PARIS — In an indication of France’s concern over an upsurge of antisemitic incidents, President Jacques Chirac was to deliver a major speech Thursday calling on French citizens to mobilize against all forms of discrimination.
A Chirac aide and a Jewish communal official told the Forward that the president intended to personally call upon French citizens to be vigilant and to mobilize against intolerance, and that he had chosen a symbolic time and place to deliver his message. The speech is expected to take place in the southern village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, which, during World War II, served as a haven for some 5,000 Jews fleeing from the Nazis and for their French collaborators. In 1990, it was the first community honored as “righteous” among nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust martyrs’ and heroes’ remembrance authority in Jerusalem. The timing of the speech, barely a week before Chirac’s traditional TV appearance on Bastille Day (July 14), was meant to stress the president’s preoccupation with the issue and his desire to underscore that steps against antisemitism taken by the government still needed to be taken to heart by major institutions and public opinion, according to Bénedicte Brissardt, a Chirac press aide.
The speech comes as France has experienced a sharp rise in the number of antisemitic as well as racist incidents since the beginning of the year, after a steep decline last year. According to the latest information obtained by the Forward, in the first six months of 2004, the Interior Ministry recorded 135 acts and 375 threats of antisemitism, compared with 125 acts and 463 acts in 2003. The incidents account for about two-thirds of all racist occurrences recorded by the government. Officials said that a large majority of the incidents is perpetrated by Muslim youths: Sixty percent of the perpetrators are said to be minors.
While French officials noted that well-publicized efforts by the government to encourage victims to report incidents to the police prompted part of the statistical increase, they expressed grave concerns about the rise, blaming it primarily on turmoil in the Middle East and the tensions it creates in the suburbs in which Jews and Muslims live, side by side.
France has the largest Jewish and Muslim communities in Western Europe, with 600,000 Jews and about 6 million Muslims.
“We are facing a very grave situation, and we realize that,” said a French official closely involved in the issue, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This is a real challenge for our society.”
Patrick Gaubert, president of the League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, said last week to reporters that he bluntly told a senior presidential aide that Chirac should speak “loud and clear” on the issue quickly, before he is forced to do so “in front of a Jewish coffin.”
The French Foreign Ministry organized a series of meetings here last week for two representatives of the Anti-Defamation League and two reporters from American Jewish newspapers. During the proceedings, French officials, Jewish and Muslim communal and religious leaders and experts on antisemitism stressed the growing “communautarization,” the term used for the communal separation, and the “lassitude” it creates in French public opinion.
“French opinion is not antisemitic, but it does not react to antisemitism or racism,” said Yonathan Arfi, the head of the Jewish Students’ Union of France. “The French are fed up to hear about Jews and Arabs.”
A good example is the controversy over the stabbing of a Jewish youth in a suburb of Paris. After a man shouting, “Allahu Akbar” — “God is great” in Arabic — stabbed young Israel Ifrah near a Jewish school in Epinay, the act was widely condemned as antisemitic and the prime minister immediately paid a visit to the hospital where Ifrah was recovering from his injuries.
It soon emerged, however, that the alleged assailant had later attacked several people of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds, prompting questions about his mental health rather than his ideological motives.
Jewish groups claimed that the assailant’s antisemitic intent was proved by hate literature reportedly found in his home and by the fact that he reportedly used a more dangerous weapon to attack the Jewish child than he did his other victims. Nevertheless, Muslim leaders and left-leaning groups saw the Jewish reaction as a perfect illustration of overreaching.
Fouad Alaoui, the secretary-general of the French Union of Islamic Organizations, an influential traditionalist group, said the case illustrated the tendency of the French Jewish leadership to stigmatize Muslims. He warned that such behavior could backfire.
French officials said the affair is still under investigation. Still, some Jewish leaders claimed it has had a chilling effect on the mainstream press just as it was becoming more comprehensive in its coverage of antisemitic violence.
While praising the French government for its efforts to fight antisemitism from the top, Jewish officials said their main concern was with the justice system, which has been the theater of a flurry of disputes over antisemitic violence and discourse.
In one of the most infamous instances, a court dismissed a case lodged by several Jewish organizations against humorist Dieudonne M’Bala, who publicly has branded Jews “slave traders” and associated Israel with the Nazi regime.
In another high-profile case, a court reinstated two Muslim children who were expelled from a Parisian public high school for insulting and abusing a Jewish child. The child moved to a Jewish school.
In both cases, the government appealed the decisions but officials said they have to tread carefully with judges sensitive about their independent status and whose unions are quick to react to any perceived encroachment by the executive.
“The higher authorities are very aware of this issue and are using all the means at their disposal to change the situation,” said Blandine Kriegel, president of the High Council on Integration and an adviser to Chirac. “This is a personal commitment of the president.”
A Justice Ministry official said the government had instructed magistrates to implement more systematically a law voted in February 2003 mandating harsher sanctions against those who perpetrate antisemitic or racist acts or make such threats. The author of the law, a Jewish lawmaker from the Paris region, Pierre Lellouche, charged in a recent opinion article that his statute barely has been implemented.
The Justice Ministry also has appointed a magistrate in each of France’s 35 courts of appeal to oversee relations with the local Jewish community, and it is planning training courses for judges in order to sensitize them to antisemitism and racism.