Early in September the French newspapers and television reported that 67 Jews living in Nice and the French Riviera had received death threats from a neo-Nazi organization.
The following day, Sept. 4, the French government announced that it has decided to outlaw the extreme rightwing movement, the Federation for National and European Action (FANE), prevent it from holding public demonstrations and arrest its members should they try to reorganize themselves in another form.
For three days, French public opinion, the news media and various political figures denounced FANE. Then, or suddenly or it had flored up, everything died down. If the threat was real, the reaction seemed too placid and the outlawing of FANE insufficient unless it was to be followed by arrests and legal proceedings.
It seemed worthwhile to this correspondent to investigate what had really happened in this Mediterranean city more generally associated with luxury villas, pleasure boats and casinos than with murder threats and racist attacks.
THE JEWS OF NICE
There are about 25,000 Jews living in Nice. Most settled here in the early 1960s when France evacuated Algeria. It was the closest to the North African climate they had known and life on the Riviera had, and still has, a certain nonchalant ease which reminded them of the “old days.” They assimilated quickly and thoroughly.
According to local communal organizations, there are several hundred Jewish doctors, lawyers and pharmacists, though the majority are shop keepers or retired pensioners. There are no “big” Jewish names, large fortunes or individuals heading businesses which could provoke resentments or personal hatreds.
The city of Nice has a special relationship with Italy, to which it belonged until 1860 when Napoleon Ill won it and during World War II when it was under Italian occupation. In the war days, it was one of the safest places for a Jew to be in France, although even here more than 100 Jews were arrested and deported.
The rise of the neo-fascist movements in Italy in recent years was felt in Nice as well One of the suspects in the Bologna railway station explosion in August which killed 88 people, Ario Affatigato, hid in Nice until he was arrested and extradited to Italy. Other Italian rightwing activists are also known to have arrived in Nice to ### is rightwing elements along neo-fascist lines.
For the last couple of months, various slogans, often anti-Semitic have appeared on the city’s walls. I saw over 100 emblems of FANE, a circle pierced by three arrows, doubed on walls.
Several local Jews also told me that they had received insulting and sometimes threatening telephone calls. The synagogues in two adjacent cities, Cannes and Antibes, were attacked earlier this year and had their windows broken. The vandals were not arrested but the FANE emblem was doubed on the walls. These anti-Semitic acts, despicable as they were, seemed rather mild compared to the death threats reported by the media.
After an on-the-spot investigation, I discovered that none of the 67 Jews had received a direct death threat or even, in most cases, any letter or phone call from any anti-Semitic or neo-fascist organization.
Early last July, a leftwing civil liberties organization based in Paris, M.R.A.P. the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Among Nations, received in the mail a three-page typewritten note containing the names of the 57 presidents or leaders of local Jewish organizations.
At the bottom were scribbled the FANE emblem and several slogans such as “Only One God Adolf Hitler” and “Come What May — the Blood Will Run.” It later turned out that the list was an exact copy of a brochure printed by the French Central Welfare Organization (FSJU) for delegates who attended a conference it sponsored in Nice earlier this year.
Several thousand brochures were printed at the time and only some 400 were distributed. Most were left lying around in the conference hall and could have been stolen by practically anyone.
GOVERNMENT URGED TO ACT
Several weeks after the MRAP received the note, one of its representatives contacted the Chief Rabbi of Nice, Jean Kling. Kling in turn, informed other communal leaders and it was from there that the ball started rolling. Central Jewish organizations in Paris were contacted in their turn. The representative Council of Major Jewish Organizations in France (CRIF) and its president, called on various government officials, including the Interior Minister.
The local and national French police investigated the case and reported to Paris that FANE’s activities in Nice were limited to about 20 youngsters known to the authorities who apparently had managed to thoroughly infiltrate their ranks. The police believed at the time, and say they still do that the group was definitely not dangerous and for easier to keep under surveillance while legal than underground.
The Jewish organizations’ proddings and pressures were such that in early September the story broke in the press. The general tone of the reports was that “67 Jews in Nice had received death threat.” Several additional reports in the daily press even described “panic and fear” among the Jews on the French Riviera.
On Sept. 5, I attended services at Nice’s Central Synagogue. Practically none of the people present, several hundred, had heard anything about the threats and the panic when the rabbi reported to them. The local press and television station, which had to become ### with a local story, had simply avoided carrying it while the rest of France was in a frenzy for several days.
While the FANE had carried out, it is believed, several violent operations during the last few months, there has never been any bloodshed or physical violence. Slogans were doubed, phone calls mode and a small plastic bomb shattered a few windows in front of a Jewish-owned shop in Paris.
FRENCH PSYCHE PSYCHED OUT
The fact that fifty million Frenchmen, including some 700,000 Jews were prepared to believe, immediately and without checking, that Jewish lives were threatened and in danger, seems to indicate that something is definitely wrong with the French psyche.
Every anti-Semitic report is automatically inflated, and while American Jewish organizations invariably claim that everything is for the best in the world’s best democracy, French Jewish organizations just as invariably discern anti-Semitism and sinister plottings in many innocuous events.
Not a week goes by without a French publication, dailies and weeklies, devoting its front page to a “Jewish subject.” Editors and publishers privately admit that “Jews sell well.” One French editor said bluntly: “The Jew titillates the French subconscious.”
What is to be deplored, many here say, is that Jewish organizations and leaders seem to be encouraging this trend, which mainly goes to show that 40 years after the end of the war, France has still not overcome its guilt complex stemming from five years of Nazi occupation and intensive collaboration.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.