By Francesca Matalon
Francis Kalifat was elected in May as the new president of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France, the highest Jewish institution in France. He was born in Oran, Algeria, in 1952, but escaped ten years later due to the civil war, looking for a better future in France with his family. He grew up between Trappes and Versailles, not far from Paris, studied Law, and has been engaged in the Jewish life of the country since his activity in youth movements. Today he is an entrepreneur, and the head of the largest Jewish Community in Europe. He is not the first Sephardi president, as many have said, but he does accept to be regarded as the first Sephardi president being from the Maghreb, where a large part of the French Jewish Community comes from.
At the moment of your election, you immediately made it clear that your priority will be the fight against anti-Semitism. What is the situation in France?
We are a strong and united community, but I have to say that the climate in recent years has not been the best. There is concern. A compilation of data from the Interior Ministry and the security services of the Jewish Community show that in 2015 more than 800 anti-Semitic actions and threats were recorded, and the average has been fluctuating between 500 and 800 from the early years of this decade. This represents 40% of all racist acts committed in France, but one has to remember that the Jews represent less than 1% of the population in the country. This is why I believe it is necessary to fight terrorism in all its forms, in the streets, in the theaters such as in Dieudonné’s shows, in the movements that hide it under a mask of anti-Zionism such as the BDS, and on the internet.
Do you think that the code of conduct by the European Commission on the spread of online hate, recently signed by various social networks, will help the cause?
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have always been tied to politics. Therefore, we have always maintained tight relationships with these companies, but still there is no effective legislation like the one created for example in the case of pedophilia. But I do welcome the fact that finally there was a sign of awareness of the dimensions of this phenomenon.
How did the Jewish Community react to the terrorist threat, especially when France was identified as a sensitive target for the European Football Championship taking place there?
The situation of French Jews is fragile, because for several years many people had been killed for the mere fact of their being Jewish. Of course unfortunately Jews remain a target, but events like the attacks of November 13 have shown us that today all French citizens are in danger.
How do you see the success of Marine Le Pen, whose party Front National is gaining in the polls, in the 2017 presidential elections?
I agree with the majority of surveys that do not think she will become president, but certainly the Front National is strong and there will be some success. I also have to say with profound regret that the problem is not only French, since in Europe populist parties are advancing more and more. What is certain is that neither with Marine Le Pen nor with the Front National can there be any dialogue.
Do you believe that the growth of alyia is also linked to this? And how do you see the reverse phenomenon, the return of many French Jews from Israel at home, discouraged by many difficulties in the alyia process?
Yes, it is true that the growth in the number of aliya is linked to a sense of danger, but many also leave for other reasons, such as the economic crisis. About returns, unfortunately there are no clear data, but certainly the Community does everything to help people regardless of their choice, either to leave or to return. And this is our goal: to give people the option to choose according to what they think will be t best for them, to ensure that staying, leaving or returning is the result of a choice, rather than a necessity.
How has the French Jewish community reacted to the economic crisis?
The economic crisis has affected everyone, and automatically also the Jews. It pushed them among other things to leave France, not only to go to Israel, but also to other countries, like Britain – where London for example is one of the cities with the most French in the world – or Canada, the United States or China. But unfortunately this again is a case where there is no measurable data.
However, the French Jewish reality seems more alive than ever, and soon a large new community center will be built in Paris.
Surely! As always it is natural to address the problems, but it is also fair to say that the French one is a very old Jewish community, since the Jews obtained French citizenship in 1793. And even the appearance of new buildings dedicated to Jewish life is a sign of a growing passion, vitality and real thirst for learning and knowledge. And no, in this case there is no problem.
By Francesca Matalon