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."

Sunday, 9 May 2010

J Call: Europe's first left-wing lobby is kicking, but is it alive?

A new European group modelling itself on J Street, the left-leaning American Israel lobby, was launched at the European Parliament on Monday.

Hundreds of supporters of J Call, including MEPS and two former Israeli envoys, presented a petition asking Israel to stop its settlement activity and calling on Europe to intervene.

Headed "a European Jewish Call for Reason" and partially written by former Israeli envoy to France Elie Barnavi, the online petition has been signed by more than 4,700 people.

It asks the EU to put pressure on Israel and the Palestinians to make "the necessary moves to establish peace" and calls on Israel to stop building in the West Bank and in "the Arab districts of east Jerusalem". Leaders say they will also demand that Palestinians renounce the right of return.

"Some say our initiative hurts Israel, but it's the exact opposite: we aim to save Israel from disaster," said founder David Chemla, head of the French branch of Peace Now. "Israel cannot remain a democratic Jewish state if it keeps occupying the West Bank."

But he was unable to explain what kind of measures it wants the EU to take against Israel, adding: "We're obviously pro-Israeli and are opposed to any kind of boycott."

While MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit told the crowd, to loud applause, that "the Zionist dream is not my dream", others, including philosophers Bernard Henri Levy and Alain Finkielkraut, are known for their unwavering support for Israel. Their involvement triggered a backlash from French umbrella group CRIF, whose leader Richard Prasquier accused J Call of endangering Israel and helping its enemies.

An online counter-petition gathered more signatures than the original. But Mr Levy brushed the accusations aside.

"Debate and differences of opinion make us stronger, not weaker. It's absurd to think Zionists shouldn't express themselves," he said.

And several signatories, including Mr Barnavi, disagreed that an impartial call was necessary.

"It's a call from diaspora Jews to Israel. It would be ridiculous to balance every single statement," he said.

Signatories also rejected claims that they were attempting to override the will of Israeli voters, with former ambassador to Germany Avi Primor arguing that J Call does not stop the Israeli government from implementing its policies.

It remains unclear whether such an appeal can get significant support in Europe and whether J Call - currently only a petition - can be transformed into an effective political tool.

There is at least one British signatory - Engage's David Hirsch - but sources say that British groups which were approached declined to join until it was clear whether J Call was well received and its goals were clarified. Mr Chemla is visiting London next week to meet potential signatories.

Friday, 2 April 2010

French Jews 'unfazed' by National Front gains

The far-right National Front made a surprise comeback in the French regional elections on Sunday, but the Jewish community remains largely unperturbed.

The National Front gained its best result in years, getting an average of 17.8 per cent of the vote in 12 French regions. Eighty-two-year old party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen obtained the highest share of the vote, 22.8 per cent, in the southern region of Provence, Alpes, Cote d'Azure.

The party's success was unexpected as it has been losing ground for years, particularly since Nicolas Sarkozy ran for president in 2007. But voters are now turning back to the far right.

Still, the head of France's Jewish umbrella group CRIF said the party's results do not prove the French are increasingly antisemitic.

"I've always protested against Le Pen's controversial declarations, his insulting remarks on the Holocaust, and he hasn't gotten any wiser through the years, but this does not mean his voters share his views," said Dr Richard Prasquier. "They're just extremely frustrated with the economic crisis and their vote is a form of protest.

"However I do feel that the fact that they found no other way to express their dismay is a bad sign for our democracy."

Since Mr Sarkozy was elected president, the National Front has been beset by internal rivalries and financial woes. It spent millions on campaigning and even had to put its headquarters on auction to settle its debts, but no one would buy them due to the party's negative image. Meanwhile, the party has been struggling to find a successor to its aging founder and several leaders have left the movement

The debate over who would take over after Le Pen retires seems resolved now, in favour of Jean-Marie's daughter Marine, currently the party's vice president. The 42-year old has positioned herself as the probable successor and while several party officials have criticised a succession within the Le Pen family, her impressive 22 per cent share of the vote in the regional election in the north brings her new legitimacy.

Over the past decade, Marine Le Pen has tried to change the party's image, abandoning her father's controversial style and revisionist remarks about the Holocaust. She tried to join a parliamentary trip to Israel and to approach Jewish media. But observers say she is still advocating the same policies as her father.

"She may be more polite, but her programme remains unchanged: favouring people of French descent, getting people of foreign descent to leave the country," said political scientist and far-right expert Jean-Yves Camus.

When running for president, Mr Sarkozy vowed to strip the National Front of its voters with promises of greater security in France and limited immigration. But his policies appeared to have fallen short, and now Mr Le Pen's old voters are returning to their old party.

"This is an obvious defeat for Mr Sarkozy," said Jean-Marie Le Pen after the election.

And his daughter Marine said the party will now prepare for the presidential election due in two years.

"The National movement is now a major player," she said, "a major player in the next major national election - the presidential election."

Thursday, 4 February 2010

CRIF, now officially a right wing lobby?


The head of France’s main Jewish umbrella group, the CRIF, denied on Wednesday that his organisation had veered to the right, but some within CRIF are questioning this. (According to liberal Crif member Gilles-William Goldnadel saying someone is on the right is not insulting, so I assume Crif won't be offended by this post).

*

An odd controversy was at the heart of Wednesday's annual dinner of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF). The organisation’s leader, Richard Prasquier, sought to explain why he had defended a man who had aimed a comment described by some as anti-Semitic at former French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius.

Georges Freche, a long-time president of the Languedoc-Roussillon region in southern France and a former member of the Socialist Party, caused a stir last month when he said one shouldn’t vote for Fabius because “he didn’t look Catholic”. Since Fabius is of Jewish descent, the remark was deemed by many to be anti-Semitic.

Fabius was offended and the Socialist Party was shocked; but Freche revealed that he got a letter of support from none other than the leader of France’s Jewish umbrella group.

Prasquier said Freche was not anti-Semitic, even though he considered his latest remark to be intolerable. Freche, who was expelled from the Socialist Party in 2007, is not new to allegations of racism. He once made waves by claiming there were too many black players in France’s national football team.

Observers say Prasquier defended Freche because of his past support for Israel. Defending the Jewish state is one of the CRIF’s main aims, as Prasquier repeated in his speech on Wednesday.

The CRIF is generally considered to be more traditional and conservative than Jewish organisations in other countries. But many say it has recently veered further to the right, while its defence of Israel has become more uncompromising than ever.

In the recent election of the CRIF’s executive committee, right-wing candidates gained significant ground. One of the winners was Gilles-William Goldnadel, a lawyer who defended journalist Oriana Fallaci when she was attacked for writing in The Rage and The Pride that Muslims “multiplied like rats” among other comments. But Goldnadel has also defended young Jews who tried to destroy anti-semitic manuals in book stores, and victims of anti-Semitic attacks. That might be one reason for his success.

Meanwhile, Socialist Party member and prominent anti-racism activist Patrick Klugman failed to make the cut. But contrary to media reports they can’t be deemed leftists regarding the Middle East. Indeed, Klugman defended the Israeli bombings on Gaza launched in December 2008 is response to Hamas rocket fire against southern Israel.

“Yes, we succeeded, that’s democracy,” Goldnadel told FRANCE 24. “The irony is that many Socialists voted for me too. People voted for us because they felt we would defend Israel better and fight against anti-Semitism in France.”

Goldnadel says the left failed to recognise the changed nature of anti-Semitism, and therefore failed to come up with an adequate response. “[The Socialists] failed to recognise it because they didn’t want to see it. Because it came from a new place they wanted to ignore,” he said, referring to claims of growing anti-Semitism among French Muslims.

In his speech, Richard Prasquier said anti-Semitic assaults had doubled in 2009, and most of the increase had taken place in impoverished suburbs. “People who live in wealthy neighbourhoods have little chance of knowing this,” he said.

CRIF figures show a spate of attacks in France mainly in January 2009, during the Israeli operations in Gaza. At that time, the Jewish organisation sought to demonstrate its support for Israel, but its marches were dwarfed by numerous rallies against the Israeli bombings on Hamas.

The Communist and Green parties, who had called for a boycott of Israeli products during the Gaza War, were excluded from Wednesday’s event by the CRIF.

Asked whether he felt lonely at the gathering, former Communist Party leader Robert Hue told FRANCE 24 “he would always come to this event”, adding that the shift to the right was “a reality not only within the Jewish community but also among the French population in general.”

For French writer Marek Halter, the shift to the right marks a loss of hope for a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “It’s just like in the Middle East itself. The left in Israel is weaker because of the circumstances. Peace seams unattainable. So pro-peace parties fail to gather support. But everything can turn around with a little spark of hope.”

At the dinner, the CRIF appeared at times more right-wing than the conservative politicians who were present. Christine Boutin, a former minister and a staunch conservative, even told FRANCE 24 she was “concerned about the CRIF moving too far to the right”.

But, as he wrapped up his speech, Prasquier dismissed such fears. “We’re not right or left-wing,” he told the audience. “We’re Jews, Republicans, French – and proud to be so."