"I must say that the French government is taking steps against [anti-Semitism]. But altogether, if I have to [advise] our brothers in France, I'll tell them one thing -- move to Israel as early as possible. That's what I'm saying to Jews all around the world, but [in France] I think it's a must and they have to move immediately," Sharon said.
Sharon went on to blame France's 5 million-strong Muslim community for stirring anti-Israeli feelings in a country where he said anti-Semitism had "always" existed.
The Israeli prime minister's statement -- coinciding with commemorations in France of the 62nd anniversary of the arrests of tens of thousands of French Jews during World War II -- sparked an angry outcry among the French leadership. The Foreign Ministry reacted immediately to Sharon's remarks, calling them "unacceptable" and demanding "explanations" from the Israeli government.
Leaders of France's Jewish community also criticized the Israeli prime minister. Theo Klein, the honorary president of the Representative Council of France's Jewish Institutions (CRIF), urged Sharon to not interfere with the affairs of France's 600,000 Jews. The former president of France's Jewish Students Association, Patrick Klugman, said Sharon was "very ill-informed about the situation in France."
In comments made to the France 2 public television channel, Patrick Gaubert, who chairs the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA), warned against inflammatory comments he said could only trigger tensions among France's religious communities. "These comments will not bring the calm, peace and serenity we all need," he said. "Therefore I believe Mr. Sharon would have been better advised to keep silent."
France's political establishment gave a similar assessment today. In an interview with France's Europe 1 private radio, Jean-Louis Debre, the president of the National Assembly lower house of parliament, called Sharon's statement "inadmissible, unacceptable, and irresponsible." Opposition Socialist Party spokesman Julien Dray blamed the Israeli leader for turning France's entire Muslim community into a scapegoat for recent anti-Semitic incidents.
Figures released by the Interior Ministry show the number of anti-Jewish acts has slightly increased in the first half of 2004 compared to the same period last year. But the same official statistics show attacks against representatives of other religious groups -- mainly Muslim Arabs -- have risen proportionally, although the overall number was fewer.
Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who is a leading figure in the Union for a Popular Majority ruling party, noted today that France's antiracism legislation is among the most comprehensive in the world.
Confronted with the general outcry in France, Sharon today backpedaled on his earlier remarks, saying they had been "misunderstood."
In comments made to Europe 1, Sharon's spokesman Avi Pazner said the Israeli prime minister meant France's Jews "belonged to Israel" in the same way Jews all around the world do.
Figures released by the Jewish Agency for Israel, a nongovernmental organization with close ties to the Israeli state that is designed to recruit immigrants worldwide, show the number of Jews moving to Israel from France has sharply increased over the past few years. They were reportedly more than 2,300 in 2003.
But Haim Korsia, an aide to France's Chief Rabbi Joseph Sitruk, said yesterday that the vast majority of French Jews see themselves as "part of France's soul" and have no plans to leave a country that is home to Western Europe's largest Jewish community.
(compiled from news agency reports)