PARIS — When the French education minister warned that antisemitism had become a “true danger” in French schools and last week announced a series of measures to tackle the issue, Jews here rejoiced that someone high up finally was listening to their complaints.
The center-right government, after committing to crack down on violent antisemitic acts immediately after it won the elections last June, is only now seeking to address the issue of anti-Jewish incitement. But on February 27, Education Minister Luc Ferry made himself a hero to the local Jewish community by holding a press conference in which he laid out 10 measures to address the issue of antisemitism and racism in school, including committees to monitor and respond to racist activity among students.
“This is just remarkable,” said Patrick Klugman, head of the French Jewish student association. “You don’t find so often a French politician who speaks clearly about the danger of antisemitism and dares to tackle the flaws of the education system.”
Education leaders will meet later this month to toughen sanctions against students engaging in such behavior.
“There is a trivialization of antisemitism that worries us, a new wave of antisemitism that is being tolerated by certain adults,” Ferry said.
Ferry also broke two taboos when he pointed out that some of the antisemitism was being tolerated by left-leaning teachers, and that the bias could be traced to France’s large Muslim and Arab population.
The announcement was covered — and welcomed — by the mainstream press, which accompanied it with stories of Jewish children being harassed by their classmates and forced to change schools. However, the powerful teachers’ unions reacted angrily, describing Ferry’s statements as baseless and insulting.
Some commentators also cast a more cynical light on the initiative, saying that the looming war with Iraq, which is unpopular in France, and the risks that it could ignite a Muslim population already inflamed by the intifada were the main reasons the government announced the measures.
While Jewish communal leaders here have hailed the efforts of Gaullist President Jacques Chirac, the president has also cultivated his popularity among Muslims. Chirac has been at the forefront of the opposition to a war with Iraq, boosting his popularity here but especially in the Muslim world. Earlier this week, hundred of thousands of Algerians greeted him warmly as he made a historic trip to Algiers.
Although the welcome can be explained by the special occasion — it was the first state visit by a French president since Charles De Gaulle granted Algeria its independence in 1962 — Chirac’s Iraq stance is viewed favorably in the Arab world and among French Muslims, who traditionally side with the Socialist Party.
But Chirac has also been careful to address the issue of antisemitism, cheering Jewish communal leaders who have criticized what they characterize as the tepid actions of the previous Socialist government.
The first visible action was carried out through the efforts of Chirac’s interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who pledged to crack down on crime, including antisemitism. Largely because of his efforts, the number of violent incidents targeting synagogues, schools and individuals has dropped sharply since last April and the perpetrators of antisemitic acts have been pursued more aggressively.
Legislators also passed a law several months ago sanctioning antisemitic and racist acts more harshly.
Even so, some 455 racist and antisemitic incidents were recorded in the first trimester of the year in French public schools. Most were non-violent, involving verbal insults and offensive graffiti, but the episodes have fueled concerns among Jews about a noxious climate in France.
Last fall, a group of teachers published a book titled, “The Lost Territories of the Republic,” in which they claimed the teaching of the Holocaust has become impossible in some classrooms because of hostility toward the subject by students of Arab origin.
While the anti-incitement actions launched by Ferry last week are unlikely to produce immediate results, and will require political will to implement given the rigidity of the French education system, Ferry is seen as a politician sympathetic to Jewish concerns. A philosopher, he has expressed his opposition to a boycott of Israeli universities and professors proposed by some universities in Europe. Jewish leaders who have met with Ferry to discuss the antisemitic climate in schools and universities also feel that the minister understands the issues.
“Maybe it’s because of his philosophical background, but he grasps intellectually the problem of antisemitism and even its anti-Zionism dimension,” said Klugman, the student leader who has met Ferry and been a close observer of the educational debate. “What’s important is that he said it was a problem of the national education and not merely inter-communal tensions between Jews and Muslims, as we so often hear.”