Five years ago, the second intifada was raging, and the bulk of the French political leadership and most of the media was, despite all evidence, putting the blame on Israel. Then, when one-sided press coverage helped incite anti-Jewish violence throughout France, the Establishment ignored it.
The French finally revised their stand, both on Israel and on anti-Semitism. Still, denial has a cost.
The French unwillingness to acknowledge the truth regarding Israel or the Jews was linked to a wider uneasiness about the demographic changes in France. Like most Western countries, France is being transformed by large-scale immigration from non-Western countries.
Like most European countries, France is chiefly dealing with Muslim immigration, essentially from the Maghreb but also from sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey and Pakistan. These immigrants are not just coming in order to fully integrate within a rich and powerful French nation but, in many cases, are attempting to superimpose their own religion and civilization on their new home.
Back in the early 1980s, it was the then quite influential French Communist Party which, oddly enough, was the first to raise Muslim immigration as a political issue. The whole matter was then made utterly unpalatable by the far-Right agitator Jean-Marie Le Pen, with the Machiavellian support of socialist president Fran ois Mitterrand, who saw an opportunity to divide the classic Right.
Thanks to Le Pen, who still indulges in Vichy regime innuendoes of all sorts, talking about Muslim immigration became a major taboo. Questioning the fact that contemporary Islam was political as much as religious would lead to political, civic or academic exclusion.
The collection of statistics related to religion or ethnicity was banned by law. Thus, France pretended the demographic revolution was not taking place. Government data, such as it was, claimed there are some 3.5 million foreign residents of all stripes, where the actual number of largely Muslim foreigners, naturalized foreigners and children of foreigners is probably closer to 10 million.
While immigration as such is deemed to be severely restricted, France tolerated more Muslim immigration and condoned a steady radicalization of Muslim religious institutions. The authorities either ignored or underestimated the scope of such natural allies as the secular or democracy-minded immigrants of Muslim origin, especially the Berber-speaking Kabyles.
Above all, everything that could have reminded the French of their sad fate - from Israel's self-defence to America's brave stand after 9/11 - was met with hysterical hatred.
Even Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin now admits, in the wake of the riots and urban warfare that have rocked most French cities for two weeks, that this is "the moment of truth," and more pointedly, that the "French model" of immigration is in the docket.
The logic of events is unescapable. First, we had Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy attempting to restore law in order in some Muslim neighborhoods in suburban Paris, not so much out of principle, but rather as a response to grave crimes exposed in the media. Then we had an insurrection, often under the Islamic war cry, Allahu Akbar.
Cars were torched by thousands, local facilities like commercial arcades, schools, and metro stations were burned down, synagogues and churches were attacked, non-Muslims beaten to death, Molotov cocktails and firearms were used. The local powers that be, Islamist mafia-type thugs and networks, didn't want the French police back in their enclaves.
Then we had parts of the Muslim Maghrebine and Black African community - and certainly most of its youth - identifying with the rioters, either in word or deed. An eery prospect indeed, since the Muslim community is much younger than the nation at large, and the share of Muslims is accordingly broader among the youngest population brackets than among the global population. One-quarter of French youth may be Muslim today, and even one in two in some cities, whereas the proportion in the general population is just one in six.
The government was rather slow to act upon this. What may have prompted its final reaction, which culminated last Tuesday with the imposition of the state of emergency on 25 out of 95 counties, was the emergence of vigilante groups. Militias are against the grain of the hypercentralized French political culture. There was no other option but to take the rioters challenge seriously, at long last. Significantly, the opposition Socialist Party supports the Villepin-Sarkozy cabinet in these matters, at the insistence of local officials.
Now what? The government is currently insisting on both public order and "justice." This means it is attempting to appease some Muslim extremists with public money and possibly greater recognition for the role of Islam in society.
Obviously, this is not what is needed in the long run, what the average French citizen will allow, or what makes sense in the wider European context. The French intifada (as many call it now) is the third bad experience over just one year, after the murder of Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands and the ensuing riots, and the 7/7 bombings in Britain. Other countries responded with tough new policies; it would be folly for France to move in the opposite direction.
The writer is editor of 'Valeurs Actuelles', a Paris-based journal.
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