Wednesday morning in Paris began with an appropriate cascading thunderstorm, as French citizens gathered to observe French President Emmanuel Macron lead a state funeral in honor of Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame. The heroic colonel was killed in Trèbes in the south of France by a petty criminal turned hostage taker who had sworn allegiance to ISS. Beltrame had traded places with a hostage, and was stabbed and shot before the French police could liquidate the attacker. Yet, the attack in the supermarket, which left several people dead, was the latest in a series of about two dozen Islamist-motivated attacks that have rocked France over the last half decade. It was sadly, not the only such mass gathering that took place yesterday in the French capital.
Several days after the horrific attack in the south of France, 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll was horrificaly murdered in her Paris home. The brutality of the murder shocked France, with the Macron government moving swiftly to classify the crime as an anti-Semitic attack after last year’s killing of Sarah Halimi, another elderly Jewish woman murdered by an Islamist terrorist. Yesterday, the French Jewish community organized a march to protest against the killing and commemorate the life of Knoll.
The atmosphere of the rally, which began in the early evening, was agitated and angry—especially around the presence of radical politicians—rather than melancholy or sad. Though the march was not comparable in size to the tremendous one, several millions strong, that took place three years ago in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacres, it was an impressive and serious response. Tens of thousands of Parisians came out, which did not happen last year after the murder of Halimi. The crowd wore buttons decrying the murder of French grandmothers for their being Jewish.
The day before the march, the president of the Jewish umbrella group CRIF, Francis Kalifat, made it unambiguously clear that neither the ultra- left nor ultra-right were welcome at the rally. Both Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen attended the march despite strong warnings no to do so, with the intention to appropriate the event for their own political purposes. Le Pen, whose father founded the Front National and was recently found guilty of minimizing the Holocaust (not for the first time), has spent the last few years attempting to “de-demonize” the party of overt displays of anti-Semitism in order to make it more palatable to mainstream voters. She would have done well to take the advice of the CRIF leadership and skip the proceedings.
At the start of the rally, I observed the enraged crowd surround and jostle Le Pen, who was wearing the French tricolors, and screamed at her for cynically taking advantage of the situation to further her own political agenda.
A large contingent of journalists surrounded her with cameras, and the crowd around me erupted into frustrated chants of “journalists! Accomplices!” An old Jewish woman with a thick Polish accent standing next to me yelled at the assembled journalists, “why are you filming her when she is here for public relations purposes? For shame! Film those who are marching today to pay respect to the dead!” Another Front National politician who made his way through the crowd to my left was roundly abused by middle aged men and women. Thus, having made her appearance, and likely displeased with her reception, Le Pen and her entourage made a quick exit from the rally at the first side street, having marched a total of one block from the starting point at the Nation square. Melenchon was likewise heckled.
It was a crucial event, with the attendance being far greater than that of the memorial march at the HyperCacher supermarket in the north of Paris or the lack of response to the 2012 Tolouse massacres. The large numbers of non-Jewish Frenchmen and women showing up signals that French society has belatedly woken to the fact that this horror was and is not a passing matter, or one that is of concern to the Jewish population alone. Though the lack of visibly organized participation from the organized Muslim community was indicative of the greater problem, a very substantial and encouraging number of French of African origin attended, with some visibly wearing kippas and Israeli flags on their backs. As I was leaving the march, I did catch sight of a single African Muslim woman dressed in a head-to-toe black hijab, a hopeful sign that maybe this horrific murder will unite large swaths of French society against hatred and violence.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.