Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Bruno Gollnisch finally booted out of Lyon III

Usually when there is an anti-Semitic event in France – the vandalizing of a synagogue, the defacing of Jewish graves – my inbox fills up. The content ranges from concern about anti-Semitism in France, which many people outside the country think is rampant, to tirades against France as the most anti-Semitic country on Earth, parallels to the Dreyfus Affair and “humor” about French anti-Semitism. In the past few weeks, my inbox has not been so full. But look at what has been happening.

In late January, President Jacques Chirac attended the ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and gave a moving speech. A few days earlier he inaugurated the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, now Europe’s largest documentation center for Jewish contemporary history, on a level with Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Last month, Israel opened its new embassy in Paris and the Israeli foreign minister, Sylvan Shalom, was received by President Chirac. Shalom expressed satisfaction at recent French domestic and foreign policy positions, specifically, that the French government had taken a pro-Hezbollah radio station off the air (even if it hasn’t agreed to call Hezbollah a terrorist organization), that it favored Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon (this was before Hariri’s assassination) and that it was determined to stop Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Around the same time, Israel’s head of state visited France, only the second time an Israeli president has done so since the State of Israel was founded. Was Chirac just posturing? If so, why was he posturing when he was friendly to Israel but sincere when he visited Yassir Arafat in the hospital? (I got some lovely e-mails after that one.)

The biggest news came this week. Bruno Gollnisch, heir to the throne of the far-right Front National political party – if its superannuated leader Jean-Marie Le Pen ever steps down –, member of the European parliament, Rhône-Alpes regional councilman and professor of law and Japanese civilization at Lyon University (“Lyon III”) has finally been kicked out of that university for his revisionist remarks.

In a press conference last October he said that “no serious historian still believes in the conclusions of the Nuremberg trials” and claimed that historians should be able to debate the “real number of victims” of the Holocaust. Finally, he said that “there should be debate about how the people actually died” (my translations). He didn’t call the existence of the gas chambers into question directly, but … let’s just say this wasn’t the first time Mr. Gollnisch’s tongue got away from him. Nor, as we’ll see in a minute, the last.

Interestingly, in an absolute sense, I agree with him. We should be able to debate these things freely and openly. France’s strict prohibition against the expression of revisionist, anti-Semitic or racist beliefs may, in theory, go too far. In reality, however, it seems to me the vast majority of the those who say these things harbor deep-seated anti-Semitism and allowing them free rein would just be encouragement, not for debate, but for pursuit of their pre-determined agendas.

There was indignation throughout France after Mr. Gollnisch’s October remarks, and particularly here in Lyon (he teaches a few blocks from here). Once the heat got turned up on him, he said that the Minister of Justice, Dominique Perben and the Minister of Education, François Fillon, were persecuting him because they “had promised his head” to the Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France (CRIF), the French Jewish umbrella organization. Naturally. Everyone knows that Jews control the country, and French politicians are their lackeys.

Mr. Gollnisch has both supporters and detractors, so the climate at the university was confrontational. To prevent an outbreak of violence, in December the dean of the university denied him access until the school’s disciplinary committee rendered its report. The Conseil d’Etat overturned that decision, and he resumed his lectures, with bodyguards at his side and police standing by, but then Mr. Fillon decided it was best to suspend him pending the decision of his peers.

That decision came on Saturday: a five-year suspension. Until now Mr. Gollnisch’s teaching post and standing as a specialist on Japanese civilization have always lent him respectability. They have also tarnished the reputation of Lyon III. That advantage is now history. When the suspension is over, he’ll be 60 years old, and eligible for retirement. Of course he can always appeal….

To be sure, not every prominent person in France has condemned Mr. Gollnisch. In February, Raymond Barre, former prime minister under Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and former mayor of Lyon, said in an interview that he knows Bruno Gollnisch personally, and that “he gets carried away sometimes, but he’s a good man. Comments escape him, but underneath it all, I don’t think he believes them” (my translation again). Raymond Barre was PM when the synagogue in the rue Copernic was bombed in 1980 and uttered an infamous slip of the tongue, lamenting that the attack had struck “Jews and innocent Frenchmen”. Just thinking about that comment now makes me realize how far French politicians have come in the past 25 years.

Also to be sure, there are still plenty of anti-Semitic incidents taking place in France. As there are, sadly, in other European countries, in the United States and elsewhere. (Here are two web sites that catalog them: the CRIF, mentioned above, and the Anti-Defamation League.)

I searched for “Gollnisch” in the online versions of several US publications for news stories about this series of events and here is what I found:

Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Cleveland Plain Dealer, St Louis Post-Dispatch, Miami Herald: no stories

New York Times: most recent story – Nov. 2003

Washington Post: “World in Brief” item, dated March 5, 2005, as follows (entire text):

LYON, France -- Lyon University, part of which is named after Jean Moulin, the hero of the French Resistance murdered by the Nazis in 1943, said it would suspend a professor for five years after he questioned whether the Nazis used gas chambers in the Holocaust.

Bruno Gollnisch already faces a legal probe in France for questioning how the gas chambers were used by the Nazis and how many Jews were killed.
Just wanted to let everyone know that mixed in with the bad things, good things are happening too in France, even though the France-bashing media aren’t reporting them.

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At 1:29 AM, Anonymous Van said...

Steve -- great post, a needed perspective on what's going on over there. Your on-the-ground view gives me something to think about.


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