"Paris could become a battlefield!" This was how commentators speculated about a "solidarity with Palestine" demonstration that the police had authorized for last Saturday. The concern was not groundless.
A few days before, a Harris opinion poll had shown that 82 percent of the French feared a wave of terrorism in France and 72 percent believed that something like the 7 October attack by Hamas would happen in Paris.
"People are right to have concerns," says Brice Hortefeux, a former Minister of the Interior.
In the past decade, France has been hit by over 400 terrorist attacks or attempts, almost all related to the Middle East or what is shorthanded as "Islamic World." The same concern was expressed in numerous editorials, reminding people that as home to Europe's largest Jewish community, some 500,000, and highest number of Muslims, around 7 million, France was already "part of the Middle East."
A number of small but violent demonstrations in Paris and other cities in the aftermath of October 7, all banned by the police, raised the level of concern.
On the eve of the Saturday demo, the police announced it would field 2,000 armed personnel, backed by drones and helicopters and plainclothes agents, to deal with "any eventuality." At the same time, the political parties and trade unions that sponsored the demo said their "security units", some 1,000 tough guys and gals, would also be present.
As an added precaution, police refused to let the march pass by Marais, a Paris district with a substantial number of Jewish homes and businesses.
The demo was planned against a background of rising anti-Jewish acts, over 900 instances since October 7, according to the Interior Ministry. So, you can imagine that it was with some trepidation that I decided to come out of retirement as a reporter and cover the dicey demo. And then, what a surprise!
Although it looked like scores of demos I had seen in Paris since my student days in the 1960s this was a fairly small affair. According to police, some 19,000 people, a quarter of them security agents and/or reporters, participated. (As usual, organizers, including the Socialist Party, multiplied the figure by three.)
The three-kilometer distance between Place de la République and Place de la Nation did not turn into a battlefield.
At some points, the demo even looked like a city walk past shops that had closed their shutters out of fear. The Boulevard Voltaire reminded us of a short story by the Swiss philosopher in which a bug, annoyed by the tick-tock of a wall clock, jumps into it in the hope of stopping it, but is killed. As far as we could make out, a majority of marchers were young.
A few looked grim and angry but many had a bon enfant demeanor, exchanging jokes and laughing with one another. Apart from a French-Algerian lady who seemed angry enough to break a shop window, there was no sign of anyone wishing to get dramatic.
Paris demos have a template provided by activists who attend each other's events.
These include anarchists, anti-Turkish Kurdish groups, LGBQ+, the People's Mujahedin, "Stop-Oil" and other "green" militants, nostalgics of the Soviet Union, dyed-in-wool anti-Americans, do-gooders ready to march for any cause, and looters from the suburbs.
In Saturday's demo, however, such veteran protesters had a low profile. A few people carried banners of "Queers for Palestine", "Black Lives Matter" and "Biden Accomplice in Crime."
A band of neo-Nazis were among the 1,300 individuals that police said were prevented from joining the demo from the start.
Throughout the demo, there was little mention of Hamas. A trio of Khomeinists, who said they had come from Belgium with a portrait of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a Hezbollah flag, tried the slogan "Hamas shall vanquish" but were quickly silenced by hostile glances.
The fusion of Hamas and "The Palestinian cause" had caused confusion as the whole show was built around "Palestine" as leitmotiv.
The one-minute silence was for "Palestinian victims" with the main slogan: "Free Palestine!". The slogan "Free Gaza" had an ironic ambiguity as the enclave has been ruled by Hamas for 15 year. The slogan "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" was chanted by a few marchers, echoing "Juden Raus!" in 1930s Germany, but didn't quite catch on. None of the marchers we talked to expressed support for Hamas.
"We are here in solidarity with the Palestinian people," claimed Hervé, a university student from Nanterre. Dominique, a shop worker, claimed she came because she couldn't see "children of Palestine dying."
Another marcher, Leila Ghuraibi, said "Genocide must stop" but wasn't prepared to justify the massacre of Jews by Hamas.
A poll for the daily Le Figaro shows that 37 percent of the French still have sympathy for Israel, while Palestine gets 20 percent and Hamas 5 percent.
"Hamas doesn't represent Palestinians," said Laurent, a restaurant worker, echoing a comment by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. "Palestinians don't behave like that."
"Hamas has betrayed the Palestinian people," says philosopher Michel Onfray.
However, the march was also bad news for Israel. This crowd included ordinary French citizens who could not be written off as anti-Semite weirdos.
No doubt anti-Semitic sentiments have deep roots in France, as in most Western countries. However, Israeli leaders need to ask how Israel, a victim on October 7, was cast as an oppressor two days later.
Those I talked to in the demo seemed as if they had forgotten October 7, reminding me of Isaac Bashevis Singer's phrase "What a miser is a human memory!" For decades, with the exception of The Netherlands, France was the most pro-Israel nation in Europe and its chief source of weapons. It helped Israel build its nuclear capabilities. Whenever Israel was attacked, French intellectuals and celebrities mobilized to show support through public meetings and full-page ads in newspapers.
This time, however, the only expression of solidarity came from a few, mostly of Jewish background. There was a time when Israel was the darling of the left. Now, however, only Fabien Roussel, leader of the Communist Party, condemns the October 7 massacre. In the Saturday demo, there was no mention of the nearly 250 Israeli hostages held by Hamas. The so-called elites have adopted a one-way indignation posture against Israel.
Yet, casual talk at the bronze counter shows that Hamas has done much damage to the "Palestinian cause" while Benjamin Netanyahu's belligerent rhetoric has diverted attention from the price Israel paid on October 7. However, in France at least, as far as we could make out, the battle for public opinion is far from settled.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article originally appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat and is reprinted with some changes by kind permission of the author.