A French Politician Refuses to Be Silent in the Face of Antisemitism

They called for the French to march against antisemitism, and just five days later, more than 100,000 gathered in Paris alone.

For Yaël Braun-Pivet, one of the two organizers, and many other French Jews facing a surge of antisemitism, the hive of people quietly marching behind her offered a sense of solidarity across religious boundaries. It also boosted her faith in the power of politics to do good.

“Collectively, whether Jewish or not, we needed this beautiful image of a united France,” said Ms. Braun-Pivet, 52, from her office couch in the luxurious mansion reserved for her as president of the National Assembly.

In just six years in politics, Ms. Braun-Pivet, a member of President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party, has amassed considerable power, and a reputation as a calm, hard-working consensus-builder. In 2022, after she won her second term in the National Assembly, her fellow lawmakers elected her to preside over their debates from a golden-armed chair perched above the chamber floor — the first woman in that role.

She has also been a vocal victim of antisemitism, posting photos of the abusive screeds she has received on social media and discussing them in a direct way that is unusual in a country that disdains identity politics as a matter of Republican principle.

Since war erupted last month between Hamas and Israel, those threats have become so menacing, she has required full-time police protection.

“The fact that antisemitism even reaches the president of the National Assembly, that shows that it spares no one,” said Yonathan Arfi, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France.

Ms. Braun-Pivet at the French National Assembly this month. A member of President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party, she has amassed considerable power, and a reputation as a calm, hard-working consensus-builder.Credit…Ludovic Marin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For Ms. Braun-Pivet, like many French people, religion is a matter of tradition and heritage and not faithful devotion. Her husband, Vianney Pivet, is a nonbelieving Catholic, and they celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah with their five children.

However, the family lore of her paternal grandparents’ arrival in France, their survival during the Holocaust and the successful life they built in their new country afterward is a pillar of her identity.

Her grandparents, Kalmann and Rosa Braun, took care of her and her older brother during the many French school holidays. Their stories, she said, “greatly irrigated our childhood.”

Rosa was a Jew from Munich whose family fled Germany as the Nazis took power in 1933. Kalmann was a Jew from Poland who visited France on a tourist visa and stayed. They met and married in France.

At the outbreak of World War II, he joined the French Foreign Legion. After France surrendered in 1940, the couple tried to dissolve into the countryside, where he would offer tailoring services in exchange for food, eventually sheltering in the Alps. There, Kalmann joined the Resistance and Rosa was hidden for two years by a family on their farm, where she gave birth to Ms. Braun-Pivet’s father.

After the war, Kalmann used his Resistance medal to apply for French citizenship for all three of them.

Many French people felt betrayed by the Vichy regime that had collaborated with the Nazis and helped send more than 71,000 Jews to their deaths in concentration camps. But Ms. Braun-Pivet says her grandparents were among those who felt saved by their new country.

“They transmitted their visceral love of France, the country that had welcomed them, protected them, and for which they had fought,” she said during her investiture speech as president of the National Assembly last year.

The antisemitism march in Paris on Nov. 12. “We needed this beautiful image of a united France,” said Ms. Braun-Pivet.Credit…Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

She mentioned too that she was the first person in her family to get a secondary education. Her father worked in a large poster company that moved the family around France. Her mother, who had grown up with foster families, earned a secretarial diploma and worked in various offices.

Ms. Braun-Pivet pursued a law degree. When she was called to the Paris bar at age 25, Rosa provided the black gown into which she stitched her grandfather’s tailoring label. It read: “The Perfect Cut, Kalmann Braun.”

“I considered it a very powerful symbol,” Ms. Braun-Pivet said. “It’s important to remember the Republican promise — a promise of integration and also a promise that the Republic offers a chance to everyone, and supports everyone.”

That promise is essential to French Jews, who were granted citizenship rights during the French Revolution in exchange for assimilation. Under the Republican model, French citizenship subsumes all individual differences of religion and ethnicity, and offers equality — at least in theory.

In reality, however, the promise did not put an end to division or bigotry, including antisemitism.

Researchers point to the year 2000, and the outbreak of the Second Intifada, as the beginning of a new phase of antisemitism not seen since the Holocaust, arriving in frightening waves reflecting tensions in the Middle East.

In 2012, a French-Algerian Islamist entered a Jewish school in Toulouse and shot dead a rabbi and three young children. He said the murders were meant to avenge Palestinian deaths.

“That was an earthquake for French Jews,” said Danny Trom, a French researcher who has studied antisemitism.

Still, few were prepared for the outpouring of hatred spurred by the Israel-Hamas war that began on Oct. 7.

The police guarding a synagogue in Paris in October, two days after the Hamas attack on Israel. Credit…Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA, via Shutterstock

In less than six weeks, more than 1,500 antisemitic acts had been recorded across the country — far above the previous record for an entire year, according to the Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin. Most were offensive graffiti, posters or insults, he said. A significant number were threats, and 2 percent were physical attacks.

Many Jews in France are bracing for more and worse.

“Today, synagogues and Jewish schools are being protected heavily by police forces. The government is scared of more terrorism waves, and we all know they start with the Jews,” said Marc Weitzmann, author of “The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (And What it Means for Us).” “Everyone is afraid.”

Those fears have become so strong that what was once unthinkable has, for some Jews, become palatable: supporting — or accepting the support of — the far-right, which portrays itself as a defender of France’s Jewish community against Islamist antisemitism.

Before her election to the National Assembly, Ms. Braun-Pivet said, she was never personally touched by antisemitism. Early in her career, she practiced criminal law, and more recently she did nonprofit work. In between, her husband’s career as an executive at L’Oreal took the family overseas — Taiwan, Japan and Portugal — for nine years.

Members of the French government and members of Parliament applauding Ms. Braun-Pivet last month after her speech on the conflict between Israel and Hamas.Credit…Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Impressed by an upstart presidential candidate — Mr. Macron — she applied successfully to be a candidate for his new party, and in 2017 was elected as a deputy representing Yvelines, a suburban department 30 minutes west of Paris. Once in the National Assembly, she was elected president of the powerful law committee.

The antisemitic attacks came soon after. Shocked, she worked internally to address them. When that didn’t work, she decided to go public — setting what has sadly become her routine.

“I denounce it. I make the antisemitic threats public and I systematically file a police complaint,” she said. “I think it’s important to alert public opinion, to say things and to name them.”

In 2021, she posted on Twitter an email she had received, laden with antisemitic slurs, tropes and threats.Lawmakers stood up in the National Assembly, one after another, to denounce the letter and express solidarity with her. The Minister of Justice, Éric Dupond-Moretti, announced that a criminal investigation had been opened, which the Paris prosecutor’s office said is still active.

Ms. Braun-Pivet in Israel last month, where she traveled after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.Credit…Gil Cohen-Magen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Since last year, Ms. Braun-Pivet has reported 19 antisemitic threats and messages. She does not believe that any have resulted in charges.

Last month, when Ms. Braun-Pivet traveled to the sites of the Oct 7. Hamas attacks in Israel, the far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon accused her of “encouraging the massacre” of Palestinians.

Ms. Braun-Pivet said Mr. Mélenchon was “putting a target on my back.”

The idea for a march against antisemitism emerged during a regular lunch with Gérard Larcher, the right-wing president of the French Senate. The event was considered a success, but the antisemitic attacks continue.

Ms. Braun-Pivet is mulling what actions to take next. She says that for her, antisemitism is not personal — it’s a symptom of the weakening of the Republican promise that saved and embraced her family.

“I think very strongly that collectively we must be very attentive to these republican ties which are somehow diminishing,” she said. “Because the stakes are too high.”

Near the Panthéon in Paris on the night of the Nov. 12 march.Credit…Claudia Greco/Reuters

Juliette Guéron-Gabrielle contributed research from Paris.

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