On Dec. 9, four activists who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement will be tried in a court in Toulouse, France, under a month-old precedent that rendered the movement illegal. That shift occurred on Oct. 20, when France’s highest appeals court upheld a ruling convicting 12 activists of provoking “discrimination, hatred or violence” on the basis of ethnicity, nationality or religion for their call to boycott Israeli products. In a statement after the decision, the activists denounced Israel’s seeming immunity to French law and likened the ruling to banning the boycott of apartheid South Africa.
The verdict is a testament to France’s convoluted free speech laws, which are hardening tensions between its Muslim and Jewish communities and compromising the country’s commitment to civil liberties, already under strain amid the restrictive state of emergency that has reigned since the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, which left 130 people dead. It shows what happens when an issue as toxic as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is arbitrated by France’s steadfastly secular judicial system. And curiously, the verdict condemns BDS, a movement that targets Israeli products — and poses no direct threat to French Jews — as hate speech, undoubtedly as part of the government’s attempts to insulate its Jewish community from rising anti-Semitic attacks. But that strategy is misplaced.
Free speech laws in France are all over the map. Holocaust denial has been criminalized since 1990; last year, a right-wing politician received a hefty fine and a nine-month jail sentence for a racist remark. At the same time, French leaders rallied around the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo after the January attack at its offices, framing the paper’s cartoons — which many Muslims consider blasphemous — as central to the republic’s liberal identity.
France’s often contradictory and inconsistent approach to free speech has become particularly apparent since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket. A crackdown on hate speech followed those incidents, with authorities opening nearly 40 cases under a much-criticized 2014 counterterrorism law. As part of that surge, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, a controversial comedian whose shows have been canceled on numerous occasions for his anti-Semitic gestures, was convicted of condoning terrorism. Attacks against Muslims and Islamic places of worship spiked, and they have continued to rise since Nov. 13.
France, which is home to the European Union’s largest Jewish and Muslim populations, has seen the Israeli-Palestinian conflict play out on its turf for some time. A week after the West Bank arson attack that left three members of a family dead in August, the opening of Tel Aviv sur Seine, an event celebrating Tel Aviv’s beaches, stoked protests from pro-Palestinian activists. As Gaza burned in 2014, members of the Jewish Defense League, which the FBI considers a right-wing terrorist group, clashed with protesters, leading to a ban on pro-Palestinian rallies that was ultimately defied. Days later, Palestinian sympathizers attacked a Jewish supermarket in the suburb of Sarcelles, known as Little Jerusalem for its large Jewish and Muslim populations. On Oct. 22 of this year, Jewish Defense League supporters assaulted a BuzzFeed reporter as they rallied in front of the offices of Agence France-Presse, whose reporting the group labeled anti-Israel.
Amid tension last year and a surge in attacks on Jews since 2012, Jewish leaders lamented that their community was being imperiled by the conflation of pro-Israel sentiment with the mere fact of being Jewish. French Jews proved that conflation false: After the January shooting at the kosher supermarket, they displayed their attachment to France — and not Israel — by breaking into the French national anthem in response to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s calls to “come home to Israel.” However, French Jews have flocked to Israel in unprecedented numbers, with more than 4,500 émigrés last year, a 25-year high. (Rampant unemployment has contributed to this trend.) French authorities are working hard to curb their mass departure.
After the January attack, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said, “France without Jews is not France.” He’s right, and French leaders are justified in trying to assuage the Jewish community’s fears of repression. But that requires separating Jewish identity from Israeli policy. By labeling an anti-Israel movement a source of religious discrimination, the BDS decision codifies that dangerous amalgam into law.
This muddled logic isn’t limited to France either: When the EU announced on Nov. 11 that it would label products made in Israeli settlements, Netanyahu likened the move to the Nazis’ labeling of Jewish storefronts during World War II, and his Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz called the plan “disguised anti-Semitism.” That rhetoric — and the chutzpah it takes to invoke the Holocaust at every twist and turn of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — is Netanyahu’s attempt to tie Jews in Europe and beyond to the politics of the Israeli occupation without their consent. As the home of Europe’s largest Jewish community, France should take the lead on countering this dangerous discourse, not pander to it.
In addition to exacerbating anti-Semitism, the BDS decision provides ammunition to those who allege that free speech in France obeys double standards that protect Jews disproportionately. This double standard (or the perception of it among Muslims) is straining the French social fabric and should not be ignored. French society was hardly at ease when the decision was made; the country has been struggling for some time to cope with rising immigration and with sizable Jewish and Muslim communities that increasingly feel under attack, as well as with the fallout from the January attacks.
But the recent Paris attacks have only deepened rifts and induced a climate of fear and suspicion, marked not least by a prolonged state of emergency that has resulted in numerous house raids, arrests and mosque closures. And last week French officials hinted that it might be extended, submitting a draft change to the constitution that would remove all time limits for states of emergency.
When a democracy can determine that BDS activists are criminals but condone sanctions against Iran and Russia — all the while labeling Dieudonné a potential terrorist rather than a comedian and praising Charlie Hebdo as provocative and brave — the public notices. Views harden, and extremism gains appeal.
Anti-Semitism occupies a sensitive place in the French national psyche, still haunted by the Vichy government’s mass deportations, which weren’t acknowledged until five decades after the fact. As Jonathan Laurence, a professor at Boston College, says, “The French are very concerned about not giving Hitler a posthumous victory.”
Still, compensating for past transgressions does not justify a national policy that, in privileging the state of Israel, inflames social tensions. France’s defense of free speech is coming undone, and the BDS decision is a product of that unraveling. In obeying a logic that generalizes Israeli policy to the sentiments of Jews in France and beyond, it is likely to exacerbate the anti-Semitism it seeks to condemn.