On March 23, Mireille Knoll was found dead in her apartment in Paris. Her attackers had set fire to her apartment and stabbed her eleven times.
Knoll was not only an innocent, eighty-five-year-old woman; she was Jewish and a Holocaust survivor, which is why her murder has garnered so much attention.
Two men, the son of Knoll’s neighbor and a homeless man, have been arrested for her murder. The former had known Knoll and had even been in her apartment (the two knew each other), drunk, on the day of the murder. In 2017, he had been arrested for molesting the daughter of Knoll’s care provider. He met his accomplice while in prison and both have blamed the other for her murder. While neither have been linked directly to anti-Semitism, the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF) quickly labeled the attack as such. The prosecutor even issued a statement that specified that Knoll was killed because of her religion.
Following the attack, a large, silent protest swept the streets of Paris. Ordinary French citizens and politicians marched in the 11th arrondissement (district), carrying white roses and signs condemning the attack and its anti-Semitic implications.
Mireille Knoll was only a child when, in 1942, the French police rounded up over thirteen thousand Parisian Jews in cooperation with the Nazis. The prisoners were briefly held in the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a cycling stadium in France—referred to as the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Almost all of these Jews would eventually be transported to Auschwitz, where they would be killed either in gas chambers or by inhumane living conditions.
Knoll was fortunate, however. After being transported with other Jews to the stadium, Knoll’s mother was able to leave because she possessed a Brazilian passport. If it were not for this passport, Knoll and her family would have been taken to Auschwitz, where death was almost certain.
For a time, Knoll had avoided the horrific religious persecution of the Holocaust. She moved to the 11th arrondissement in Paris, where she would spend her days peacefully, with a personal care aide to keep her company. Unfortunately, however, she was never able to escape the hatred of her religion.
Popular condemnation of French anti-Semitism
Knoll’s death put anti-Semitism back at the center of political discussion in France, a country where anti-Semitism has found a surprisingly high number of supporters. In the past decade, France has witnessed at least four hundred anti-Semitic acts per year (the most of any other European country), most notably the murder of Sarah Halimi, an orthodox teacher who lived in Knoll’s district, and a massacre in a Jewish elementary school in Toulouse. Further, anti-Semitic rhetoric has permeated the public sphere through social media and entertainment.
Politicians from the far-right and the far-left have also expressed anti-Semitic sentiment. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front (FN), denied that France was involved in the roundup of Jews, including the Vel D’Hiv Roundup that nearly took the lives of the Knoll family. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left La France insoumise, in a comment declared anti-Semitic by the CRIF, claimed that France should not share any of the blame for the roundup of over thirteen thousand Jews in Paris. Thus, while there are organizations such as the CRIF that have attempted to eradicate anti-Jewish sentiment, anti-Semitism is still rampant in France.
The silent march held on March 28 was focused not only on Knoll’s murder, but also on condemning anti-Semitism as a whole. Protesters marched from the Place de la Nation to Knoll’s apartment, where they left flowers and pictures. Sentiments of peace and unity were expressed by many of the protesters, as many saw Knoll’s murder as an attack on humanity. There was a clear consensus that anti-Semitism needs to be eradicated once and for all and replaced with tolerance.
Responses from French politicians
Ordinary citizens were not the only ones marching. The Interior Minister Gerard Collomb was just one of many French officials who were spotted marching alongside French citizens. Collomb issued a statement in which he condemned Knoll’s murder and recognized its anti-Semitic motive.
President Emmanuel Macron called the murder an “appalling crime” and proclaimed that he was determined to fight anti-Semitism in France. In the past, French officials have been reluctant to label religiously or racially motivated crimes as such. For example, after the murder of Sarah Halimi, the Paris Prosecutor failed to include anti-Semitism as a motive in the victim’s indictment. Yet Macron, along with other moderate politicians, has been attempting to shatter the country’s reputation of neutrality.
However, there is more to this story than the prominence of anti-Semitism in France. French politicians who have been seen as xenophobic have used Knoll’s murder to appear morally-righteous by denouncing it.
The CRIF initially stated that politicians such as Le Pen and Mélenchon were not allowed to participate, due to their history of championing anti-Semitic and racist beliefs. However, one of Knoll’s two sons stated later that all were welcome, stressing the need for unity.
Le Pen and Mélenchon accepted Knoll’s invitation and showed up to the march. While some welcomed them, they were shouted at and booed upon their arrival. Le Pen, in a statement given to a CNN reporter, said that she was supporting unity. She also criticized the CRIF for its views on her party and the crowd for heckling her.
Interestingly but unsurprisingly, Le Pen skirted around condemning raw anti-Semitism. She stated, “We’ve been fighting Islamist anti-Semitism for years,” placing the blame solely on Islam, rather than the rampant anti-Semitism that has permeated France. Her statement showed little, if at all, flexibility around her party’s stances on Muslims in France.
Mélenchon stressed that he wanted every Jew to feel welcome in France. However, he did not mention his party’s previously-held stances compliant with anti-Semitism, per the CRIF.
Their appearance at the march has caused speculation over their motives for attending; many have wondered if their feelings about the attack were genuine or if they were using the event to gain political points. The killing of an innocent woman is easy to condemn—extremists could theoretically denounce Knoll’s murder without referring to the anti-Semitic motives behind it, as Le Pen did.
Overall, however, Knoll’s murder has given all French politicians the opportunity to appear morally-righteous and tolerant. Whether or not the French people will accept it will be apparent in the lead up to the next elections, which will take place in May of 2022.
Implications for the French far-right and far-left
That Le Pen and Mélenchon were booed by the crowd indicates that many at the march saw through their facade of tolerance.
There is the possibility that they will be heckled out of prominence by 2022. If the French people reject their platforms entirely, more moderate political parties, such as La République En Marche!, could retain power and receive a higher percentage of the vote.
The other possible outcome is that pressure at the popular level could force these extremist politicians to reconsider their xenophobic views out of a desire to maintain popularity. Not only could this dramatically affect the outcome of the 2022 election, but it has the power to reduce anti-Semitism and other racist sentiments from the political stage altogether. By keeping the FN and the far-left parties on the stage but removing bigotry from their platforms, anti-Semitism would lose its legitimacy.
With this in mind, it seems as though there is a possibility of eradicating political, and by extension, potentially popular, anti-Semitism in a country that has been plagued by high rates of anti-Semitic crimes. However, it remains up to the French electorate to determine whether or not this will come to fruition.Noa Levin is a Staff Writer for the Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons and can be found here.
Noa Levin is a third-year Political Science major and Human Rights minor from New York. On campus, Noa works as a research assistant for Professor Paul Staniland and as Communications Director of the Maroon Project on Security and Threats (MPOST). She has previously served as a Policy Research Lead for Neal Salés-Griffin’s campaign for Mayor of Chicago, and this past summer, she interned at the U.S. Department of State. In her free time, Noa enjoys watching Seinfeld and bullet journaling.