Friday, 28 December 2007

New year resolutions

The French have never been more ambitious on the eve of a new year than they are on this holiday season – the first of the Sarkozy era. A dynamic push from our tireless president led us to an unprecedented number of new year resolutions. The French will smoke less in 2008 and work more, as the government is moving forward with a plan that could put an end to the renowned ‘35-hour week’. But more than anything, France is aiming for world peace.

Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, once referred to as “the black hole of all conflicts” by former FM Michel Barnier, is France’s secret resolution for 2008, as it tries to maintain its international stature, and French diplomacy evaluates that pressing for a quick creation of a Palestinian State could be an efficient way to reach its goal.

FM Bernard Kouchner placed the creation of a Palestinian State at the center of the Paris Donor Conference organized on December 17 and went as far as to joke around and declare: “And the winner is: The Palestinian State!” in his final press conference with Mahmoud Abbas.

My friend the Israeli journalist Shmuel Tal told Kouchner that one of the main actors, Hamas, was absent from the Paris conference, and therefore no decisive progress was possible. However, Sari Nusseibeh, former PLO representative in Jerusalem, told me he thought that, on the contrary, no positive evolution would ever be possible with Hamas.
“Hamas ideology, its nature, cannot change,” said Nusseibeh. “The only solution is to move forward and attract gradually Hamas supporters.”

Aside from peace, the quest of love and good business are two of the main new year resolutions for 2008. For the first time in history, French newspapers have started a ‘shiduchim’ campaign to find new love for the recently divorced president.

All of the country’s dailies, radios and most TV stations have treated Sarkozy as the new ‘bachelor’, first trying to match him with various local stars and then widely reporting on his 3-week dating affair with former top model Carla Bruni, with whom he has apparently spent Christmas in Egypt. The love story took center stage in the media and some have accused President Sarkozy of using his liaison to take attention away from the recent Gaddafi fiasco – the Libyan leader’s exuberant visit in France - which left many French speechless. No analyst can seriously support such a maneuver, yet one must stress that the president’s red carpet invitation to the Libyan leader, in exchange for multi-billion dollar business deals, was highly criticized, even within his own party and government.

“Colonel Gaddafi must understand that France is not a doormat on which a leader, terrorist or other, may wipe his bloody shoes” declared young secretary of state to Foreign Affairs and Human Rights Rama Yade.

“Gaddafi has turned us into fools” – wrote France Soir editor Gérard Carreyrou. “God created the world in six days and Gadaffi used his 6-day visit to mock everyone: the French Republic, our elected president and millions of citizens.”

“We’ve given Gaddafi a red carpet treatment to the eyes of the world,” said opposition member François Bayrou. “We sold away our values for a bunch of uncertain trade deals with Libya [..] signing defense agreements that turn us into Tripoli’s ally. [..] As a result, France will be marginalized and weakened.”

“France has been dishonored!” wrote Pascal Brukner, an author who is generally among Sarkozy’s supporters. “We’ve already humiliated ourselves with a presidential visit to the Anti-Semitic Algerian regime, with enthusiastic phone calls to Putin and with a visit from Hugo Chavez. When will we unroll a red carpet for M. Ahmadinejad?”
(Some critics added President Bush to the list of Sarkozy’s questionable contacts.)

The critics recalled Gaddafi’s recent renewed support for terror, when stating at the Lisbon EU-Africa summit that terror was the weapon of the weak. They also stressed his lack respect for human rights in Libya, and more specifically the affair of the Bulgarian nurses, imprisoned for years although they were innocent.

“Gaddafi has 6 million hostages – Libya’s inhabitants,” wrote Charly Hebdo Weekly.
However loud and unanimous throughout Paris, critics were silenced, almost forgotten and unsuspected in various events organized for the Libyan guest.

I had the rare opportunity to attend a gathering of women in favor of Gaddafi which seamed as anything from surreal to hallucinating. The mere topic of the conference: ‘women’s rights’ was yet another attempt by Gaddafi to embarrass the French. In preceding days he accused them of neglecting human rights and failing to respect their immigrants - turning Western criticism of Libya against Europe.

Hundreds of women from African countries such as Senegal, Mali, Libya and Northern African countries dressed in traditional and glamorous dresses, many of them veiled, cheered Gaddafi in his three-hour appearance as if he were a rock star, waiving veils with his picture and applauding everyone of his extraordinary statements.
The atmosphere was so unusual that an elected representative of the Jewish community found herself greeting Gaddafi in the name of the community. – I was later asked not to report on this in the local media to avoid unnecessary embarrassment, as this was anything but planned.
“I’m here to save Europe,” said Gaddafi. “Europeans abandon their children on the streets, and when these children grow up they can reach powerful positions and then their psychological trauma can lead them to launch wars and genocides.”
Gaddafi persuaded the assembly that working is not always in women’s best interest.
“Men and women have equal rights, but not equal duties,” he said “Women shouldn’t lower themselves to certain jobs which may be decent for men, but not for them.” “Women have so much to do at home – They start a second job once they come home from their official working place.”
A veiled woman turned to me, laughing, and said “Well, the men are the ones who should start changing”.

A delegate from UNESCO turned to Gaddafi and asked him to contribute to the education of African girls. Gaddafi answered that the European women are the ones who should be saved, getting cheers from the crowd.

One can wonder how women living in Europe can cheer and hail such words and bow to such a dictator. While talking and observing several women and their address to Gaddafi I noted there were different crowds. Some women chairing various African associations were trying to get Gaddafi’s attention on various problems they were facing, lobbying the leader for women’s interests. Others were simply overwhelmed, trying desperately to get a picture of the “guide of the revolution” on their cell phones, cheering every word.

Will Gaddafi’s criticism against France’s immigration policies have an effect on France’s troubled suburbs? Some experts fear that it may. And the effect can be revealed when one speaks with some immigrants.

One of my Moroccan journalist colleagues, Fatima, told me today that France had some nerve accusing Libya of failing to respect human rights.

“It is in France that human rights are not respected,” she told me in the way Gaddafi stated it a week ago, “You French have a limited notion of human rights. Human rights are not about freedom of speech, they are also, and mainly about giving everyone the chance to earn a living.”
“Whenever I get to a job interview, even in state offices, my resume is suddenly not good enough,” she added. “Human rights are about dignity and I don’t feel that I have that here in France.”

Political scientists such as Zaki Laidi evaluate that inviting dictators like Gaddafi only reinforces them and weakens those who oppose them, and Laidi questions the results of Sarkozy’s will to respect such guests he is forced to invite for strategic and economic reasons, selling them nuclear plants and various weapons.

Sarkozy argues that Libya has abandoned terror. He adds that he is not alone and that time has come to reintegrate Libya in the ‘International community’.

The French may be asking themselves other questions: whether their country has invited such guests in order to regain its past international stature, whether France will succeed in its attempt to reintegrate, or cling to, the ‘powerful nations community’ or whether the very resolved Sarkozy is experiencing his first presidential setback.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Sarkozy faces antisemitic jibes in Algeria

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s first official visit to Algeria this week was overshadowed after he became the target of antisemitic insults.

Only a few days prior to the visit, Algerian minister Mohamed Cherif Abbés claimed in the El–Khabar newspaper that Mr Sarkozy had been elected through the manoeuvres of “the Jewish lobby” and made reference to the president’s Jewish origins.

The Algerian authorities refused to apologise for the assault, and Socialist leaders Jean-Christophe Cambadélis and Pierre Moscovici pleaded for a rescheduling of the trip, stating the attack was “intolerable”.

However, Mr Sarkozy decided to push forward with the meeting, attempting to consolidate tense bilateral ties and to sign $5 billion (£2.5bn) of energy deals.

Mr Abbés’s comments were not the first antisemitic attacks launched against Mr Sarkozy. Extremist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen has pointed at Mr Sarkozy’s ancestors, saying “he is Jewish through his mother”, and several weeks ago Mr Sarkozy was even accused of spying for Israel’s Mossad intelligence service. But Mr Abbés’s assault was the first public antisemitic attack made by an Algerian official and was followed by the Algerian authorities’ refusal to allow entrance to one of Mr Sarkozy’s guests on the visit, a French-Jewish singer of Algerian descent, Enrico Macias. The French Jewish umbrella group CRIF said it was “disgusted” by these decisions.

The attacks may have been intentional, coming at a time when Algeria is trying to make its mark in the region. Mr Sarkozy, who has strengthened relations with Morocco, Algeria’s rival, wants to develop a Mediterranean Union that would include Israel, but Algeria prefers to keep Israel out.

However, the most obvious issues of discord were France’s past colonial rule in North Africa and Mr Sarkozy’s refusal to issue an official apology, as well as his immigration policy, which has been strongly criticised in Algeria.

The French president chose to remain focused on his mission, condemning colonisation but refusing to issue an excuse. He replied to the minister’s antisemitic attacks in his speech, calling for a fight against racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia.

“Nothing resembles antisemitism more than the hatred of Islam,” Mr Sarkozy told the Algerian Parliament. “Antisemitism and Islamophobia have the same face, the face of foolishness and hatred. We can’t explain them, we simply have to fight against them.”

Letter from Paris courthouse

Something unusual happened in the small 11th Appeals courtroom of Paris on Nov. 14. The footage used for a September 2000 report by French TV on the death of Mohammad al Dura in the Gaza Strip was screened and examined by a judge in a slander trial against an Internet site that had claimed the Al Dura report was forged.

Charles Enderlin, the veteran correspondent of French public television in the Middle East and author of the report, described to the judge every segment of the footage filmed by his cameraman at the Netzarim junction, while Enderlin was in Ramallah. The journalist maintained that his report was genuine and accused the Internet site, Media-Ratings, of slander, but, for the first time since the events of September 2000, the French news agency, AFP, concluded that something was wrong with Enderlin's report.

"The [edited] TV report ends with an image of the boy laying still, leading the viewer to believe that the boy was killed in the shooting, but in the unreleased footage screened in court, we could see in the following seconds the boy moving his arm," read the AFP story, adding that this did not exclude the possibility that the boy died later.

AFP added that Enderlin refused to answer its questions after the hearing.The trial, attended by no major French media except for the AFP correspondent, might shed new light on the Al Dura affair and on media coverage in general.

During the first few years, French television succeeded in avoiding major criticism regarding the Al Dura report and Enderlin's firm statement accusing Israeli soldiers of killing the young boy, but in 2004 the course of events changed when two renowned journalists began investigating the case.

Senior French editors Denis Jeambar and Daniel Leconte were alerted by former Le Monde journalist Luc Rosenzweig on possible misreporting by Enderlin, and they requested to view the footage. Jeambar and Leconte published a story criticizing Enderlin's work in January 2005. It pointed out some troubling details, such as the staged battle scenes filmed by Talal Abu Rahma in the first part of the footage, the lack of evidence proving Enderlin's claim that the bullets were shot from the Israeli position and other major details, such as the lack of blood on the victims, although Enderlin said the Al Duras had been hit by bullets.

Enderlin declared that he had edited the images to avoid showing the boy's last minutes of agony. But in the footage, there was no trace of these images. However, Enderlin's theory stood as unquestionable reality, and Abu Rahma's images weren't questioned or analyzed.

Jeambar and Leconte called on French TV to launch its own internal inquiry, citing a lack of journalistic standards, but did not share the theory of a possible staging of Al Dura's death.

Five years after the incident, Arlette Chabot, French public TV's new head news editor, told Jewish radio and the Paris Herald Tribune that "no one knew who shot at Muhammad al Dura," but she maintained that accusing Enderlin of forgery was pure slander and confirmed the case against Media-Ratings' owner Philippe Karsenty.

Was public French TV trying to shake off growing criticism from senior journalists by suing a small Internet site for defamation?

The hearing was probably not the result it was aiming for.

The trial against Karsenty, which French TV expected to win easily, turned unexpectedly into a first public re-examination of the TV report, when the judge demanded to view the footage before ruling whether the accused was guilty of slander.

This strategy might pull Enderlin even farther down. Jeambar and Leconte criticized a possible lack of journalist deontology, but Karsenty's charges denouncing an alleged forged report pushes Enderlin to a rougher spot.

Furthermore, only 18 minutes were provided by Enderlin, when Abu Rahma claimed originally to have filmed 27.

For Karsenty and others, this has become a far-reaching battle.

"The Al Dura report has had terrible consequences, causing hatred against Israel, Jews and the West," Karsenty told me. "It generated violence and terror when it became a symbol throughout the world and was invoked in the killing of Daniel Pearl, among other tragedies. This fabricated symbol, represented on stamps, graffiti and even monuments, could sink in and generate profound hatred for several generations. We have to repair the damage now, before it's too late."

The trial will resume on Feb. 27.

Soldiers in the Park

The mayor of Paris surprised me today.

Let's face it, like every other resident of our capital, I've gotten used to complaining over just about every little detail that could annoy our beautiful and privileged life. A Parisian cannot visualize life without his five-week yearly vacation, without his regular three-day weekends, etc., and the more he gets used to his privileges, the more he gets annoyed by anything that could disturb his quiet life.

In the very same way, we all desire that our city hall would understand and endorse our political views, even when they don't concern the city or even our country.

It seems that our mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, has become a true gymnast in the diplomatic sport of pleasing various lobbies based in our district.

Delanoe is a communications pro who knows how to address crowds and who would love to become the next resident of the Elysee presidential palace.

Although I have no intention of campaigning for the mayor, I cannot reasonably ignore the way he managed the campaign for the liberation of the three abducted Israeli soldiers these past few months.

The mayor launched in the summer of 2006 a solidarity campaign in favor of civilians in Lebanon and in Israel. When he received the families of the three abducted soldiers, Gilad Shalit, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, he promised to hang their pictures in the city and call for their quick liberation, just as he did for French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt and for various journalists detained in Iraq.

All of those who heard Delanoe smiled and thought that the pictures would never see the light of day, and that if they were hung, it would be in some dark corner of an abandoned neighborhood in the outskirts of Paris. However, Delanoe instructed that the poster be placed in the beautiful Bercy Park, more specifically in the Yitzhak Rabin Garden, which is a leisure area for thousands of Parisians.

A few days after the poster was placed in the park, and just after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert found a few minutes to stroll through the garden when visiting his friend French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris, an anti-Zionist group, the CAPJPO, tagged the poster with the inscription, "Occupation army," turning the tribute into an anti-Israeli message.

It was quite disturbing to see the soldiers' portraits covered with graffiti, although the move was expected, but my greatest surprise came when I visited Rabin Garden to see if the pictures have been further damaged. To my astonishment, new pictures of the soldiers had been put up, but this time even higher, so that vandals could not reach them easily.

The fact is that CAPJPO's operation, filmed and posted on the Web, led to even stronger support for the liberation. The pictures stand high, where passersby can see them, and the city stood by its controversial campaign.

As would any self-respecting Parisian, I would end the story with a slightly bitter note. MEP and Deputy Mayor Pierre Schapira is the official who managed the operation, which was somewhat surprising, since Schapira is one of those who remain reluctant to add Hezbollah to the EU list of terror groups.

When I asked him three years ago in a Jewish commemoration event if he thought Hezbollah should be added to the list, he simply answered that it already was on the list. When I insisted that I was asking about Hezbollah, Schapira answered, "I heard you. It's on the list." For a minute there, I almost believed that it was.

Olmert Sees Conference as Step

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Paris in October, meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy mainly to discuss Iran and this month's Annapolis conference. When meeting with a small group of Jewish community leaders later the same day, Olmert gave little hope regarding the conference:

"Annapolis will not be a negotiation but an umbrella of support in order to move toward negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians," he said.

Olmert described Sarkzoy as a "genuine friend of Israel and the Jewish people" who, unlike others, "did not change his ways after his election to the presidency."

"If I could tell you what he told me ... you would feel much better, less preoccupied about our future" Olmert repeated, while smiling. "Unfortunately, I can't tell you."

Olmert concluded by telling the elderly community leaders, professors and businessmen that he was moved when he saw "their shiny eyes looking at him."