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Thursday, 20 January 2011

Letter from France

Jan 5th 2011

Are some influential people in America using the memory of the Holocaust to beat France out of business deals? Many people here in Paris seem to think so. The controversy was all over the papers a few weeks ago. After a decade of negotiations on the sale of the high-speed train to the United States, the French national railway company (SNCF) is now being held accountable for transferring Jews to Germany during World War II.

To Paris, this looks like a cheap trick to favor its main competitors, the Chinese railways and German company Siemens. And since losing the Florida and California projects would be a massive blow for France, its government decided to take action, or “wet its shirt,” as the French would say.

Both former Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and his successor, Michele Alliot-Marie, met with U.S. officials and American Jewish leaders in New York and Paris.

In fact, Alliot-Marie met with an American Jewish Committee (AJC) delegation on the evening she took office.

They have tried to persuade U.S. Jews that France is a world champion of Shoah commemorations.

The foreign ministry also reached out to The Jewish Journal and The New York Times so it could explain its position.

“France has done so much to commemorate the Holocaust,” Francois Zimeray, the French ambassador for human rights said, citing more than a dozen measures, including the creation of the Holocaust memorial, a “world-leading think tank” for commemoration, financial compensation for victims and emboldened school programs on the Shoah. “Perhaps we haven’t spoken out enough to let people know how much we have done. Had they been aware, they wouldn’t have reacted this way.”

When asked if he was accusing someone of attacking the SNCF for business purposes, Zimeray replied, “I have no concrete proof that this is favoritism, but if there had been favoritism, it would have been done in the exact same way.”

He went on to say that France had had similar concerns about previous deals.

“In the past, U.S. lawmakers barred the high-speed plane Concorde from entering the U.S. That was for environmental reasons supposedly. Of course, we all know how important the environment is for Americans.”

“History and business shouldn’t be intertwined,” Zimeray, a former member of the European Parliament, added. “Competitiveness should be the only criteria for business deals.”

“Unfortunately for France, Chinese companies have turned more competitive by now,” a businessman who works for the SNCF and the Chinese railways and who wishes to remain unnamed said. “They pay their employees much less than their French or German competitors, and the Chinese government funds many of their investments.”

Yet those who accuse the SNCF of not taking full responsibility quickly enough may not be entirely wrong. Until the latest accusations came from the United States, officials had never issued a proper statement of regret, such as the one they’ve now sent to America. In fact, the foreign ministry said it pushed the company to write that statement so that the deal would be sealed.

In fact, the company’s American Web site offers explanations of what happened during World War II, but they don’t appear on its French site.

Therefore, to Alain Lipietz, a former member of the European Parliament who sued the SNCF because it had transported his father to the camp of Drancy, the SNCF statement of regret has just one goal: “closing a business deal” and “is not sincere.” Lipietz said he and his family have been repeatedly criticized for suing the company.

Meanwhile, historians are still divided on the case. Is it true that the SNCF was requisitioned and had no choice but to follow the orders of the Vichy regime? Serge Klarsfeld, one of France’s leading experts on the Shoah, perhaps its No. 1 expert, said the SNCF appeared to have had no choice and that it earned no money from transferring Jews, Gypsies, communists and others to the Nazis. The money it received covered its expenses alone, according to Klarsfeld.

Other historians are less definitive. They say that no document ordering a requisition has been ever found.


The French government said it is battling anti-Semitism in the Arab world; that is what Zimeray also said. According to Zimeray, French ambassadors across the world have formed a network, organizing conferences on the Holocaust, handing out Primo Levi’s books and Anne Frank’s diary.

“In some countries, “Mein Kampf” is widely spread, while Anne Frank’s diary is banned,” Zimeray said. “We met with Arab League leader Amr Moussa about six weeks ago and told him, ‘Enough is enough!’ ”

I have great respect for Zimeray. When he was in the Parliament, he battled to get reports on how Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority was using European funds, and his party, the Socialist Party, has made him pay for that. However, I doubt that the measured diplomat addressed Moussa in those exact words.


The daughter of far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen is likely to replace him at the head of the National Front, France’s far-right nationalist political party, in mid-January. The elder Le Pen is retiring and his daughter Marine Le Pen seems best placed to win the party’s internal election this month. She has battled to boost her party’s approval rates and is starting to get results. According to some recent polls, Marine Le Pen is now getting support rates of more than 30 percent, almost as much as President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Her strategy: giving her party a more acceptable image by dropping the anti-Semitic attitude of her father. In order to surpass her father’s score of 17.79 percent in the 2002 presidential election, she started, right after that vote, to woo the Jewish and Israeli media. The goal wasn’t necessarily to attract Jews so much as mainstream voters who might associate her with her father’s anti-Semitic reputation. Jean-Marie Le Pen had been known and condemned for saying that gas chambers were a “detail of history” in World War II.

The French Jewish media has declined all Marine Le Pen’s invitations. And when she tried to visit Israel as a member of the European Parliament, Israel told her she wasn’t welcome.

However, her strategy is bearing fruit. Unfortunately for Le Pen, many in her own party are annoyed by her “liberal” approach, and this could make the upcoming election more difficult for her.

Now she is trying to get those far-right voters back. In a recent radio interview, she made a controversial comment on Muslims, saying that those who pray on the street (because they don’t have enough space in mosques) are “occupying” French territory, like the Nazis occupied France “but without tanks.” She added that being a Jew, a homosexual, a white person or French can be very complicated in certain neighborhoods because of fundamentalists.

All political parties criticized her remark and said she was walking in her father’s footsteps. But Marine Le Pen appears more ambitious. She is not only trying to win back far-right voters for the internal vote, she’s also trying to keep her so-called tolerant image by pretending to defend Jews and homosexuals.

The Socialist Party may inadvertently have assisted her. Reacting to Le Pen’s comment, Socialist spokesperson Benoit Hamon said that praying in the street “cannot be tolerated much longer. … We need to find solutions so Muslims would have enough areas to pray in and at the same time liberate public spaces.” It’s the first time any party other than the National Front has issued such a statement.

Many Socialists say more mosques should be built, but they don’t know where to get the money. Some political leaders suggest a reform of the law separating state and church so that public funds could be used to build new mosques.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Roma deportations 'not like Holocaust roundups'

French community leaders have spoken out against the targeting of the Roma people for deportation, but rejected comparisons with the roundup of the Jews in the 1930s.

"We can't accept discrimination like the one the Roma community is facing. It's a European problem and it must be addressed on that level," said Richard Prasquier, head of the French Jewish umbrella group CRIF.

"But I was shocked by certain comparisons. The situation today is nothing like the one under the Vichy regime."

He said that most of the Roma who have been sent back to their home countries "accepted" the deportation.

"EU laws protect them in these countries," he added. "They're not sent to gas chambers. I haven't seen any hate demonstrations.

"Those who say our nation has been stained, as did former PM Dominique de Villepin, used an intolerable speech of propaganda. History should be respected."

Since January, France has deported half of the foreign Roma people living on its territory back to Romania and Bulgaria. Authorities sped up the pace of deportations this summer, after the shooting of a Roma man triggered scuffles between police and the Roma community.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has said he has no intention of stopping the process although critics at home and abroad - including the Vatican, UN Human Rights panel, the OSCE and various European bodies - have labelled the policy racist.

A number MEPs and a priest have compared the roundups in Roma camps to the round ups of Jews during the Second World War.

"The government's goal is obvious: It's using the Roma people to demonstrate its so-called efficiency against crime," said Malik Salemkour, head of Romeurope and vice president of the Human Rights League.

"But they're just scapegoats, an easy target. There are barely 15,000 Roma people in France and no one cares to defend them.

"They're being discriminated against, like the Jews were in the 1930s."

France's chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim said Roma were being stigmatised and called for an interreligious meeting on the issue. However, he too rejected the comparisons with the Second World War.

"I regret and condemn these exaggerations. One should ask the Gypsies what has happened in the death camps and what has happened this month of August."

Meanwhile, Interior minister Brice Hortefeux, recently convicted for racist comments about Arabs, said the deportations were solely due to high crime rates among Roma people.

He said one out of five crimes is committed by a Romanian national. Human rights groups said the study was not only biased but also illegal.

Some observers have accused President Sarkozy of bolstering the government's action against illegal immigration for political purposes.

His approval rates have dropped to a historic low and wooing far-right voters could boost his popularity before the next presidential election in 2012.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

French battle to bring back 'foreign' names

Dozens of French Jews have been fighting a battle that few people were aware of - they've been trying to get their family names back.

Years ago, their parents changed their "foreign-sounding'' names so they would sound French because they dreaded anti-Semitism.

But their children and grandchildren see their old names as a trail of their family history. The problem is, French law doesn't allow someone to revert to a former name. And on the rare occasions requests are considered, officials insist that the whole family must agree.

"I started by filing requests at the State Council 25 years ago, before my daughter was born. I wanted to give her my real name," said Olivier Rubinstein, now Raimbaud.

"My parents changed our name in the sixties because they did not want us to be subjected to antisemitism. They'd been through the war. After my first request, I was told I cannot reclaim what's considered a foreign name."

For 200 years French law has stipulated that family names are "immutable" and must be continued. People can change their last name if it sounds ridiculous or foreign. They can also claim another name if it's about to disappear. But this only applies to "French" names.

About a dozen people formed an association called The Strength of the Name and were received at the justice ministry and filed four new individual requests for name changes.

"We're waiting to see how this procedure goes before we decide how to move forward," said founder Céline Masson. "We insist that we're not asking to change names but to get our names back. It's completely different."

"Frenchifying" names is not a rare phenomenon in France, where assimilation has been a founding principal for centuries. Even President Nicolas Sarkozy's family changed its name, from Sarközy de Nagy-Bocsa.

And the family name of Richard Prasquier, the head of France's Jewish umbrella group CRIF, was also changed. "My father changed our name when I was 15. He did it because he knew I wanted to study medicine and thought this would protect me from discrimination at school," he said. "I was a little disturbed by this but I knew he was right because a few years back that same medicine school had barred and discriminated against prestigious Jewish doctors.

"In the Jewish community, names are a trace of our family history although I wouldn't want foreign readers to think that we're suffering from injustice today. I wouldn't want this to look like a protest."

Far right extremists such as National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen accuse them of hiding their true identity so they can infiltrate the spheres of power.

This was reiterated this month in a review by an extreme right group that calls itself 'The National Radical". In an article headed "the Jews who dominate France" it listed hundreds of names of people who have succeeded in various fields and accuses them of controlling the country.

Olivier Rubinstein said: "This is exactly what pushed me to fight to get my name back 25 years ago. At the time Le Pen was citing journalists and artists who had changed their names, accusing them of concealing their identity. I thought that getting my name back would be the right thing to do. I didn't want any doubt over the fact that I never intended to change my name or hide my religion and identity."