(JTA) – Even among those who anticipated it, the intensity of anti-Semitic violence that hit France in 2002 was shocking.
That year – the height of the second Palestinian intifada – synagogues and schools were torched, previously rare anti-Semitic beatings occurred in Paris and elsewhere, and a new generation of Jews were introduced to dangers their grandparents recognized from the 1930s.
So when teenagers started throwing stones at Jews walking to synagogue in Evry, Manuel Valls, then the mayor of the Paris suburb, did more than issue a condemnatory news release. Valls, who became prime minister last week, joined the weekly synagogue walk, signaling to the perpetrators and anyone who cared to look that the Jews had a powerful ally.
“There is a new reality for French Jews,” Valls said years later, describing the atmosphere in 2002. “And it is palpable to me.”
Valls’ promotion last week from interior minister owed less to this kind of dramatic gesture on anti-Semitism and more to his reputation as an energetic and reform-minded politician, assets that have helped him rise to become France’s second-most powerful politician in the shakeup that followed his Socialist Party’s defeat in local elections last month.
But to many French Jews, Valls is something of a hero for his unusually robust defense of Israel and the French Jewish community, and his elevation is seen as a reassuring sign amid one of French Jewry’s most troublesome periods.
“I don’t think we ever knew a minister who said things the way he says them,” Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities, told JTA last week.
Cukierman was referring specifically to a speech last month by Valls at a rally marking the two-year anniversary of the slaying of four Jews in Toulouse in which Valls said that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. But Cukierman could have had in mind any of several explicit displays of Jewish solidarity that Valls has undertaken over the years.
As interior minister, Valls led an uncompromising assault on the comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, who created a quasi-Nazi salute known as the quenelle that Valls has described as “an anti-Semitic gesture of hate.” And Valls has been filmed wearing a yarmulke at numerous Jewish community functions, exposing him to charges of hypocrisy since he supported banning Muslim head coverings for women at French universities.
Even more unusual, Valls has explicitly linked his pro-Jewish views to his Jewish wife, the violinist Anne Gravoin, saying in 2011 that his marriage connected him “in an eternal way” to Israel and …read more