Randy's Corner Deli Library

04 August 2008

Aux barricades! France and the Jews

View from a booth on a relatively hot summer day in San Diego:

I don't see conspiracies everywhere I look. Honest I don't. But this was either a foolish mistake on the part of Phillipe Val, the editor of Charlie Hebdo, or it was done with the intent to draw comparisons to the publication of the cartoons poking "fun" at Mohammed in the Danish papers that sparked rioting amongst some of Europe's Muslims. It seems to me that it would have been a wiser idea, if M. Val was so concerned about offending Jewish Frenchmen, he could have gone to the Consistoire du Juifs Francaise and asked them what they thought (very privately, of course) and then made his decision. Instead, he took it upon himself to condemn M. Siné and thusly touched off a debate of "who is it better to insult, Jews or Muslims?" This is not a discussion that anyone wants to or should have to have. The fact that the offensiveness comes from a 79 year old alta kocker tells me that this should have been left alone and for the French public to see the stench of Jew-hate in all its glory, free of politically correct condemnations from intellectuals outraged - shocked!, shocked! at the very notion that - gasp! anti-semitism is alive and well and living in the body of M. Sine, who undoubtedly hold Muslims in the same esteem as he does Jews, which is to say not very high at all. Meanwhile, Sarkozy fils will be marrying quite well, merci beaucoup, will rise politically, and M. Siné will drift into nothingness, which is where he belongs.

Randy Shiner

Aux barricades! France and the Jews
A columnist-cartoonist’s comment about President Nicolas Sarkozy’s son and his Jewish fiancée has stirred a French intellectual storm.


Jean, son of Sarkozy, is engaged to a Jewish heiress.It’s not quite the Dreyfus Affair, at least not yet. But France is divided again over power and the Jews.

While the United States has been debating The New Yorker’s caricature of Barack Obama as a Muslim, France has gone off the deep end over a brief item in the country’s leading satirical magazine portraying the relationship between President Nicolas Sarkozy’s fast-rising son, Jean, and his Jewish fiancée.

The offending piece in Charlie Hebdo, a pillar of the left-libertarian media establishment, was penned last month by a 79-year-old columnist-cartoonist who goes by the name of Bob Siné. He described the plans — since denied — of Jean Sarkozy, 21, to convert to Judaism before marrying Jessica Sebaoun-Darty, an heiress to the fortune of the Darty electrical goods retailing chain.

“He’ll go far in life, this little fellow!” Siné wrote of Sarkozy Jr.
He added, in a separate item on whether Muslims should abandon their traditions, that: “Honestly, between a Muslim in a chador and a shaved Jewess, my choice is made!”

Nobody paid attention for a week: Siné is a notorious provocateur whose strong pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist views have in the past crossed the line into anti-Semitism. I’d say he’s far from alone in that among a certain French left.

But this is the summer, news is slow, and since a journalist at the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur denounced the article as “anti-Semitic” on July 8, France has worked itself into a fit of high intellectual dudgeon.

The storm is gusting at high velocity, but I’ll try to take things in order. Philippe Val, the editor of Charlie Hebdo, requested an apology from Siné, to which the veteran “chroniqueur” replied, with some brio it must be said, that he would much rather cut off his testicles.

That did it for Val, who promptly fired Siné, who shot back by bringing legal action against the paper for “defamation.”

In the land of Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, the stage was now set for a great French drama, Internet-powered this time. The country, its blogs in overdrive, has split between defenders of the ousted Siné in the name of free speech and supporters of Val in the name of barring anti-Semitic hate speech.

Plantu, perhaps the country’s best-known cartoonist, has rallied to Siné’s defense by portraying the editor, Val, as a jack-booted Nazi and calling Charlie Hebdo “the paper where everything is allowed — even firing a cartoonist!”

Several political bloggers have asked why Val, in the name of free speech and solidarity with a Danish newspaper under fire, bravely republished cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, but drew the line at Siné’s caricaturing of the purported relationship between Jews, money and an opportunistic young Sarkozy with a nascent political career in the department of Hauts-de-Seine, near Paris.

On the other side, in a statement in Le Monde called “For Philippe Val and a Few Principles,” a panoply of intellectuals including Elie Wiesel, Claude Lanzmann, Robert Badinter and Bernard-Henri Lévy declared that “once again, once too often, Siné has crossed the line between humor and insult, caricature and hatred.”

Lévy, in an eloquent front-page commentary in the same newspaper, drew out the ugly French history — from 19th-century anti-Semitic tracts about money-grubbing Jews through the Dreyfus affair to innuendo about President Sarkozy’s partly Jewish heritage — that, in his view, makes Siné poisonous to the point of unacceptability.

“We have not made too much of the ‘Siné Affair,’ ” Levy concluded. He compared it to Michel Foucault’s “secretion of time” — a small thing that condenses “the spirit and malaise of an epoch.”

I don’t agree with Lévy. I think too much has been made of Siné and his feeble attempts at humor and that firing him risks stirring, rather than assuaging, what remains of French anti-Semitism.

Let’s be clear on three things. Siné clearly nurses some vile views about Jews. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as refracted in France through a growing Muslim population and virulent anti-Zionism among leftists, has produced new forms of anti-Semitism. There are murmurings in a Catholic Right French establishment about Sarkozy’s rise and the Jewish backgrounds of several people close to him.

These are not, however, sufficient reasons for turning Siné into a martyr by making too much of his bad joke. I’m with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who wrote in 1919 that: “I think we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death.”

I know, American First Amendment freedoms are distinct from French practice. Here, for example, denying the Holocaust is a crime. But I remain a free-speech absolutist. In that spirit, I defended the publication of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons. Curtailing speech is generally far more dangerous than allowing even vile views to be aired, not least by a cantankerous has-been like Siné.

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