French heroes (Paris Pages Feb.2007)
It was a country in tints
of greys and browns and blacks, a country still marked by the
ravages of war. Its buildings were dilapidated and many French
men, women, and children crowded together in makeshift housing
or slept in the streets. To add to the general misery, the winter
of 1954 was the coldest on record.
|The most loved French
|| It was 1954 and France was not the modern, gleaming
country it is now.
On one of those bleak and brutal
winter days a strong young voice, a voice filled with conviction
and a sense of urgency, floated out on the airwaves.
" Mes amis, au secours
! ( My friends, Help ! ) " , the voice appealed,
in a phrase that has since become famous. "Last night at
3 a.m. a woman died, frozen, on the Boulevard Sebastapol, clutching
in her hand the paper telling her she had been expelled from
her lodging. "
Listeners literally stopped in
their tracks, struck by the sincerity and the urgent nature of
the call for help. The rich in their limousines and the poor
in their rags flocked to the site designated for the collection
of whatever they had to offer : money, blankets, food. It was
the largest " insurrection of goodness " France had
ever seen, an enormous outpouring of generosity and solidarity.
The appeal was made in the name
of the Emmaüs movement which now has 41 communities all
over the world. The purpose of the association : recuperate and
refurbish used furniture and clothes to be sold at a low price
by " companions " who otherwise would have been sleeping
in the streets. The money collected is used to fund housing for
Behind the 1954 plea for help
was the founder of Emmaüs, a Roman Catholic priest called
born Henri Grouès to a pious and well-to-do Catholic family
in Lyons. At the age of 19, Grouès became a Capuchin monk,
pledging his life to poverty. Forced to leave the monastery for
health reasons, he joined the Resistance, helping Jews escape
France, and changed his name to Abbé Pierre.
Known for his cape and beret
and his cane, unshaven face, mischievous eyes, radiant smile,
total simplicity, rebellious spirit (disagreements with the church
hierarchy on celibacy and women in the priesthood) and his outbursts
of anger in the face of social injustice, Abbé Pierre
topped the list of France's most popular people for so many years
that he finally requested that his name be removed.
The Abbé, who died this
week at the age of 94, was admired by the French, whether Catholics
or non-believers. They admired the man and his life. They admired
his decision to opt for a life of austerity and devotion to others
when he could have opted for wealth. They admired his profound
spirituality and faith which he combined with his love of humans
and his knowledge of the way the world works (the Abbé
could have had another life as a coach on how to work the media).
They admired his simplicity. They admired his rebellion, his
fight for housing for all. He was not perfect : late in his life,
he defended negationist Roger Garaudy, a " mistake "
for which he later apologized.
His funeral service was a reflection
of the man and of the people who loved him, from the President
of France, deeply moved, to other dignitaries, and throes of
ordinary people, among them scores of Emmaus " Compagnons
". The three hour service was filled with the pomp and ceremony
inherent to the great cathedral but the Abbé's coffin
was a plain wood one, placed directly on the marble floor . On
it, his cape, walking stick, and beret.
You may have read a short article
in the International Herald Tribune about the Abbé
Pierre. In France, the coverage was immense, from pages and pages
of articles in French newspapers and magazines to radio and television
specials to the televised funeral service transmitted live, showing
unforgettable images of the people of Paris applauding his coffin
and waving good-by.
We can't always know everything
about another society from reading the U.S. papers which, understandably,
don't have the time or space to devote to every single person
of importance in every single country.
Which is why I'm happy to tell
you a bit more about the extraordinary life and legacy of the
Abbé Pierre who was in a very real way the conscience
of the French. He had a simple goal housing for all
and sadly he didn't succeed. Still today, France has too many
homeless and poor. But Abbé Pierre made housing for the
poor an issue no French government can ever again ignore.
|France without Jews is not France
Of all the intonations, expressions and statements flowing from the mouths of politicians and ordinary citizens in the aftermath of the terrorist killings of seventeen people in France last week, the most forthright and sincere one, in my opinion, came from France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls who proclaimed: “France without Jews is not France.”
What did he mean by this? Was it only in reaction to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistent invitation to French Jews to flee France and come to Israel where they would be greeted with open arms, safe from anti-Semitism in France?
It was partly that, yes, but it was also a sincere conviction, that France’s Jews are an integral part of the community, that they are both Jewish and French, that they should not be the victims of despicable acts because they are Jewish and that their lives warrant greater protection.
Even before last week’s terrorist attacks which left four Jews dead in a kosher grocery store, France’s Jews have been targeted heinously and viciously and more Jews than ever are packing their bags to leave for Israel. I say “more Jews than ever” because many letters we get from the States, in particular, presume that ALL of France’s Jews or a huge percentage are fleeing France. So let’s get the real figures: there are approximately 600,000 Jews in France; of these last year approximately 7000 left for Israel. This is roughly 1 per cent – 1 per cent too many, certainly, but nothing like the much bigger figures that are being bandied around.
I am not Jewish but have many Jewish friends and am interested to see the different opinions they have on the question of making aliyah (emigrating to Israel). Two friends, both American Jewish women who has lived in France for decades, downplay the reports of massive flights, stating that those who leave more often do so because they are going to retire or because they have family in Israel or because they’ve been thinking of it for a long time or because they are very religious and think they would have a better religious life in Israel. So, of the 1 per cent of those leaving, we may be down to 0.5 per cent of people leaving because of anti-Semitism in France and fear for their lives.
I do not write this to downplay those fears nor to downplay anti-Semitisim which is real and which exists but I do think it necessary to take a cold look at the facts first. As for anti-Semitic acts, who perpetrates them? “The French”? Which French? If you look at the deplorable anti-Semitic acts that have taken place over the past years, you will see a pattern which is that the perpetrators are almost always young French men of Arab origin. They live unhappy lives many times in broken homes, are mostly unemployed, are or have been delinquents who in too many cases have been converted to radical Islam during their prison stays. Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old criminal of Algerian descent, was one of those. In March 2012, he first gunned down two uniformed soldiers, then killed four, including three children, at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school. And what was his motivation? “The Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine.” (Yet one of the soldiers he killed was, like him, a Muslim). One cannot underestimate the weight of the Israeli-Palestine conflict when it comes to current anti-Semitic acts. The conflict in the Middle East is played out every day in France – with the tragic results that we have seen.
I think the French Prime Minister was right to say that France wouldn’t be France without its Jews. But acts follow words and the government has a huge job cut out for it to protect its Jewish population. The government should also protect its Muslim citizens, the majority of which is peaceful and law-abiding. The desecration of Mosques and anti-Muslim acts such as the throwing of a pig’s ear into the garage of a Muslim should not go unpunished.
No one asked me for my opinion but I’d start by educating young people about Israel and Palestine, putting it at the center of the school curricula. Ironically, French teachers for several years have taken high school classes to visit the deportation camps and talk about the Shoah but for the young Muslims of African or North African descent this is giving special attention to people who don’t need it – and they aren’t listening. It is indicative that during the minute of silence for all the victims of the terrorist killings last week – journalists, policemen, and Jews – students in some 70 schools around the country refused to comply. I have this for a fact from a young woman who teaches in a tough district. So, first of all: education. Education would put an end, one can hope, to the dangerous stereotypes such as “the Jews are rich” which result in odious crimes (I think of the truly awful Ilan Halimi affair in 2007 ). The people committing these crimes are barbarians of the same order as the Kouachi brothers who attacked Charlie Hebdo supposedly in the name of Islam; the barbarian African and North African kidnappers of Ilan Halimi were motivated by nothing other than the sheer crass stupid stereotypes that invade the areas in which they live (“Jews are rich”). To think that a young salesman of portable phones is “rich” because he is Jewish defies the imagination. Yet, it happened and he died a martyr’s death.
I’d also do what wasn’t done after the Muslim riots in 2005 where the motivation wasn’t religion, but frustration at being shut off in poor areas with nothing to do and no hope. This was an opportunity of the first order to focus on youth training and jobs but the efforts were feeble and nothing ever came of it.
Secondly, and this is being discussed, isolation for the Islamist delinquents in prison so they cannot use their jail time to foment plots.
Thirdly, some kind of herculean effort to stop the drain of young French men and women of Arab descent from joining their “brothers in arms” in Syria – and a law forbidding them from ever re-entering France if they do choose to leave.
The French police have managed to prevent several plots from taking place. They dropped the ball on the Kaouchi brothers (they say it’s impossible to put surveillance on everyone). The government should hire more policemen, put one behind every suspect, in short, put its money where its mouth is.
The march on Sunday, January 11, was beautiful. My husband and I were there. The spirit of it was: let’s all be together to show our unity. People of every race and color and creed – Jews and Muslims, blacks and whites, people who are religious, people who are not, were all there to show by their presence their love of liberty. The curtain fell on a magic moment of national unity.
It would be nice if it signalled “The End” and all was well. Unfortunately, we’re just at the beginning, with so much left to do.
And now I’m going to write something I had not intended to write before I began this article: if I were a Jew in France, would I be afraid? Yes, I would. Would I pack my bags and leave for Israel? Perhaps not immediately but in the back of my mind I would be ever watchful. And when the day came that being constantly vigilant weighed upon me and my family, then, yes, perhaps, like the Jews who are scared, I would leave. I would keep in mind, though, that one of every five who leave returns to France. And I would know that going to Israel is not necessarily the solution as long as Israel and Palestine are in a stand-off. In fact, as long as that is the state of things, none of us, whether Jews, Catholics, Muslims or atheists will be safe, anywhere.
and the U.S. press...
|| Funny what
editors choose or not - to put in the day's news.
On Thursday, January 18, President
Jacques Chirac presided over a moving ceremony at the Pantheon
to honor the 2740 French men and women honored with the title
of" Righteous Among the nations " by the Yad Vashem
Memorial in Israel to persons having saved Jews at the peril
of their life. Most of these people were acting according to
their conscience and did not even wish to be singled out. Who
would know that, according to Simone Veil, the president of the
Foundation for the memory of the Shoah and herself a Holocaust
survivor, the greatest number of the " Righteous "
are to be found in France ?
Readers of U.S. newspapers know
all about French anti-Semitism, past and present. They
know about Vichy and how the zealousness of France's own policemen
led to the arrest and deportation of innocent Jewish men, women,
and children to the death camps. In 1995, President Chirac recognized
for the first time since the War " faults committed by the
State " on the sad anniversary of the roundup of the Vélodrome
d'hiver on July 16, 1942.
At the Pantheon, Chirac urged
France to look at its history " in the face ". History
is a " block " he said in his speech.
The ceremony honoring the Righteous
was a solemn occasion paying tribute to the quiet and courageous
French men and women who hid Jewish men, women, and children
from the Nazis.
One day after the ceremony, the
International Herald Tribune ran stories on the latest
dissension in the French Socialist Party and the trials and tribulations
of a French restaurant owner in New York.
There was not one line about
the commemoration by the French President of the 2740 French
people honored by the Israel memorial Yad Vashem, as " Righteous
among the Nations ".
An odd omission.
For that story of hitherto untold
good acts is also part of France's history.
These people are France's heroes.
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