"Closed between 15:30-17.30, due to Palestine protests", read the cardboard sign taped to the door of a boutique Scandinavian clothing shop, a few blocks from the protest starting point at Place de la Republique in Paris.
Police had visited shopkeepers along the protest route early in the day advising them to lock their doors for a few hours in the afternoon. Any reticence shopkeepers had about closing on the first Saturday of the January sales was tempered by their experiences of previous large-scale Parisian protests: in November 2005, "banlieu" (suburban) riots violently spilled into the city centre.
This time, authorities were taking no chances: 3800 gendarme and police were dispatched, including the intimidating CRS riot division, who donned protective guards. As a police public servant put it to Le Monde on the eve of the event: "On the Richter scale of protests, this one is going to be high."
On 10 January, protests in support of Palestinians in Gaza were held in up to 80 French cities. Depending on your source (police or organisers) the Paris event drew 30,000 or 100,000 protestors. Either way it was among the largest such protests in Europe that weekend.
Most of the participants seemed honest supporters of the cause. As one man with his family told the newspaper Le Figaro: "Don’t confuse a war of occupation — political — with a conflict between Jews and Muslims. We are not campaigning against the state of Israel. If I hear anyone say ‘Death to Jews’, then I’m leaving."
Others, though, seemed more interested in disturbing the peace than promoting it. Windows were broken, telephone booths smashed, 12 police injured and a Palestinian flag erected on the Bastille column while an Israeli one was burned at its base. Police made 180 arrests, and, after the protest’s arrival at Place de la Nation, dispersed the last lingering enthusiasts with a few healthy canisters of tear gas.
With America in a presidential transition period, Europe took a larger role than usual in conflict negotiations, and France led the diplomatic charge: President Nicolas Sarkozy embarked on a two-day mission at the start of the new year to encourage a return to ceasefire. Initially even-handed, Sarkozy — himself of Jewish descent — later condemned Israel’s invasion, while also calling for Hamas rockets attacks to stop. "Everyone knows the attachment of France, and mine in particular, to the non-negotiable security of Israel. But I say what I think. This intervention does not strengthen the security of Israel."
The EU is the largest donor of Palestinian aid, and its diplomatic messages are often more nuanced than those of famously pro-Israel America. Even so, there were limits to what it could accomplish to end the fighting. The EU cannot talk directly to Hamas, which it lists as a terrorist organisation. In any case, as The Economist reports, this might be seen as undermining the Palestinian Authority’s claim to represent all Palestinians, and damage Europe’s credibility as a peace-broker with Israel.
The role European leaders played in persuading Israel to cease fire on 17 January was ultimately minimal — although French fruit traders say a Scandinavian boycott of Israeli produce did drop the price of Israeli avocados.
Of greater importance was that European leaders were at least seen to be acting. For the European countries with vast multicultural communities such as England, Germany and France, diplomacy abroad can have dramatic consequences back home. In France, home of Western Europe’s largest populations of Muslims and Jews — about 6 million and 600,000 respectively — the potential domestic fallout from the latest Gaza conflict and France’s diplomatic engagement in it, was substantial.
France recorded a spike in anti-Semitic crime in 2002 following similar Israeli/Palestinian fighting. This time, the French Jewish Students’ Union (UEJF) reported 46 anti-Semitic acts in France since Israel’s bombardment began on 27 December.
In January, while Sarkozy was abroad on the peace mission, a burning car was rammed into a synagogue door in Toulouse, in France’s south west. Sarkozy was quick to respond: "Our country will not tolerate international tension mutating into inter-community violence."
Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), an organisation Sarkozy formalised as interior minister in 2003, condemned the Toulouse Synagogue attack, and called for groups to "show restraint, even if the Palestinian cause has a particular resonance for Muslims".
But Moussaoui was struggling to present a unified position on behalf of member organisations. An article in the online newspaper Rue89 titled "Dialogue between Jews and Muslims in France frozen by the war," reported that the Union of French Islamique Organisations, (UOIF), a CFCM member, had labelled the Israeli air attacks on Gaza "the worst genocide known to man".
The UOIF statement infuriated Richard Prasquier, president of the Representative Council of French Jewry (CRIF), who proposed a pause in working relations between the two organisations, "given the context and that it was said by a CFCM member organisation".
Others factions meanwhile were releasing their own unequivocal messages. On the Sunday after the 10 January protests, a Molotov cocktail thrown at a Synagogue in a Paris banlieu caused a small fire to break out at an adjoining Jewish restaurant.
The Jewish community too was protesting, with the CRIF organising several events calling for an end to the Hamas rocket attacks. While their protests lacked the numbers of the pro-Palestinian rallies, they were nonetheless being heard in all the right places. In multicultural Marseille, France’s second largest city, the 10 January protest was followed on Sunday by a CRIF-organised rally. While representatives from political parties left and right were at both protests, they were far more numerous and vocal at the pro-Israeli event.
France’s interest in the Palestinian/Israeli situation extends beyond international diplomacy and internal security issues. When Sarkozy made reference to "the attachment of France" to the security of Israel, he was referring to the shameful deportation of French Jews to Nazi death camps under the Vichy regime. In all, 76,000 French Jews — a quarter of the community — were sent to death, an event that still bears heavily on France’s national psyche and that of its Jewish communities.
Adding further complexity to France’s Middle East engagement is the country’s brutal treatment of Muslims and Arabs during the last throes of its colonisation of North Africa. In 1945, French troops in colonial Algeria responded to an uprising in Setif with brutal force. In an ensuing massacre they killed an estimated 20,000 Algerians, shocking the local population and solidifying their resolve for independence, which was brutally fought for and gained in 1962.
Many Muslim North Africans subsequently immigrated to France. In Paris, the majority were settled in the banlieus on the city’s outskirts, which, due to poorly conceived integration and development schemes, today languish economically and are prone to crime and violent outbreaks. Authorities and the media have been at pains to point out that the latest anti-Semitic crimes in these areas are not necessarily linked to pro-Muslim groups, but could simply be the frustrated outburst of a struggling lower class. As a large cosmopolitan country, France has learnt many hard lessons about integrating and nurturing multicultural communities.
The Australian population’s response to the Gaza conflict demonstrates the continuing desire many Australians harbour to make a difference on the world stage. As the Rudd Government looks to reengage diplomatically and economically with Australia’s neighbours in the Asia Pacific, it would do well to note France’s experience, and keep an eye on the home front as well.