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France: New Program Planned To Reduce Anti-Semitism

The French government is planning new measures to fight anti-Semitism. President Jacques Chirac led a top-level meeting at the weekend following an arson attack against a Jewish school in a Paris suburb. Muslim youths opposed to Israel's policies in the Middle East are usually blamed for such incidents, and the government is planning new ways to bring this alienated sector of society into the mainstream of French life.

Prague, 18 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- France is home to the biggest Jewish community in Europe, as well as the biggest Muslim community. Given the extreme tension and conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, it is not surprising that these two communities sometimes appear at odds.

In the latest incident in a spiraling series of attacks on Jewish facilities in France, arsonists set fire on 15 November to a Jewish school building in the outer northern Paris suburb of Gagny. No one has claimed responsibility, but as usual in these cases, the crime is being ascribed to disaffected Muslim youths. The attacks in France have grown in frequency since the start of the Palestinian intifada against the Israelis three years ago.

Now French President Jacques Chirac has acted to curb the wave of what's called the "new anti-Semitism." Whereas the traditional form of anti-Semitism was usually a slow but continuous pressure against Jewish communities, the "new" variety favors fire and bombings against specific targets, notably synagogues, shops, and schools.

Chirac on 17 November called an emergency meeting at the Elysee Palace of key government ministers, including Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, to decide on a major new program to combat anti-Semitism. As Chirac put it, "Whoever attacks a Jew in France must understand they are attacking the whole of France."

He added, "I have demanded the greatest vigilance in the prevention of acts of anti-Semitism, the greatest firmness in pursuit of them, the greatest severity and also the greatest rapidity."

The president followed up the ministerial session by meeting separately with leaders of the country's Jewish and Muslim communities.

At the ministerial meeting, Chirac and his team decided to stiffen laws against anti-Semitic acts, and to create a high-level committee to keep the public informed about measures against anti-Semitism.

Coinciding with that, Prime Minister Raffarin launched a $7 billion urban-renewal program designed to strike at the root of the problem. At issue is the 5 million-strong Islamic community in France, which lives largely in ghettos where poverty, unemployment, and social alienation are all well above national norms. The immigrants and children of immigrants -- mostly from former French colonies in North Africa -- live on the fringes of French society and have never been successfully integrated into the mainstream despite being present for decades.

The anger of the many disaffected Muslim youths, deprived of their old homelands but not accepted into the new, is seen by sociologists as a driving force behind the attacks on the Jewish community. Philippe Moreau de Farge, senior analyst with the French Institute for International Relations in Paris, says that money can help ease the situation, but is not a solution on its own.

"It can help," he said. "Of course it can help to solve the problem. But it is only one element in the equation. You know, you have two factors -- first is that you have 4 or 5 million people in France of Maghreb origin, of Arab origin, and it's clear that within this population there is a strong frustration, and of course anti-Semitism is one way of expressing this frustration."

Moreau de Farge went on to say the second factor is the historical background of discrimination against Jews, the "old" form of anti-Semitism which often re-emerges during hard economic times.

In Brussels, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom used a 17 November meeting with European Union foreign ministers to call for Europe to shake off the mantle of anti-Semitism. "I call today on Europe to join together with Israel and redouble its efforts to stem the spread of [anti-Semitism] -- this danger to our shared way of life," he said.

In acting so firmly, Chirac is undoubtedly aware that France is the focus of much international media attention now because of its rock-hard stand against the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Traditionally, Paris is seen as closer to the Arabs than to Israel. In addition, it is a leading member of the European Union, which Israel sees as more favorably disposed to the Palestinians' plight than to its own. Analyst Moreau de Farge says the French media is partly to blame for the situation.

"Concerning Israel and Palestine, [the media is] so partisan, because all the wrongdoings [are portrayed] as coming from Israel. But it is rather more complex than that, you know. You have no real explanation of what is at stake, what is thought difficult for Israel. You need a more informed French citizenry," Moreau de Farge said.