Bernard Cazeneuve: “Every Time Anti-Semitism Wins in France, the Republic Ceases to Be Itself”

Bernard Cazeneuve is the former Prime Minister of France. As François Hollande’s Interior Minister – serving from April 2014 to December 2016 – he had to deal with the wave of terror attacks in 2015, those of January against Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher, those of November against Parisian restaurants and the Bataclan theater. A respected political figure, so much so that he was once rumored to be a presidential candidate, he embodies for many a certain idea of dedication to the Republic and selfless service to the state. It is on these two themes – the threats to French Jews and the attacks they have suffered on the one hand, but also his conception of the Republic and the relationship of Jews to it – that we wanted to interview him


October 2014, Bernard Cazeneuve, then Minister of the Interior © wikimedia commons


Milo Lévy-Bruhl: Were you surprised that K, a magazine subtitled “Jews, Europe, the 21st Century”, asked you for an interview?

Bernard Cazeneuve: The subjects you are going to ask me about were at the heart of my concerns, my work and my daily life when I was Minister of the Interior [Note: France’s Interior Minister handles policing and national security portfolios]. I saw anti-Semitism rise and take on a new guise. I also saw all those who should have been indignant about it – particularly on the left – not necessarily approve of it, but sometimes excuse it on the grounds that it could be the result of resentment against Israel’s policies. As much as I consider it completely normal to demonstrate for the right of the Palestinians to have a state, including in a lively manner by condemning Netanyahu’s policy, which is very susceptible to criticism, I have never accepted that in pro-Palestinian demonstrations one could hold up signs on which the slogan “death to the Jews” was written. Anti-Semitism is intrinsically a horror against which we must stand and which cannot find legitimate explanations. This is why, in July 2014, I banned the holding of these demonstrations where hatred of Jews was rampant. For this I was challenged. All this is to tell you that I know this subject well and that I led this fight with an ardent humanist and republican passion.

ML-B: We will have the opportunity to return in this interview to some of the themes you have just mentioned. But to begin with, I would like to remind you that for many French people, you are known first of all for having been Minister of the Interior during the attacks of 2015, which, after the attacks in Toulouse [an Islamist massacre carried out a Jewish day school], materialized the threat that French Jews had been feeling for several years. It is from this experience that I would like to start again. When you were appointed to Place Beauvau [the seat of the French Interior Ministry], what was the extent of the threat you discovered?

BC: When I arrived at Beauvau, we were two years after the Montauban and Toulouse attacks of March 2012, whose victims were soldiers on the one hand – including the son of Mme. Latifa Ibn Ziaten, who has since committed herself to the fight against Islamism – and Jews on the other. Yes, Jews, Jewish children, designated by the terrorist because of who they were. When I arrived at Beauvau, we were still living through the trauma of these attacks, in the memory of the Sandler children, in the memory of the words of grandfather Sandler [a reference to the Sandler family, which lost three members in the Toulouse attack]. We knew that anti-Semitism is there, lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike again. We were beginning to realize that this anti-Semitism was of a very different nature from the one that prevailed in the inter-war period and that led to the monstrosity of the Shoah.

For the Jews of France, anti-Semitism has changed its vector, but it has not changed its nature.

Today’s anti-Semitism is less visibly driven by the extreme right — although the extreme right remains fundamentally anti-Semitic — but by a new totalitarianism, namely Islamism. Islamism is an ideology based on a distorted conception of the Muslim religion, a literalist, rigorist and hateful conception which claims to organize entirely the life of individuals, that of society and the organization of the state. This totalitarianism also fosters hatred of the Jews. This hatred led to the attacks in Toulouse and Paris, and to the Hyper Cacher grocery store attack. For the Jews of France, anti-Semitism has changed its vector, but it has not changed its nature: it still has the fanatical face of crime and cowardice in the face of citizens who are ridiculously presented as dominant.

ML-B: You’ve been aware of the long-standing rise in anti-Semitism, but were you surprised, when you took office, by the extent of the threat of attacks?

BC: Yes, undoubtedly. First of all, when I arrived at the ministry, I discovered a phenomenon that was not known to the members of the government, with the exception of the Ministers of Defense, the Interior, the Prime Minister and the President: young radicalized French people joining terrorist organizations in Syria. In April 2014, several hundred young French people had already been indoctrinated by Jabhat al-Nosra [an anti-Assad militia group in Syria with ties to al-Qaeda], which hides its violent Islamism behind its opposition to Bashar al-Assad. Jabhat al-Nosra is composed of former al-Qaeda members, but also of new recruits who have been indoctrinated more recently. Some individuals, like Omar Diaby, broadcast videos that used the special effects of cinema to recruit young people. This propaganda, extremely effective and powerful, called first of all to come to the land of the Shâm [the Levant] to save innocent children from a bloodthirsty regime. It assumed an anti-Semitic dimension. The journey to the Shâm then took on a mythical dimension, and appealed to humanitarian feelings, “Come and save the children”. Above all, it was aimed at young people in search of meaning. Either because the young adults it wanted to attract were psychologically unstructured, broken because of family disorders, personal trials they may have experienced, or victims of the communitarianism that has taken hold of them, after having seized control of the lost territories of the Republic [this term refers to areas of France in which Islamism and anti-republicanism have taken hold], or, on the contrary, because they came from rather well-to-do social backgrounds and saw in this struggle a way of giving meaning to their existence, by breaking with their environment. All this is and was complex and all these causes were intertwined. But when I took office, as a result of this propaganda, 400 young people had already left. And the intelligence services told me that once they arrived in Syria, Jabhat al-Nosra would indoctrinate them and train them in the use of weapons. Our belief was that when they returned, they would be a risk to internal security, that they would be the vectors of terrorist attacks. We know that these attacks would possibly have an anti-Semitic dimension. The risk of an attack on our fellow citizens of the Jewish faith therefore became one of our major concerns, even if it was not exclusive of all others, because we knew that other targets would also be designated.

 ML-B: On January 7, 2015, the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo was decimated by an attack whose perpetrators were not immediately apprehended. What risk did you identify then for Jews in France?

BC: The day after the Charlie Hebdo attack, a municipal policewoman, Clarissa Jean-Philippe, was murdered in Montrouge [a Parisian suburb]. I immediately went to the scene. Not far from the scene of this despicable crime, I met with local representatives of the Jewish community, who speculates that the policewoman may not have been the intended target of this attack, but that it was probably the Jewish school in Montrouge, located two hundred meters from the shooting. I kept this hypothesis to myself because I knew the fear it was likely to inspire and there was no evidence to support it at the moment. Back at Beauvau, I tried to find out what happened. Of course, I had no evidence to prove that what I had been told was true. But I could not totally rule it out either. In addition, I received information about the fear that reigned among the parents of the Jewish school in Montrouge, terrorized by the idea of seeing their children murdered. I decided to go there and when I arrived – I think it was 48 hours after the attack – a young mother of a pupil greeted me on the steps of the school, collapsed in my arms and said: “You see the difference between you and me is that when you take your children to school in the morning, you are sure to find them in the evening, whereas I stay at school all day to be with them.

I took the decision to set up protection in the vicinity of all religious schools, Jewish and non-Jewish, and all places of worship

It was at that very moment that I took the decision, in agreement with the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister, to set up protection in the vicinity of all religious schools, Jewish and non-Jewish, and all places of worship, regardless of the religion in question. This measure was being deployed without distinguishing between religions, because I believed that this was the only republican message that should prevail. My difficulty at the moment was that I did not have the necessary manpower, and the fact that protecting certain sites may have led terrorists to attack others. I was therefore obliged to ask the Minister of Defense to mobilize 10,000 men as part of Operation Sentinel, while being aware that by sending this signal I was certainly reassuring those who are protected by posted guards, but in no way all the others who were, I guess, worried. The terrorists wanted to hit us everywhere in order to spread destruction, because that is basically their objective.

In November 2015, the Islamists adopted the strategy of mass killing. At that point for a few months, I had already substituted for posted guards moving guards who continue the same protection missions by circulating in the city, sending a signal to the terrorists that wherever they found mobile groups, security forces would be able to neutralize them. Rather than static defense, it is the randomness of the presence of mobile brigades, police and gendarmes, in every city and throughout the country, that guaranteed security. That was the doctrine.

ML-B: I would like to come back to the perception of attacks in France when they target French Jews. At the time of the Toulouse attacks, it was sometimes said that these were the first attacks against Jews since the war, not counting those of the Rue des Rosiers or the Copernic synagogue [both locations are in Paris]. At the time of the Nice attacks, people also spoke of the first attacks killing children, forgetting those of Toulouse. Perhaps the height of this “negligence” was expressed when, on his way to Rue Copernic on the evening of the attack, the Prime Minister of the time, Raymond Barre, expressed his indignation “at this odious attack which wanted to strike at Jews who were on their way to the synagogue and which struck at innocent French people who were crossing the street. »

BC: Raymond Barre’s reaction was emblematic of the perception that an old French right-wing politician could have of Judaism, which could lead him to use unfortunate and condemnable logic.

ML-B: Have you ever felt a difference in perception between attacks that are likely to affect all French people and others that are likely to affect only French Jews?

BC: During this period in which I exercised responsibilities within the state, I think I understood what was singular in the perception that some people could have of the attacks. After January 2015, I was struck by a double phenomenon. Firstly, the immensity of the demonstration on 11 January expressed the unity and indivisibility of the Republic, that we intended to stand firm, anchored to our values, and that no form of violence would succeed in getting the better of who we were fundamentally. It was a very powerful and universal demonstration, which referred the victims of terrorism, whatever their religion or philosophical affiliation, to the same humanity with which each of the demonstrators, I would almost say ethically, philosophically or ontologically, identified. It was an affirmation of belonging to the same vulnerable humanity in the face of the barbarity and extreme violence of the terrorists and their deadly ideology.

With the November attacks, everyone projected themselves in the place of the cartoonist, the journalist, or the Jewish fellow citizen (…) everyone understood the suffering of those who had been targeted exclusively until then.

Nevertheless, at the time, the victims were affected because they were cartoonists and embodied freedom of expression to the point of blasphemy, or because they wore the uniform, or because they were Jewish. Consequently, unconsciously or not, all those who did not belong to these categories felt that they owed all the more solidarity to the victims because they thought themselves less vulnerable than they were. From the attacks on the terraces of Paris, Saint Denis, and the Bataclan in November 2015, everyone, because they know or have heard of a victim, everyone, because they have seen this demented violence unfold, thinks that their own child could be among the victims. From then on, the solidarity that had been manifested in the greatest otherness took on a new form. With the November attacks, the extent of otherness was amplified, and everyone projected themselves in the place of the cartoonist, the journalist, or the Jewish fellow citizen. In November, it was France that was targeted, beyond what may have differentiated French people from one another, with the aim of bringing it down as a whole. So, it was all the children of France who were likely to be targeted. So, everyone understood the suffering of those who had been targeted exclusively until then. Everyone became aware that he or she could be hit at any moment and placed the suffering of the victims on the faces of his or her own children. The events were experienced in the light of the fear one has for one’s loved ones. This changed the perception that the French had of the tragedy that the country was going through. At the same time, paradoxically, it made it almost impossible to replicate the January 11 demonstration.

At that moment, the entire French people was gripped by a sense of fear and anxiety. I then advised the President of the Republic to find another way to embody the unity and indivisibility of the Republic. It was at this point that I suggested that Parliament should meet in Congress. Parliament standing, applauding, unanimously, the speech of the President of the Republic could then materialize the unity and indivisibility of the nation that had been manifested in the streets in January.

ML-B: At a ceremony in tribute to the victims of the Hyper Cacher, the then Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, stated that “Without the Jews of France, France would not be France. “At the beginning of your book “Chaque jour compte”[1], you write, “The Republic must defend the Jews of France because, without them, it would no longer be the Republic.” Do you hear a difference between these two sentences?

BC: We do not agree on everything Manuel Valls and I. We don’t have the same temperament or the same relationship to politics. But, in this case, I’m not going to venture to focus on minor differences on a subject on which we have always been generally in sync.

Having said that, I prefer to use the word “Republic” to express what I think of the relationship between France and our compatriots of the Jewish faith. Why do I do this? Because, for me, everything stems from the unique political construction that is the Republic. In our country, the state preceded the nation, and the nation was embodied in the state through a set of values, the republican values, which are inseparable from the representation we have of our own nation. In other words, for me, the question of the nation and the question of the Republic are two issues that are intimately linked to each other. And if I have never been afraid to express my attachment to the nation, it is because it was consubstantial with my attachment to the Republic.

But perhaps I can clarify what I mean by Republic. In our country, there has long been a confusion between the Catholic religion, the majority religion, and the political power that derived its legitimacy from divine right, which the monarchy had made the crucible of its strength. This is the reason why the Republic institutionalized itself by making a radical break with the Church and its clergy. The Radical Party [the ani-clerical, republican faction ascendant under the Third Republic] was born in large part from this history. But, at the same time, the republicans organized this break without hostility in principle towards religion but rather in an irrepressible love for freedom of conscience. The fact that the state does not recognize or finance any religion does not mean that it declares war on all of them, but, on the contrary, that it makes this position of neutrality the very condition of the possibility, for each person, of exercising his or her free will, without any constraint being exerted upon him or her. With the Republic, everyone must be able to choose his or her religion or not to have one. In the republican ideal, no constraint, neither from believers nor from the churches, can be exerted on anyone to impose a choice. This is why, for me, secularism is a fundamental principle of freedom. This first republican principle is nevertheless linked to another principle, also fundamental, whose meaning has been forgotten. It is the principle of respect for others, who may be different from us because of their religion, their philosophical affiliation or any other affiliation. This principle is based on the fact that there is no Republic without otherness, that there is no unanimity of beliefs and practices in the Republic. It is this principle of respect and otherness that makes it possible to live together. The Republic is therefore embodied, in practice, in a society open to otherness, in the convergence of the principle of secularism, which guarantees freedom, and the principle of respect.

When there is a genocide that leads to the disappearance of millions of European Jews, and in which the French state participates, there is automatically a trauma that has a profound impact on the relationship of French Jews to their country.

Therefore, if the Republic relaxes, it ceases to be itself, it abandons what is most essential in it. If it is not capable of protecting all its children, and in particular those who are most exposed to hatred, it loses itself. Every time anti-Semitism gains ground in France, France ceases to be itself, and that is what I wanted to explain by evoking the Republic in this formulation.

ML-B: Jews played an important role in the institutionalization of the Republic in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of them are among your models, I think of Pierre Mendès France [prime minister under th Fourth Republic] whom you like to quote. You are familiar with the work of the great historian, Pierre Birnbaum, on those he calls the “Fools of the Republic”. In a recent book[2] on his own life story, Pierre Birnbaum concluded by noting that the collaboration of the Vichy regime in the Shoah and the difficulties of the Republic in recognizing it blunted the passion of the Jews for the Republic to which they had devoted themselves[3]. What does this phenomenon inspire in you, who shares this passion?

BC: I did not conduct the meticulous research of these historians and intellectuals. But I was able to analyze in my own capacity the impact of the Shoah, of anti-Semitism in France, on the relationship of Jewish elites to the Republic. I think that when there is a genocide that leads to the disappearance of millions of European Jews, and in which the French state participates by becoming its instrument, there is automatically a trauma that has a profound impact on the relationship of French Jews to their country. When you are a Jew in France, and you know that the French state, preempted by a group that has failed in everything and has seriously compromised itself, has brought about the extermination of your people, you cannot help but have a certain distrust of your country’s ability to protect you; how can you not understand that? Even if there were the most wonderful and heroic Frenchmen to stand up to barbarism in a context where they were almost certain to be swept away by it, there is still a doubt that makes you fear for your children. So, I understand this phenomenon perfectly. I believe that the trauma of the Shoah was such that it generated a lasting reflex of distrust. Added to that is the fear of visibility, in the face of the French state and its senior administration. But, fortunately, the French senior administration continues to include a very large number of compatriots of the Jewish faith, who are among the most talented of our senior civil servants, some of whom I have been proud to have among my staff. So, I am not in despair, but I am sad to see that a fear remains, simply because it has deep roots.

ML-B: There is another phenomenon, with more contemporary causes, which concerns you more directly since you are still a member of the Socialist Party, and that is the right-wing movement, at least from an electoral point of view, of a part of the Jews of France. How do you analyze this phenomenon?

BC: There is a distancing of Jews from the left, and I personally suffer a lot from this. But above all, there is a distancing of the Left from the universal and republican ideal. When I see today’s debates onthe right to difference, racialism, the theory that the organization of the entire state discriminates against our compatriots of the Muslim faith, generating complicity between certain political organizations of the left and the indigenists [far-left post-colonial radicals] or the CCIF [a French group with ties to Islamists], I say to myself that the universalist ambition of all the humanists of the left, some of whom were compatriots of the Jewish faith, but not only, can only lead these humanists, Jewish or not, to distance themselves from that left. But that does not justify their throwing themselves into the arms of the right. It is one thing to distance oneself from a left that one condemns as being wrong, it is another thing to join the right.

There is a distancing of Jews from the left, and I personally suffer a lot from this.

It turns out that if they joined the right while a minority on the left was moving away from them, it is also because a violence was exercised against them, which is a new form of anti-Semitism, and which arouses their fear of being hit again in their flesh, of seeing their children persecuted. This fear generates a demand for additional security for themselves and leads a certain number of them to turn to the right, which, on the subject of security, is always more effective in administering prescriptions than it is in implementing policies that protect. Because the right has nothing to claim when it comes to ensuring the safety of the French. I am in a good position to know that the right wing has greatly damaged the security and intelligence apparatus in France, notably with the General Review of Public Policies [administrative reforms undertaken by right-wing presidents in the nineties and aughts]. But because the demagogy of which it is capable is more effective than the sincerity of those on the left who try to do their best when the threat is there, it happens that this demagogy produces these effects.

ML.B: This fear of the Jews of France has led a significant number of them to leave France for Israel.

BC: There is indeed, on the part of the Israeli right-wing government, a propaganda that consists in presenting Israel as the only land where Jews could live in peace. This propaganda was made by Netanyahu, including on the day of the first ceremony in homage to the victims of the Hyper Cacher, when he urged, in front of the French authorities, the Jews present in the synagogue to make their Aliyah.

I think the French Republic can still keep its promise to the Jews who are afraid and to the Muslims who are ashamed and do not want to be relegated to the role of the new proletariat that is oppressed.

I found that Netanyahu’s behavior that day was not in keeping with the deep sorrow that the French people might be feeling, nor was it commensurate with the tragedy that the country was experiencing, while we were very mobilized, in an extremely difficult context, to ensure the safety of our compatriots of the Jewish faith. I have not seen many of them reproach me, either at the time or since I left office, for not having done everything I could to protect them; many have even told me that they stayed because we were there. So I think Netanyahu would have been better advised to say to them: “you know how much Israel would welcome you, but in the circumstances we are in, you would not be better protected there than you are in France where you live.” I think that would have been the dignified thing to say, but in order for him to say it, Netanyahu would have had to be different from Netanyahu.

MLB: There is undoubtedly an instrumentalization, but these remarks by Netanyahu, which would like to point out, in a hollow way, the inability of the Republic to ensure the peace of mind of French Jews, echo a feeling that pushes, in fact, many of them to leave, for Israel or elsewhere. You know the old Yiddish slogan: “Happy as a Jew in France”. Do you think it is still applicable?

BC: Yes, I think so. The Republic can still keep its promise to the Jews who are afraid and to the Muslims who are ashamed and do not want to be relegated to the role of the new proletariat that is oppressed. The discrimination that Muslims in France may suffer and which is not the fault of the republican state, which is the only institution able to protect them, must be fought with the greatest determination. I will be told that the state is not doing enough to achieve this goal. And it is no doubt legitimate to expect it to do more. It is its duty and its honor to do so. But there is no need to theorize about the entanglement of discrimination with the republican State, as some currents of thought do, to succeed in this challenge. By doing so, they take the responsibility of sowing the seeds of revolt everywhere by denigrating the institutions, by ruining the trust without which nothing is possible and by creating the conditions for chaos… Those who play this disastrous game are preparing the war of all against all. They are squandering a heritage by undermining the foundations of co-existence!


Because our interview took place before the latest developments in the Sarah Halimi case, we asked Bernard Cazeneuve an additional question the day after the Sunday, April 25 rally in tribute to the victim.

MLB: The decision of the French “Cour de Cassation” [criminal court of last resort], which confirmed that the murderer of Sarah Halimi was not criminally responsible, provoked an immense reaction among the French in general and among French Jews in particular. Without going into the legal and psychiatric debates that are taking place, the fact is that a murder recognized as anti-Semitic will not result in a judgment, or even a trial. Without mentioning the absence of a conviction, the absence of a trial is in itself experienced as a denial of justice. In the long series of anti-Semitic crimes since the assassination of Ilan Halimi and the terrorist attacks, there is a new element that leads many French Jews to reconsider their ties to France, which affects their will to remain in France despite difficulties. How do you react to these events?

BC: It is incomprehensible and shocking that the motives for a crime are recognized by the justice system itself as being unquestionably anti-Semitic in nature and that no trial or judgment ever takes place.  I understand that there is a legal vacuum that needs to be filled quickly and that it is the government’s intention to work on this task. I hope that the government will quickly take action and that we will get out of this legitimate climate of indignation and incomprehension.

Milo Lévy-Bruhl


1 Bernard Cazeneuve, Chaque jour compte. 150 days under tension at Matignon, Paris, Stock, 2017.
2 Pierre Birnbaum, La leçon de Vichy. A Personal History, Paris, Seuil, 2019.
3 Pierre Birnbaum, Les fous de la République : histoire politique des Juifs d’État, de Gambetta à Vichy, Paris, Fayard, 1992.

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