I’m an American Jew who lived in France for most of the last four years, first in Nantes and later in Paris. Last year, I was sitting in a café in the 6th arrondissement with two French college friends, randomly recounting to one of them—a nonpracticing Jew whose family has long lived in Paris—a philosophical debate from a Jewish studies course about married women covering their hair. The other friend, not Jewish but also raised in Paris, cringed as he listened to our conversation.
“You see? This is the difference between you and us,” he said as he glared at the Parisian Jew and me. “While you spend your time talking about this, in France we debate culture and politics.”
Taken aback, my Jewish friend and I both looked at each other, me hoping he would break the silence. I was the foreigner, after all—wasn’t it his place to defend himself in his native city?
But nothing came of it. Seconds later, the awkward moment passed and my two friends went about chatting as if nothing had happened. But that experience—between supposed friends, no less—confirmed a suspicion I’d come to harbor about how many French view their Jewish countrymen: with furtive skepticism and distaste.
To understand exactly what happened in that café, you must first grasp a simple truth: You cannot actually be both French and Jewish.
For an American, that sounds odd. After all, in the land of plenty, Jews can identify with endless variations of hyphenation: Jewish-American, American Jew, “half-Jewish,” even “quarter-Jewish.” It would rarely, if ever, occur to you that someone would question whether you could be both American and a member of that Israelite faith. You are considered as Jewish as you are American, as American as you are Jewish.
But what seems so simple in the United States is anything but in France. In the end, the trouble stems from the idea that “French” means you follow the values of the state—in this case, secularism. What Americans often believe to be the mere French version of “separation of church and state” is actually diametrically opposed to Americanized freedom of religion. In short, while Americans value freedom of religion, the French value freedom from religion.
In practice, French secularism, or laïcité, means that you don’t express your religious beliefs in public: That means in public schools, Muslim girls can’t wear their veils, Jewish boys can’t wear their kippot, and Christians can’t draw attention to their crosses. It also means that when a state exam falls on your religious holiday, well, tant pis, because laïcité means you’re supposed to be French before anything else.
Secularism regularly pops up in political debates. Indeed, it has been one of the driving points in this year’s presidential election. Just this month, Prime Minister François Fillon suggested that Jews and Muslims give up their "ancestral traditions" of eating kosher and halal meat, highlighting the French belief that one can't be both a religious person and dedicated citizen.
Interestingly, no one knows with certainty how many people in France practice different faiths: The République doesn’t keep official stats. It is only by approximation that we estimate that largely atheist France is also home to the largest Jewish and Muslim populations of Europe, with roughly 600,000 Jews and 5 million Muslims.
And after those four years living among the French, I concluded that the country’s nearly religious devotion to secularism is at least a partial explanation for the country’s latent racism and anti-Semitism. It also fosters an ignorance that likely contributed to the perverted mindset of the suspected Toulouse gunman. Mohammed Merah might have been a radical Islamist of Algerian background, but he’s also a French national who grew up in Toulouse.