin”. But threats and attacks against Muslims, mostly committed by far-right supporters, also more than doubled to 595 last year, compared with 232 in 2003.

Note the “but…also” in the Guardian article, which eagerly and overtly serves to relativize the importance of “Arab-Muslim” anti-Semitism in France – i.e. inasmuch as Muslims have themselves “but…also” been the objects of attacks and threats.

For years now, French Islamists and their “leftist” fellow-travelers have perfected a similar ideological move: fending off the charge of rampant ant-Semitism in France by seeking to thematize an allegedly equally, if not indeed more, rampant, “Islamophobia”. And since, after all, French anti-Semitism and, more particularly, French Muslim anti-Semitism was supposed to be in large measure just an “understandable” response to Israeli “occupation” of Gaza and the West Bank, it followed that the more fundamental problem – in France as in Israel – was “Islamophobia”. In early 2002, the French philosopher and intellectual historian Pierre-André Taguieff published an influential and, as it would turn out, prescient book on what he called “The New Judeophobia”.[17] It took barely a year and a half before Taguieff’s colleague at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) Vincent Gessier had responded with a book on “The New Islamophobia”.[18]

But although the French left’s “Islamophobia” thesis would be predictably echoed by sympathetic foreign media like the New York Times or the Guardian, the problem with the rough equivalence it postulated was that such equivalence was simply not borne out by the statistical data. In 2002, for instance, acts of violence against Jews outnumbered acts of violence against North Africans or person of North African origins by a ratio of nearly 3 to 1 (193 to 74), even though French Jews represented a population group approximately six times less numerous. Moreover, most of the “anti-Arab” violence was limited to the small island of Corsica, where the hostility of Corsican nationalist militants to Arab immigrants is both well known and overt.[19] The Corsican nationalist militants are, however, hostile to all perceived “non-indigenous” groups – including, of course, the continental French “colonizers” – and their proneness to use violence against all “non-indigenous” persons (and, above all, the property of the latter) is likewise hardly in need of elaborate demonstration: it is openly avowed and brazen. If one abstracts from the anomalous case of Corsica, the ratio of anti-Jewish violence to “anti-Arab” violence for 2002 rises to nearly 7 to 1 (193 to 29).[20]

Had, then, the statistically unfounded postulate of a rough equivalence between the expressions of anti-Semitism and those of “Islamophobia” now in 2004 suddenly found a statistical foundation – so to say, “ex post”? Had France now become not only a hotbed of anti-Semitism, but also of “Islamophobia”? On closer inspection of the 2004 statistics, it is possible to give an unequivocal answer to these questions: no. The statistics from the CNCDH report cited by the English-language media were both quite simply cited inaccurately and cited in such a partial fashion that even if they had been cited accurately, they would have been misleading. More disturbingly, an inspection of the concrete cases comprising the Ministry of Interior statistics suggests that the criteria employed for including an incident as “anti-Arab” were incommensurate with those employed for including one as “anti-Jewish”: that, in effect, the evidentiary threshold that had to be crossed in the former cases was lower than that which had to be crossed in the latter.

A Closer Look at the Comparative Statistics

Let us start with the simple inaccuracy. The Ministry of Interior statistic of 595 cases cited by the Times as referring to “acts against people of North African origin” and by the Guardian as referring to “threats and attacks against Muslims” in fact refers neither to the one nor to the other. It refers to all racist or xenophobic incidents, both violent acts and “threats” (such, for instance, as the painting of racist graffitis), that were not directed against Jews. In other words, it also includes, say, threats or attacks against persons of sub-Saharan African descent or, for that matter, threats or attacks against non-French Europeans. The list of the “most serious” racist or xenophobic episodes included in Appendix 1 of the CNCDH report notes, for example, at 10 May the assault “of three young Germans staying in a school [in Lempdes] as part of a scholastic exchange”.[21] Unlike the Guardian, moreover, the CNCDH seems to distinguish between manifestations of anti-Arab racism as such, which has a long history in France pre-dating more recent pre-occupations with Islam, and violence that can be attributed a specifically “anti-Muslim” motive. Thus, the CNCDH notes that of the 525 racist (i.e. but not anti-Semitic) incidents included in the Ministry of Interior statistics some 123 – or 21% – can be regarded as “strictly ‘Islamophobe’”.[22] This is a far cry from the 525 – i.e. all the incidents – described as “anti-Muslim” by the Guardian. Some 433 incidents are classified by the CNCDH report as being more generally directed against North African Arabs or persons of North African descent – not the entire 595 put in this category by the New York Times.

As for the violent incidents, i.e. the violent “acts” as opposed to the mere “threats”, the Ministry of Interior statistics show some 75.5% to have been directed against North African Arabs or persons of North African descent. This corresponds to a total of some 131 incidents: a figure which in itself is indeed comparable to the figure of some 200 incidents of anti-Jewish violence. However, as in previous years, a wildly disproportionate part of the anti-Arab violence – 60 of the national total of 131 cases – occurred just in Corsica.

This does mean that for the first time since 2001, the number of incidents of anti-Arab violence in continental France exceeded that of anti-Arab violence in Corsica. However, the leap in recorded incidents of racist (i.e. and not anti-Semitic) violence in the “Hexagon” is in turn in large measure the product of just one region, which, like Corsica, is represented in the statistics in numbers wildly disproportionate to its part in the national population. Moreover, and again like Corsica, this region constitutes a very special case. The region in question is, namely, Alsace. I say that Alsace represents a very special case, because the perpetrators of the violence, as several well documented cases demonstrate, are typically members of neo-Nazi cells, who, like the Corsican nationalist groups, are at least as much “anti-French” as they are “anti-Arab”. The Alsatian neo-Nazis are, more precisely, Germano-maniacs and partisans of the reintegration of Alsace into a re-constituted German Reich. In the tradition of their Nazi forefathers, moreover, they are admirers of pagan ritual and hostile to all modern monotheistic religions. Hence, they are as prone to desecrate, say, Jewish cemeteries or indeed Christian ones, as they are to desecrate Muslim cemeteries.[23]

The CNCDH report does not break down the incidents of racist violence in Alsace into “anti-Arab” incidents and other incidents, as it does for Corsica and continental France as a whole. However, if one abstracts from the two highly anomalous cases of Corsica and Alsace, the total number of incidents of racist violence falls to some 67, as opposed to 192 incidents of anti-Jewish violence.

Moreover, even this figure of 67 incidents of racist violence – of which some part is constituted by specifically anti-Arab violence – seems to have been artificially inflated by the conventions adopted by the Ministry of the Interior in gathering the statistics. Thus, the list of incidents of “racist and xenophobic violence” appended to the CNCDH report[24] – and which bears the parenthetical subtitle “a non-exhaustive list of the most serious incidents” – includes numerous episodes whose “seriousness” and violence is highly openly to question. The entry for 19 January, for example, refers to a “provocative degradation” of a mosque carried out by “throwing two bottles of wine against the walls of the building”. That for 15 February refers to the “degradation of the roof of a building serving as a mosque”, of which “a tile was broken by a thrown stone”. Furthermore, the connection between the acts reported and some supposedly racist or specifically anti-Arab motive of the perpetrators is frequently a matter of pure ascription. Acts of vandalism against personal property (for instance, automobiles) or assaults are seemingly assumed to constitute racist episodes simply by virtue of the identity of the victim.

In certain cases, it is indeed quite clear that unilateral “Islamophobia” or anti-Arab racism was not the motive. Thus, for example, the list includes an assault against “a young man of North African origins” in Villeurbanne on 15 May. Under “operative mode”, it explains that the young man was “hit by young Israelites [sic.] who believe that they recognize him as one of the persons who assaulted them the day before in front of the Gratte-Ciel junior high school.” These “young Israelites”, by the way, are apparently classified in the aggregate statistics on the perpetrators of racist violence as “ultra-Zionists”.[25]

Now, by contrast, the corresponding list of incidents of violence against Jews and Jewish institutions[26] consists of episodes almost always involving clearly symbolic property of Jewish religious communities (synagogues or cemeteries) or, in the case of attacks against persons, accompanied by overtly anti-Semitic expressions making the “state of mind” of the perpetrators unmistakable. This second list, like the first, also includes certain incidents the seriousness of which can be doubted. Nonetheless, on the whole, the listed physical attacks on Jews reflect a level of extreme violence and perverse cruelty that is largely absent from the recorded racist or anti-Arab attacks.

Casual observers dependent on the established media for their information might be excused, however, for expecting that exactly the opposite would be the case. Thus, the single case of reported racist violence that received the greatest attention in the media was that of the so-called “Phinéas” assailant, who is supposed to have assaulted a man of North African descent “with an ax” (as, for instance, the New York Times reported on 17 August). It was, above all, this startling phrase “with an ax” that most readers of both the French and English-language media will no doubt have retained from the episode. In fact, when Michael Tronchon, alias “Phinéas”, turned up uninvited at a Parisian police station on 14 August, he proudly announced that he had been responsible for two such attacks, one in Villeurbanne and one in Paris, as well as for the desecration of a Jewish cemetery. An article in the 20 August edition of Libération relates further details, as provided by the Parisian police, about the second of the attacks and, more particularly about the “ax” used in it, here described rather as a “hatchet”.

Having cost “between 3 and 4 euros”, according to a police investigator, the hatchet, similar to the two Phinéas had bought in Lyon, is typically used for cutting small pieces of wood [i.e. kindling – JR] when camping.  “Very small pieces of wood,” a police officer specifies, “It’s junk.”

The Libération article notes that the Parisian victim of “Phinéas” came away from the incident “with a big bump on the head” and cuts on his face apparently incurred from falling.

On the other hand, it is a troubling oddity of the 2004 media coverage of French anti-Semitism that virtually the only episode of reported violence to receive wide and sustained coverage, both in France and abroad, was the alleged July assault in the Parisian metro of a young mother: viz. the “mythomaniac” Marie-Leonie Leblanc who quickly admitted – in a development that, needless to say, was at least as widely publicized – to having made the whole thing up. The “weapon” in the fictive Leblanc “assault” was a felt-tipped pen – Ms. Leblanc had used it to draw swastikas on her body. She also claimed to have had her clothes cut off and that her baby’s carriage was jostled. The many documented attacks of an uncommon brutality with which the CNCDH list of anti-Jewish incidents is populated were as a rule ignored by the media.

To illustrate my claim about the brutality of these attacks and to correct the false impression created by the oddly selective media coverage, I conclude by citing some of these incidents here.

  • 16 January, Saint Cloud: “Assault of a high school student….An attempt to set the victim’s shirt on fire – recurrent anti-Semitic insults and threats.”
  • 4 May, Metz: “Assault of two brothers leaving a soccer match, accompanied by anti-Semitic remarks. Beaten with iron bars by two young men of North African origin. The violence is repeated at the emergency room, against both the victim and his brother, as well as a nurse who tries to intercede.”
  • 4 June, Epinay-sur-Seine: “Attempted homicide against an Israelite student. The victim is stabbed.”
  • 21 June, Colombes: “Gang rape of a young woman of the Israelite faith…, accompanied by anti-Semitic insults and acts of humiliation. Anti-Semitic insults by two persons of North African origin when they see the Star of David worn by the victim on a necklace.”
  • 29 June, Paris: “Armed violence against junior high school students returning from a Jewish school. By several individuals who emerge from a vehicle. One of the victims, beaten with a stick, loses consciousness.”
  • 30 June, Saint-Dizier: “Attack against a seventy-year-old woman of the Jewish faith. Fruits thrown at the victim and obscene remarks punctuated by slogans praising Bin Laden by four young persons of North African origin.”
  • 13 November, Paris: “Violence, sexual harassment and anti-Semitic insults against a young girl in the Laumière metro station. The victim is hit repeatedly by two minors of North African and African origin who threaten to kill her. Anti-Semitic remarks and references to Hitler”.

John Rosenthal is the editor of Transatlantic Intelligencer. He previously examined the statistical evidence on anti-Semitism in France in his 2003 essay for Policy Review magazine “Anti-Semitism and Ethnicity in Europe”.

© 2005 Transatlantic Intelligencer. All Rights Reserved.

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NOTES

[1] See John Rosenthal, “Franco-Israeli Détente?”, Tech Central Station (http://www.techcentralstation.be/081205A.html).

[2] “Sharon Arrives in Paris for Talks”, BBC, July 26, 2005; “Sharon’s France visit shows ‘New Openness’”, July 27, 2005, International Herald Tribune. It is interesting to note that when French Foreign Minister Phillipe Douste-Blazy gave a talk before the American Jewish Committee on September 18, he now spoke of anti-Semitic incidents having fallen in France by “nearly 50%” for just the first quarter of 2005. (Douste-Blazy’s speech is consultable at http://www.ambafrance-us.org/news/statmnts/2005/blazy_jewish_dinner091805.asp.) Is it the first half, as was generally reported in July, or the first quarter? And if just the first quarter, what happened in the second quarter? Since the statistics are only published after the end of the year, for the moment we cannot know.

[3] See http://www.mfa.gov.il/(…)ent+Chirac+27-Jul-2005.htm.

[4] « Nous sommes confrontés à la pire des haines », Interview with Ariel Sharon, Le Monde, July 26, 2005.

[5] La Lutte contre le racisme et la xénophobie 2004, Rapport de la Commission Nationale Consultative des Droits de l’Homme. Hereafter cited as “CNCDH 2004 report”. The full report is consultable as a pdf file at http://lesrapports.(…)00.pdf.

[6] CNCDH 2004 report, p. 7.

[7] CNCDH 2004 report, p. 9.

[8] CNCDH 2004 report, pp. 9-10.

[9] The Interior Ministry statistics distinguish between violent acts (against both persons and property) and “threats”. Holocaust denial is ranged among the anti-Semitic “threats”. 19 cases are included in the 2004 statistics. See CNCDH 2004 report, p. 55. – Author’s Note.

[10] The exact meaning of this statistic is unclear, since in the majority of cases no suspect was identified. However, it is worth pointing out that of the 209 suspects arrested in connection with anti-Semitic incidents, in fact just less than half (104) came from “Arab-Muslim” milieus. Thirteen are classified by the police statistics as belonging to the “extreme right”, by which presumably neo-Nazi groups are meant. Fully 92 of the identified suspects are thus neither from the “extreme right” nor from “Arab-Muslim” milieus. See CNCDH report, p. 22.

[11] Monthly Charts, CNCDH report, pp. 329-330.

[12] “Racist acts in France reported to double”, International Herald Tribune, March 23, 2005.

[13] “France: Hate-Crimes Double”, New York Times, March 22, 2005.

[14] CNCDH 2004 report, p. 148.

[15] CNCDH 2004 report, p. 12.

[16] The Guardian, March 22, 2005.

[17] La Nouvelle Judéophobie (Mille et une nuits, 2002).

[18] La Nouvelle Islamophobie (La Decouverte, 2003). It is not without relevance that Gessier’s “Islamophobia” book is, however, considerably shorter than Taguieff’s highly-documented volume.

[19] See John Rosenthal, “Anti-Semitism and Ethnicity in Europe”, Policy Review, October/November 2003, p. 37. (Consultable at http://www.policyreview.(…)rosenthal.html.)

[20] La Lutte contre le racisme et la xénophobie 2002, Rapport de la Commission Nationale Consultative des Droits de l’Homme.

[21] CNCDH 2004 report, p. 319.

[22] CNCDH 2004 report, p. 35.

[23] CF. CNCDH 2004 report, p. 8.

[24] CNCDH 2004 report, p. 316 ff.

[25] See CNCDH 2004 report, p. 34.

[26] CNCDH 2004 report, p. 331 ff.