The W-word has been dropped. The first to mention it was France's far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon in an interview with Le Monde. He was quickly followed by his far-right counterpart Marine Le Pen. And soon enough, journalists around the world, from Germany to Latin America by way of Portugal and others, were joining in: Could this really be Emmanuel Macron's Watergate?
The French President is currently embroiled in what the Parisian press corps has dubbed the "Benalla affair." It all began with video footage showing a man in National Police gear beating a peaceful protester on the fringes of the May Day demonstration in Paris. Last week, Le Monde revealed that the man shown on the video was in fact not a police officer, but Alexandre Benalla — President Emmanuel Macron's longtime bodyguard and deputy chief of staff. And the Élysée presidential palace is now accused of attempting to cover up the incident: Instead of informing the public prosecutor, as the legislation requires, the president's team, merely gave Benalla a two-week suspension, before re-assigning him to his usual tasks. He was, thus, still accompanying Macron at the Bastille Day parade and was even at the front of the French soccer team's bus for their Paris victory parade last week.
This was supposed to have disappeared from the Elysée in the shiny Macron era.
Observers in France and elsewhere are scratching their heads as to how such a minor (though serious) event could escalate to the point of becoming an "affaire d"état", the gravest crisis of the Macron presidency so far. There are several factors at play. First, there's certainly what the BBC's Paris correspondent Hugh Schofield describes as "incompetence, poor judgment of character, misuse of authority and hopeless communication," all of which, he says "were supposed to have disappeared from the Elysée in the shiny Macron era."
A second factor is to be found in what an extensive media focus on this scandal has revealed — namely, suspicions of the existence of a private militia under the president's authority, evidence of a preferential treatment and of double standards, and the long list of all the advantages and privileges Benalla had access to both before and, more disturbingly, after the May Day incident. The French daily Ouest-France reported that Benalla had access to a private car equipped with police tech with chauffeur, to a "generous' monthly salary of 10,000 euros and that he was given, just two weeks ago, a luxury state apartment in an upmarket Paris district. Magazine L'Express meanwhile revealed that he was given 180,000 euros in taxpayers' money for renovation works in that apartment. And the list goes on ...
Finally, there is, undoubtedly, another factor at play in this whole scandal, not directly linked to the facts of the case: a rare chance for political gain for opponents from both sides of the spectrum, who have struggled to find their way since Macron cruised to victory a year-and-a-half ago.
In the end, you always pay.
Writing in Le Monde, columnist Françoise Fressoz says the opposition's success in using the scandal to delay a controversial parliamentary debate on constitutional reform is "their first victory" since the beginning of Macron's presidency. "In the end, you always pay," she writes. "They're taking revenge for his insolent audacity of believing that nothing would resist him, that he could thumb his nose at the old world, that he was strong enough to do and reform as he pleases (on labor laws, rail, unemployment benefits, pensions, health, etc.) while ignoring their criticism or even their advice."
Is the "Benalla affair" Macron's Watergate? Perhaps not. But then again, the Watergate scandal itself took on a life of its own — and eventually brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon — long after the initial revelations. What we can be sure of is that both the media and investigators will continue to dig on the Benalla affair. With plenty of enemies ready to exploit whatever is found, Macron's fate may ultimately lie with his friends.
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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