By Michael Jacobs / mjacobs@atljewishtimes.com

The rise in anti-Semitism, radicalization among some Muslims and surge in anti-Muslim violence since January’s terror spree challenge a two-century effort to make French society secular.

French Consul General Denis Barbet

France’s longtime commitment to secularism also complicates the nation’s response to the terrorist killings of 17 people, including four Jewish men at a kosher supermarket Jan. 9, by a trio of Islamic extremists.

The French consul general in Atlanta, Denis Barbet, noted that France doesn’t know for sure how many Muslims it has — the common estimate is 5 million — because the government doesn’t collect census data based on race or religion.

The determination to see all French citizens simply as citizens was a recurring theme during an interview with Barbet on Feb. 6. The veteran diplomat played down religion as the prime motivation for anti-France and anti-Jewish extremism among some Muslims in his country.

“They are not disadvantaged because they’re Muslim,” Barbet said. He focused instead on a combination of economic factors, including the problems immigrants have assimilating into a new home, and he emphasized pockets of poverty in some Paris suburbs and other parts of the nation as the sources of radicalization.

Barbet said the killings in January at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher supermarket shook the people of France and led to declarations such as French Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ statement that “France without Jews is not France.”

The consul noted the many “Je suis Juif” (I am a Jew) signs on display when millions of French people took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations Jan. 11. While he acknowledged that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was the primary motivator of the marches, Barbet said the Jewish killings drew national attention to the need to ensure the safety of the community of almost half a million Jews.

He made the connection between insecurity and the surge in French aliyah. With 7,500 new olim, France was the No. 1 source of aliyah in 2014, and the Israeli government forecast the number to rise to 10,000 in 2015 before the January attacks.

Barbet said French Jews who immigrate to Israel should make the move out of love for Israel or a quest for better economic opportunities. It’s a failure for France, he said, if they’re motivated by fear.

“They should see that their place is in France,” Barbet said. The French people “don’t have to give in to the anti-Semites.”

France in recent years has acknowledged its history of anti-Semitism and is confronting what Barbet called the new anti-Semitism coming out of the Muslim community. France in December declared the fight against racism and anti-Semitism to be a national priority and is considering new laws against hate crimes.

France’s relationship with Israel also plays a factor, said Barbet, who is a Middle East specialist. He knows Arabic, has studied Hebrew, and is a fan of Yiddish and Israeli literature. His diplomatic posts since the mid-1980s have included Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

“What’s going on in the Middle East has some effect,” he said, because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involves such strong feelings. But Barbet said France is determined not to import that conflict.