On March 17 of this year, François Hollande — the socialist president of France — attended the ceremonies held in Toulouse marking the first anniversary of what is now commonly referred to as "the Mohamed Merah affair."
On March 11, 2012, this French citizen of Algerian descent, who had joined an Islamist network and had been trained in Pakistan, killed a French soldier in Toulouse. On March 15, he shot three more soldiers in Montauban: two died on the spot; the third was severely wounded in the head and is now quadriplegic.
Four days later, Merah killed three preteen children and one adult at Ozar Hatorah, a school in Toulouse.
The terrorist had selected his nine victims with jihadist logic, as he himself boasted shortly before being shot by security forces. The four soldiers were either of North African or West Indian origin, and thus guilty of betraying their Muslim or non-Caucasian brethren by joining the enemy French army. The children and the adult at the Ozar Hatorah school were Jewish, and thus enemies of the Muslim Palestinians and the Muslim world community.
Since his election in June of last year, Hollande has frequently emphasized the Merah affair, and specifically its anti-Semitic aspect.
On July 22, 2012 — the French national memorial day of the Holocaust and of racist persecutions — Hollande drew a parallel between the murder of Jewish children by Merah and the deportation and mass murder of Jewish children. On November 1 — the Day of the Dead in French culture — Hollande attended a memorial ceremony in Toulouse with Benjamin Netanyahu. This year's March 17 visit to Toulouse was Hollande's third public appearance expressing his concern about the Merah affair.
However, Hollande's reputation, one of empathy for the victims of anti-Semitism, has just suffered a blow.
What he may have achieved and still attempts to achieve in that respect may look impressive, yet all of it has been largely offset by his decision to bestow state honors to Stephane Hessel.
A former diplomat, Hessel passed away on February 27 at the age of 95. Hollande even chose to attend the ceremony — and delivered a eulogy.
Invalides honors, which Hessel was granted, are usually intended for war heroes and others with outstanding war records who stand as examples for the nation. Was that the case with Hessel?
Indeed, Hessel had fought in World War Two and joined the Free French in London. He was sent on a mission to occupied France, arrested, tortured, and sent to a concentration camp in Germany. However, thousands of French men and women who did as much, or much more, than Hessel during or after the war were buried with just a flag and music, and at local cemeteries. At best.
Hessel admitted that he had not been able to withstand torture at the hands of the Germans in 1944, and had passed on some information. One may or may not take a lenient view of that. Still, there is a crucial difference between breaking and not breaking under torture, or committing suicide rather than talking. The many who did certainly stand in line for Invalides honors ahead of Hessel.
Indeed, the honors were given to Hessel for behavior unrelated to military service. Hessel had become, over the last decade, a national icon of sorts, perhaps the last national icon affordable to a collapsing France. And he had supported Hollande.
The president, whose popularity is plummeting (only 37% of the French are happy with his administration), perhaps was looking to utilize Hessel's prestige for his own profit. But the troubling point is that Hessel had been behaving in many respects as the exact opposite of what he had been – or was supposed to have been — as a young man.
Most perversely, Hessel's final iconic status owed all to his latter indignity.
In an interview with the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, published on January 21, 2011, Hessel remarked:
If I may risk a daring parallel with matters I am involved with, I'll say this: the German occupation (of France) was, if one is to compare it, for instance, with the current occupation of Palestine by Israelis, a rather mild one, except for some unusual facts like arrests, internment, executions, or the looting of works of art.
It was nasty enough to draw a parallel between Israel and Nazi Germany. But Hessel was going even further there: he was largely exonerating the Nazis from most of the crimes they had committed in France.
Under normal circumstances, his moral standing as a former Resistance fighter and death camp inmate would have been finished with such a statement. However, circumstances are not normal anymore in France; Hessel was allowed to go on parading until his very last day.
The interview was not an isolated incident. Since 1996, Hessel — who enjoyed much popularity on French talk shows as an elegant octogenarian and nonagenarian — got increasingly involved in radical politics of all sorts, from anti-globalism to rabid anti-Israel campaigning.
This behavior culminated with Indignez-Vous! (Time for Outrage!), a very short (32 pages) and very cheap (three euros) political brochure published at the end of 2010. The brochure sold one million copies in the first ten weeks, 1.5 million in the first year, and 4 million copies in a bit more than two years (including translations).
While ostensibly devoted to the plight of the "new poor" in the post-Cold War world, Time for Outrage! dealt chiefly with the Palestinian issue — or rather, with the absolute evil known as Israel and the need to fight it.
As an implicit admission that anti-Israel hatred and anti-Semitism are now essential and powerful components of left-wing radical politics, Time for Outrage! was an inspiration for the Occupy movement, itself infested with anti-Semitic innuendo.
Why did Hollande, as a declared friend of the Jewish people and an enemy of anti-Semitism, endorse Hessel in any fashion, much less with an Invalides honor?
Why did Hollande not grasp that turning a propagandist of anti-Israel hatred into a national hero would only fuel lethal anti-Semitism like what was seen in the Merah affair?
At any rate, did not the president realize that Hessel's overblown iconic status may soon burst?
Guy Fellous, the former secretary general of the French National Consultative Commission of Human Rights, befriended Hessel, a member of the committee, in the 1990s. According to him, Hessel — while once a charming, decent, and ethical gentleman — became in his last years a puppet in the hands of unscrupulous manipulators that "turned him, much in the Stalinian fashion, into a monument to their own cause."
Claude Moisy, the former CEO of Agence France-Presse, took a less indulgent line. He pointed in a recent column to the many lies and half-lies Hessel had relied upon to reconstruct himself as a major 20th century figure:
To be entirely honest, one would need to quote hundreds of articles over decades ... where he relies on extremely ambiguous wordings but never denies the flattering role so many people ascribed to him.
Just to stick to the war and postwar period, Hessel claimed falsely or let people claim falsely on his behalf that he had contributed to the Program of the French Resistance National Council in 1943 or 1944; that he had been groomed for an ambassadorship to China in 1945; and that he had contributed to the UN Human Rights Declaration of 1948. All brazen and absurd assertions from which he had to withdraw hastily.
Hollande was clearly not entirely at ease when he praised Hessel at the Invalides compound. He said about Hessel's hatred of Israel:
He might as well, driven by such a cause as legitimate as the Palestinian people's one, stun his own friends, of whom I was one. Being sincere is not necessarily saying the truth. He knew that. But who could dispute the fact he was a courageous man?
Everybody could, Mr. President.
Michel Gurfinkiel is the Founder and President of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, a conservative think tank in France, and a Shillman/Ginsburg Fellow at Middle East Forum.