Guillaume Debré didn’t know how to break it to his young daughters and has yet to show them a photograph of the swastika. “They are markings on sacred stones, that spell out hate and in this country, we understand what that means and what it can lead to,” he says.
“To my daughters it’s just a peaceful area where their family comes from. It’s difficult for them to understand that their family, that their grave has become a target of hate.”
But in early December, that is exactly what happened in the small village of Westhoffen in the Bas-Rhin region of Alsace, in eastern France. No one knows exactly when swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti were spray-painted onto 107 tombstones in the village’s ancient Jewish cemetery – the 42nd anti-Semitic attack in the region in just 18 months.
French authorities are taking the matter extremely seriously. France’s Interior Minister Christophe Castaner visited Westhoffen the day after the swastikas were discovered and French President Emmanuel Macron paid his respects at the cemetery of Quatzenheim after it was desecrated earlier this year. And yet, no one has been caught.
A source close to the investigation told CNN that locals are believed to be responsible for the recent spree and that they may have been incited by global websites. Extra police resources have been allocated to the search for the culprits and several officers are working on the cases full-time. Part of the difficulty is that the villages are remote and very quiet. And according to the man in charge of the investigation in the Bas-Rhin, the culprits are not your average criminals.
“Normally,” says Colonel Francois Despres, “it is about following the money, but this is another type of criminal and people who are used to adopting a low profile both in society and when they commit acts. So that’s why it’s a question of patience and we are patient and that patience will pay.”
For now, 42 attacks – on graveyards, town halls, schools and cultural centers – remain unpunished and the threat of more remains. While the hunt for the culprits continued on the ground, CNN began to investigate who might be influencing them from afar. What we found was a trail that led us from Alsace, through the Bahamas and Panama, and on to the United States.
Searching the internet, CNN found two French-language websites posting celebratory articles and photographs about the attacks in Alsace. “White Europe” and “Participatory democracy,” are both domiciled outside of France – in the Bahamas and Panama – and therefore beyond the reach of France’s anti-hate speech laws. Both are openly anti-Semitic, with “White Europe” hailing the work of “the proud people of Alsace who are leading the way.”
In response to CNN’s questions, “White Europe” said that although they didn’t know who was responsible, they did support such actions. “Participative democracy” told us that whilst they did not condone the crimes, they believed that the attacks were staged as part of a Jewish conspiracy. Both sites promote the theories of the late American white supremacist David Lane, whose 14-word slogan – “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” – is a rallying cry for parts of the extreme right. A reference to it was made in the attack at Westhoffen: one of the tombs had been graffitied with the number 14.
Both sites use the American internet infrastructure company Cloudflare – which not only allows websites to get online but helps them stay there, by shielding them from cyberattacks. In the wake of the El Paso mass shooting this summer, Cloudflare discontinued its service to 8chan after a user believed to be the killer was found to have posted a rant on it. Cloudflare also said it stopped its service to the US neo-Nazi blog Daily Stormer in 2017. Not because any laws obliged it to but because it chose to following the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
CNN asked the company why it was not doing the same against hate speech that happens to be in French, and much of which is illegal in France, but received no reply.
We also found that posts from the French sites stayed up for a while on Facebook before they were taken down, while Facebook says posts from Daily Stormer are blocked from being shared. After CNN reached out to ask about Facebook’s policy, the company began blocking the French sites too. Twitter, for its part, allows the sharing of posts from both the French sites and Daily Stormer. In response to CNN’s questions, the company said it will start blocking certain content in the future. Twitter also said that they take action on content that violates their policies, including hateful conduct.
The trouble is that for the time being, with hate speech on the internet so far beyond the reach of national laws, the only restrictions that apply to it are decided by private companies and on a case-by-case basis. Guillaume Debré says it is time that this global problem received a global solution. “Without it,” he says, “you’re going to have more Westhoffens, more Quatzenheims and others and not just in France but in New Zealand and in America.”
It is an issue on which France is seeking to lead the way in the wake of the Christchurch attack, live-streamed on the internet. Soon after, the French government announced a bill, now working its way through the parliament, that seeks to force social media platforms to be responsible for the content they distribute. Companies like Facebook would have 24 hours to take hate speech down after users flagged it or face a hefty fine.
In an exclusive interview with France’s Interior Minister, we asked whether the United States, where so many of the internet giants are based, was doing enough. “No. And my answer is clear,” said Castaner, “because there is a clear difference of culture.”
“It is not about opposing French or European culture to American culture, but clearly on these subjects there is a belief in the freedom to say anything and everything. I believe that there is no freedom when it is us and our fundamental values that are being attacked.”
In the meantime, the French government says it is doing what it can. After visiting Westhoffen, Castaner announced a national taskforce dedicated to investigating and fighting hate crimes. This in a country that has Europe’s largest Jewish population – 550,000 people – and where in 2018 the number of anti-Semitic attacks, which includes both threats and assaults, rose by about 75%, according to the latest interior ministry figures.
One question is why these attacks have happened in this particular area of France. Positioned on France’s border with Germany and Switzerland, Alsace has changed hands several times over the centuries. A history reflected in its local dialect – far closer to German than to French – and in its culture. It is also a region that has one of the oldest Jewish populations in Europe, first documented in the 12th century.
Long confined to the villages by edicts that banned them from the cities, the Jewish community was an important part of rural life in the Bas-Rhin region. Relations between the communities were not always calm – there were regular pogroms and sectarian tensions between local Protestants and Catholic populations – but for 1,000 years they lived side by side. By the 20th century though, local Jews were migrating to Strasbourg, a rural exodus hastened by World War II, and leaving behind only their cemeteries. In all, there are just 45 cemeteries of them in the Bas-Rhin.
Inside one of the largest – and heavily guarded – synagogues in Europe, the chief rabbi of Strasbourg, Harold Weill, told us that it was because Alsace had such a vibrant and well-integrated Jewish population that those on the extreme fringes chose to target it, warning that “hatred that begins with the Jews, never ends with the Jews.”
Yoav Rossano, is on the frontline of that hatred. In his role as the head of Jewish heritage in the Bas-Rhin he is often the first on the scene of attacks and the first to be confronted by the symbols of hate.
“It is awaking the history,” he says of the recent spate of attacks. “Part of the family line died in Auschwitz so to see here in my region, you feel a big responsibility.”
That responsibility both protects the history of the Jewish population here and ensures its future.
But it is a lonely and difficult battle with ancient regional tensions now being fed by an international white supremacy movement facilitated by technology.
Global hate is now fanning local flames and that may be harder for Rossano to stop.