Shlomo Sand: Secularism, the Last Refuge of the Racist

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This summer in France has been marked by constant rows, with the introduction of anti-burkini edicts and fines for veiled women. Does France have a problem with Islam and Muslims? As Shlomo Sand, professor in contemporary history at the University of Tel-Aviv and author of The Invention of the Jewish People writes, ‘People used to say that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Today, it’s laïcité’.

Edited by Sébastien Billard and originally published in L’Obs. Translated by David Broder.


For years I was intrigued by the phenomenon of Judeophobia in France. While I very soon understood that France was never fascist or Nazi, I nonetheless struggled to accept that a culture so central to the Enlightenment, mother to the Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen, could at the same time have nurtured such profound hostility toward Jews. As historian Léon Poliakov wrote in the 1950s, ‘If we wanted to measure the strength of anti-Semitism in each country by looking at the amount of ink spilt writing about the Jews, without doubt at the end of the nineteenth century France ranked first among all of them’.

France’s enduring Judeophobia

Why has Judeophobia proven so enduring in France in particular? Some have tried to answer this question by laying the blame on Catholic fundamentalism: Catholics long maintained their enmity toward the descendants of those who murdered the son of God, immigrants from the Orient who stubbornly persisted in defiling the integrity of Christian Europe.

But if that were the case, then why did Judeophobia remain marginal in Italy, country of the papacy and the homeland of Catholicism? And how come in Spain, land of the Catholic Inquisition, Jew-hatred became so apathetic across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?

The utopian Fourier was not speaking as a devout Catholic when he wrote that ‘the Jewish nation is not civilised, it is patriarchal… and it thinks any deceit commendable when it is a matter of tricking those who do not practice its religion’.

When the historian Jules Michelet was writing his famous book Le Peuple he took care to emphasise: ‘Whatever you say about the Jews they do have a homeland, the London stock exchange; they are active everywhere but their roots are in the land of gold’. He thus spoke as the laïque [state-secularist] patriot par excellence. When in 1847 the anarchist Proudhon wrote in his journal that ‘The Jew is the enemy of the human race. This race must be sent to Asia or exterminated’, this did not make him any less scathing about the priests.

And Maurice Barrès was speaking as a convinced democrat when he declared in 1902 that: ‘Assimilated among Frenchmen of French origins on account of the French Revolution, the Jews have preserved their distinctive traits, and having previously been persecuted they have now become dominant’.

The fear of the other has marked the construction of the French nation

When Céline proclaimed in the 1930s that he ‘would prefer a dozen Hitlers than one omnipotent Blum [Socialist prime minister]’ he was in no sense a Christian, but a laïque Frenchman. When Drieu La Rochelle wrote in 1941, referring to the German occupier, that ‘Four million foreigners in France including one million Jews gave me the torment of occupation long before you did’, he was still posing as a hardened republican.

Without doubt, from a certain point onward incitement against Jews was taken on and amplified by Action française [a fascist movement], but it would be mistaken to think that relations with Jews constituted the dividing line between monarchists and republicans, between Catholic conservatives and the laïques partisans of the Enlightenment, or between Left and Right. That is why on the parliamentary benches of the anti-semitic Vichy régime the likes of Action française found themselves side by side with members of the [liberal-republican] Radical Party as well as a hardly negligible number of Socialists.

While Christianity of course appeared as the historical ancestor of modern Judeophobia, Jacobin nationalism can be seen as its legal parent. Certainly this is an inclusive nationalism, unlike the nationalisms of Germany and eastern Europe. But from the outset it was bearer of a problematic temperament: thus the construction of the French nation was marked by intolerance, fear of the ‘different’ Other and fear of particularisms

At the very beginning Protestants and the English were considered the enemies of the great French nation; and subsequently it was necessary to bring Breton, Occitan and Provençal nationalists to heel. The Republic, one and indivisible, with its capital constituting its centre, forced the submission of the provinces, the different dialects and all pre-national collective identities. 

An alliance between Jacobins and traditional conservatism

The nation also put an end to many centuries of shutting away the Jews. These latter became loyal and disciplined citizens, even as some of them wished to remain somehow ‘Israelites’; such an ancestral particularity was not going to disappear in one or two generations, even if their specificities – even among secularised Jews – were never unambiguous.

Moreover, the growing waves of immigration by Yiddish people coming from eastern Europe fed a fresh particularism – one of a different character. This enduring immigration had the effect of deferring their ‘normal’ integration, and the different ‘Other’ continued to make himself visible through a thousand everyday signs, faced with the republican cultural bulldozer.

Only after the terrible tragedy did hatred for the Jewish ‘other’ – a hatred viscerally anchored in the collective and anti-pluralist French conception of nationality – finally come to an end. Becoming illegitimate in the 1950s, anti-semitism did not completely disappear from everyday discourse. But it was delegitimised in the centres of media and political power.

The economic and social crises at the end of the twentieth century, as well as the decline of France’s position in the world, have however contributed to creating a growing unease over a new threat: the troubling, perturbing presence of the Muslim ‘other’. The fact that immigrants have preserved a different culture has exasperated the new Jacobins, many of whom were only yesterday frenetic Maoists. An alliance has developed between these latter and traditional conservatism.

Now it’s the Quran that’s to blame

We prefer it that Muslim girls coiffed with a veil don’t come to study Voltaire and Rousseau in the republican classroom: and too bad if they end up in private schools financed by our beloved Saudi Arabia!

Why the devil do Muslim women prefer to wear a veil like our grandmothers did, rather than slip on some high-heels like emancipated women? Better that Muslim French women don’t take advantage of the beach in summer, side-by-side with topless republicans! Better that they remain cloistered in their little apartments!

In working to do everything to alienate the Muslim people, we have constantly portrayed its fringe elements as crazed murderers. The fact that there is a vast gulf between these ‘zombie’ believers and Islam, just as in previous times there was a vast gulf between Lebanese Falangists and Christianity, and even – still today – between the murderous settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories and the Jewish religion, does nothing to change this view. Once upon a time the Talmud was an impure book; now it’s the Quran that’s to blame.

Ultimately, very many laïque French republicans have proven that they are in fact the bearers of a religious mentality. People used to say that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Today, it’s laïcité.

Read more on the Verso blog:

For the Muslims: Islamophobia in France by Edwy Plenel 

Anti-Islamophobia Reading List

Five Book Plan: Islamophobia