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A Tough-Talking French Minister Raps Arabs, Left on Antisemitism

PARIS — Yes, there is a worrisome development of antisemitism in part of the French Muslim community, which is 5 million strong. Yes, the intellectually influential far-left tolerates such attitudes out of guilt for France’s colonial past and because of its deep antipathy for Ariel Sharon’s policies.

And no, these admissions do not come from an anguished French Jewish leader. This politically incorrect assessment comes straight from France’s minister of education, Luc Ferry.

“I am not saying the Arabs and the extreme left in France are antisemitic,” Ferry told the Forward in a 45-minute interview last week in his elegantly appointed office in Paris. “But the problem is that because of the intifada and 9/11, there is an identity crisis among some young Arabs leading to antisemitic attitudes. This is tolerated by part of the left, through an anti-globalization, anti-colonialist discourse.… With a war in Iraq looming, the minister of national education has to take his responsibilities, break the taboos and say there are new forms of antisemitism we need to fight.”

Earlier this month Ferry announced a series of measures to tackle the growing antisemitism in French schools. The most visible is a plan to send “mediators” to some 500 schools where problems are most frequent in order to help school directors combat bigotry. Committees will also be set up to monitor and respond to racist activity among students.

With the announcement of the new measures, Ferry has instantly supplanted tough-talking Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy as the darling of a Jewish community rattled by a rash of antisemitic incidents during the last two and a half years.

While Sarkozy earned praise for cracking down on the authors of antisemitic attacks, Ferry is hailed for his willingness to deal with the issue of incitement and break taboos by claiming that antisemitism in France comes from other places besides the far right.

“It’s a moral question,” he explained. “I think it’s wrong not to say it and I think it’s wrong not to do anything about it. One has to have the courage to break those taboos even if it irritates some extreme-left intellectuals, some trade unions and anti-Zionist militants… It is not because the discourse comes from the quarters of the victims, i.e. the Palestinians, that we have to accept it.”

Ferry is not your typical politician. It is not common for a philosopher who spent his career writing and teaching — including in the United States — to end up as education minister. Ferry was hand-picked last year by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin to oversee reform of the nation’s huge public education system.

For a right-wing minister dealing with large left-leaning trade unions, this spells automatic trouble. So when he announced the measures to fight antisemitism, he fully expected the trade unions would blast him, calling his assessment insulting.

“They know very well I am right about this,” he responded. “We have the least antisemitic teaching corps in the world, but they need help to enforce the sanctions that are already in place.”

This is why he will meet next week with the directors of some 100 schools to emphasize the message and discuss the means to enforce it.

While he denies announcing the measures as a preemptive strike before a war in Iraq that observers believe could ignite a surge in antisemitic acts, Ferry acknowledged that Iraq was adding fuel to the situation created by the intifada and the September 11 terrorist attacks in a country that is home to the largest Muslim and Jewish communities in Western Europe.

“I would like to avoid Jews going to Jewish schools and Muslims going to Muslim schools and this, alas, is what could happen,” he said. “We are not going to see ethnic cleansing in schools to solve the issue… So if the Republic doesn’t straighten things, doesn’t recall the principles and doesn’t punish, you will see fathers revolt.”

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