In a dramatic admission, the French government’s newly-appointed liaison to the worldwide Jewish community is saying that Paris underestimated the scope of domestic antisemitism and finally has decided to respond appropriately.
While Jewish community leaders have expressed alarm about the growing antisemitism repeatedly during the past three years, French officials have consistently downplayed the wave of antisemitic incidents. However, the new liaison, Ambassador Jacques Huntzinger recently said at a lunch in New York with reporters that it is time to tell the truth and react for the sake of France’s social stability.
“Two years ago, when a Jewish institution was burned, there was no reaction,” said Huntzinger, who is charged with repairing France’s image among Israelis and Jewish communities worldwide. “We underestimated the problem, so the criticism was partly justified. But the government has now decided to be more active because the struggle against antisemitism is key to the stability of France.”
Huntzinger said his government had realized the dangers of antisemitism for some time, but the final impetus came last month, after the simultaneous bombings of two synagogues in Istanbul and an arson attack against a Jewish school near Paris.
The back-to-back incidents fed a media frenzy best epitomized by the headline of the left-leaning daily Liberation: “The anti-Jewish hate.”
French President Jacques Chirac blasted the attack on the school in Gagny and directed the government to set up a special committee to tackle antisemitism and to allocate billions of dollars to poor suburbs with major populations of marginalized Muslim youths, who are held responsible for most antisemitic incidents.
At the same time, the Foreign Ministry decided to create a new position of “ambassador at large in charge of the international aspect of the Shoah, spoliations and remembrance.” Fresh off a four-year stint as French ambassador to Israel, Huntzinger was tapped to fill the new post.
More than dealing with Holocaust issues, his main job will be to repair his country’s image with both Israel and its supporters around the globe, especially in the United States.
“Because there was a very critical rise of antisemitic incidents in 2002 and because of disputes with Israel and the U.S., France has the image of an antisemitic country,” he said during a press briefing this week in New York. “So we need to show that this is not true, but also to act.”
During his trip, Huntzinger held a series of meetings with American Jewish groups, which he accuses of damaging France’s image.
While he stressed that the conservative government that came to power in April 2002 had launched a series of law-enforcement and educational initiatives to tackle the antisemitism, he acknowledged that it was insufficient.
When talking about the risks to the “stability” of French society, Huntzinger seemed to be referring to the growing radicalization of a fringe of France’s estimated 7-million-strong Muslim community.
French authorities are clearly worried that the continuing antisemitic incidents will eventually result in injuries or deaths. In addition, officials fear that international terrorist groups could strike Jewish targets in France with the help of local Muslims.
In addition to spending more money to integrate disgruntled Muslim youths into French society, the government has also taken several aggressive steps to counter what it sees as the rise of militant Islam.
After years of hesitation, French officials have indicated an intention to enforce a ban on students wearing veils or other religious symbols to school and to remove radical imams from mosques. While Huntzinger expressed confidence that a peace deal in the Middle East — or, at least, a halt in the intifada — would sharply reduce the number of antisemitic incidents, he said the threat posed by radical Islamists would remain.
Huntzinger said the line separating anti-Israel and antisemitic behavior was thin, adding that it was important for France to show that its relationship with Israel is friendly and firm. He pointed to the recent signing of a charter on bilateral relations with Israel and the invitation extended to Israeli President Moshe Katsav in February for a state visit as examples of the close links existing between the countries despite their disagreements over the Palestinian issue.
He also claimed that French press coverage of the Israel-Palestinian conflict has become more balanced in recent months. But this conclusion was hotly contested by French Jewish officials who said they have not seen any recent improvement in what they have long described as the pro-Palestinian bias of the French media.