After all the howls of outrage, there was no sigh of relief when the truth came out. First, a 23-year-old woman named Marie Leblanc riveted France with a horrific tale: six ethnic-Arab and black youths had attacked her on a train near Paris, she claimed on July 9, because they took her for a Jew. They lacerated her skin, shredded her clothes, hacked off her hair, drew swastikas on her body and manhandled her 13-month-old baby while fellow passengers looked away. Appalled, President Jacques Chirac denounced the "anti-Semitic aggression this young woman and her baby were victims of," and demanded its authors be "tried and convicted with all the severity merited."
But the details of Leblanc's story could not be verified, and by July 13 she admitted it was all a hoax. No one felt vindicated, however, for the simple reason that the tale had been completely credible France today is a place where such acts of anti-Semitism and racism are commonplace. "If reaction was so intense, it's because people unfortunately know that such a horrific scenario is plausible," says Yonathan Arfi, president of the Union of French Jewish Students. France's hate-crime wave extends far beyond a single well-publicized case. "Whether this is the 10th or 20th assault of its kind changes nothing," says former Socialist Economy and Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn. "We have a real problem."
At least the denial stage is now over. For years, officials downplayed the problem of ethnic assaults in France. But the pace of attacks has now escalated to record levels. France's National Consultative Commission of Human Rights (N.C.C.H.R.) reported 766 anti-Semitic and racist threats and attacks during the first six months of 2004 almost as many as the 817 recorded in all of last year. Most of the 2004 incidents targeted Jews, who by the end of June had suffered 510 cases of physical assault, vandalism or threats (versus a total of 588 in 2003). But hate crimes against ethnic Arabs are also soaring. The N.C.C.H.R. shows attacks and threats to Arabs rising from 164 in 2003 to 256 for the first six months of 2004 about double the recent annual average. "The explosion of racist and anti-Semitic acts in our nation is a reality we mustn't try to hide," government spokesman Jean-François Copé said last week. "It's a reality we must fight."
To do so, France must gain a better understanding of who the victims and perpetrators of these attacks are. Statistics show that since 2000, France's 650,000-strong Jewish community has been the primary target. While neo-Nazis used to get most of the blame, experts say most are now the work of disadvantaged ethnic-Arab youths from France's socially and economically [an error occurred while processing this directive] blighted banlieues. A recent confidential report leaked by France's police intelligence unit estimates that more than 2 million French people now live in 300 of the most dire of these urban ghettos cut off from mainstream society and beset by domestic violence and religious extremism. This potent mix of economic and social deprivation, combined with unfolding events the Palestinian intifadeh, the Iraq war and perceived stigmatization of Muslims in the war on terror has led some young people to channel their anger into outright anti-Semitism. "The perpetrators of anti-Semitic attacks that have been caught have usually been lone petty thugs or informal groups of delinquents," says Gérard Fellous, secretary-general of the N.C.C.H.R. "So far, there's been no sign of membership or organization by extremist political or Islamist groups."
That absence of an organized link is of little comfort to Jewish leaders. They say French reluctance to denounce anti-Semitism explains why attacks on Jews far outnumber those on France's 5 million Muslims. But Muslim leaders counter that the assumption that French Arabs are behind the rise of anti-Semitism an idea Leblanc's fictive assault was built upon is itself a sign of racism. "Anti-Semitism is extremely serious, but when it's discussed today, it's Muslims who fall under suspicion," protests Kamel Kabtane, president of the Rhône-Alps Regional Muslim Council. "Rampant Islamophobia now in France leads everyone to blame the Muslim community." Michel Wieviorka, director of the Center for Sociological Analysis and Intervention, a research lab in Paris, agrees that non-Jews suffer less dramatic but more common discrimination, encountering "overt racism as well as daily prejudice. Acts of discrimination from being rejected entry to a disco to being passed over for a job are so common they aren't even reported," Wieviorka says.
Crimes that are reported and draw media attention are often on a par with some of the worst anti-Semitic attacks. Mosques as well as synagogues have repeatedly been wrecked by arson; Muslim and Jewish cemeteries have become favored sites for neo-Nazi desecration. "Whereas those taking responsibility for anti-Arab attacks previously spoke of punishing 'immigrants,' since 9/11 they claim to be battling the Arab jihad," says one police official. Public opinion may finally be edging toward zero tolerance for such attacks. But Wieviorka says a fundamental problem remains: "France insists all differences of cultural, communal and religious identity be banished from the public place. But differences are out there. We must accept and live with them." Until then France may be forced to witness more attacks on trains either real or imagined.