“How can anyone be allowed to paint a swastika on the statue of Marianne, the goddess of French liberty, in the very center of the Place de la République?”
That was what the chairman of one of France’s most celebrated luxury brands was thinking last July, when a tall man in a black shirt and a kaffiyeh leapt to the ledge of Marianne’s pedestal and scrawled a black swastika. All around him, thousands of angry demonstrators were swarming the square with fake rockets, Palestinian and Hamas flags, even the black-and-white banners of ISIS. Here, barely a mile and a half from the Galeries Lafayette, the heart of bourgeois Paris, the chants: “MORT AUX JUIFS! MORT AUX JUIFS!” Death to the Jews. It was Saturday, July 26, 2014, and a pro-Palestinian demonstration turned into a day of terror in one of the most fashionable neighborhoods of the city.
“Do something! Do you see what is happening here?” the chairman said to a line of police officers watching the demonstration build to a frenzy. “What do you expect us to do?” one officer said, then looked away. For years, the chairman, a longtime anti-racism activist, has turned up at rallies like this one to see which politicians and which radical groups were present. (For reasons of personal safety, the chairman asked not to be identified for this story.) France’s endless demonstrations are a mainstay of the republic, a sacred right rooted in the legacy of Voltaire. But hate speech is a criminal offense—people may express their opinions, but not to the extent of insulting others based on their race, religion, or sex. The protest—against Israel’s Gaza policies—had been banned by the government, fearful of violence, following flare-ups in the preceding weeks. But if the police were to move in too quickly, the riots might continue all summer long—suburbs in flames, mobs in central Paris.
Photographs and videos of the swastika and its perpetrator, of protesters chanting “Kill the Jews,” and of the Palestinian, Hamas, and ISIS flags were sent in a rush to various groups in the Jewish community who assess threats. By early afternoon, some of these reached Sammy Ghozlan, a 72-year-old retired police commissioner who has spent his career working the banlieues, the belt of working-class, racially mixed suburbs that surround Paris. Ghozlan is a folk hero of the banlieues and has a nickname that is impossible to forget: le poulet cacher—“the kosher chicken.” (Poulet is slang for cop.) For 15 years, he has overseen France’s National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism—known by its French abbreviation, B.N.V.C.A.—a community hotline he founded that is funded by his police pension and whatever small donations he can come by. Its purpose is nothing less than to protect the Jews of France.
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Just two weeks before the July 26 riot, Ghozlan’s texts and messages did not stop. It was Bastille Day weekend, and, on Sunday, July 13, he tracked the hundreds of protesters who rushed into the Marais, Paris’s historic Jewish quarter, stopping briefly at an empty synagogue on the Rue des Tournelles, near the Place des Vosges, and then racing, reportedly with iron bars, axes, and flags, toward the Rue de la Roquette, a boutique-and-café-lined street a few blocks from the apartment of Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Their destination was the Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue. Inside, the 200 worshippers—including the chief rabbi of Paris—heard the howls from the crowd, estimated to number about 300: “Hitler was right!” “Jews, get out of France!” Audrey Zenouda, a policewoman who happened to be inside the synagogue, called her father, a retired policeman who works with Ghozlan at the B.N.V.C.A. “Do something. We are terrified here.”
“I knew that if anyone could get the police to take action it would be Sammy and the B.N.V.C.A.,” Zenouda later told me. Only six police officers were assigned to be on demonstration duty that day. “We are waiting for the assault police to arrive,” one told a reporter at the scene. After an hour, a counterterrorism force rescued the chief rabbi, but everyone else was left inside, behind doors barricaded from the inside with chairs and tables. Outside, members of a special security patrol and a dozen members of the self-trained Ligue de Défense Juive began chasing off the demonstrators with chairs and tables from nearby cafés, working with a small unit from the security force. Together, it took them three hours to disperse the crowd and safely evacuate the synagogue.
Almost immediately afterward, the reports of the July 13 demonstration would be challenged and debated. The numbers would be skeptically parsed—were there really so many?—and questions would be asked about actions that might have provoked the violence, as if carrying iron bars and axes around central Paris might be normal. In some circles, there were even accusations that the Jews “brought on the behavior,” as they always do.