French National Assemblyman discusses defining, criminalizing antisemitism

French National Assembly member Sylvain Maillard shares his views on his country's fight against antisemitism.

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French Consul General Guillaume Lacroix, MP Sylvain Maillard and Wojciech Soczewica, Director of the Auschwitz Foundation, stand before the photo wall at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center’s special exhibition, Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross. (Photo by Steve Dishler)

"Dirty Zionist, you're going to die! Go home to Israel! France is ours!"

This antisemitic tirade was directed at Alain Finkielkraut, a renowned French Jewish intellectual. His assailants were a group of protestors in the Yellow Vest ("gilets jaunes") movement, which began as a protest on a gas tax, but quickly devolved into an anti-establishment movement. The amorphous nature of the group provided space for French far-right, far-left and extremist Muslims to come together in their shared contempt of the Jewish People.

The assault against Finkielkraut on Feb. 16 in Paris, joined an alarming number of antisemitic incidents in France, which witnessed a 74 percent increase last year. A survey from the European Union, released last December, found that a staggering 95 percent of French Jews saw anti-Semitism as either a "fairly significant" or a "very big problem" (more than any other country in the E.U.)

Confronting global antisemitism was the focus of an Oct. 23 program at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, co-sponsored with Friends of the European Leadership Network (ELNET), a non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening relations between Europe and Israel.

The keynote speaker for the evening was Sylvain Maillard, a member of the French National Assembly and chair of the body's 30-member Study Group on Antisemitism. 

I spoke with MP Maillard before the program to discuss how the French government is responding to the assault on the Jewish community.

French Jews have suffered brutal attacks including the heinous murder of Sarah Halimi, an elderly Jewish woman who was beaten and hurled off her balcony. How would you asses the response of the government?

M: "Antisemitism is the original hate and if we accept its existence it will destroy our society. We must act on several fronts. First, we need to define antisemitism so that the police and judges have the tools to confront it. We need to address antisemitism and hate speech on social networks."

You have called for penalizing anti-Zionism. What has been the response from your colleagues in the Assembly?

M: "My job is to protect Jews in my country. Very often anti-Zionism is antisemitic. We must fight this new antisemitism. That is why I have called on the Assembly to adopt the IHRA working definition of antisemitism."

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism states: "Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities." 

The definition further offers illustrations: "Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity," and "denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination. e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor."

The French National Assembly debated the proposal in December. Since this interview took place, the National Assembly adopted MP Maillard's resolution. 

President Jacques Chirac, who died on Sep. 26, broke with decades of equivocations by French leaders when he publicly recognized France's responsibility for deporting some 76,000 French and foreign Jews to Nazi death camps during the German occupation in World War II.

In his remarks at a ceremony marking the 53rd anniversary of the first mass arrests of Jews on July 16, 1995, he said: "These dark hours forever sully our history and are an insult to our past and our traditions. Yes, the criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French, by the French state." 

"France, the homeland of the Enlightenment and the rights of man, a land of welcome and asylum, on that day committed the irreparable… Breaking its word, it handed those who were under its protection over to their executioners."

What did Chirac's declaration mean for you and how did it change the discourse in France regarding the Holocaust?

"I was 20 years old and began my official activism with Chirac. Many people's opinion was if it happened and Jews were deported it was the Jews fault. It was an important statement to make, that it wasn't only the Nazis, but it was the French People."

The full document can be read at:


Steve Dishler is Assistant Vice President, International & Public Affairs for the Jewish United Fund.  

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