After 15 days of violent urban unrest, at a time when all those who have France at heart are worried and distressed, when the beautiful motto of the French Revolution, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," seems endangered, I would like to convey a strong and meaningful message: France is more committed than ever to make her republican values a reality shared by all its children.
Just like the crisis of the suburbs, the late resurgence of anti-Semitism in France has been putting our core values at test. For many observers, these events could be related and indicate a "crisis of identity," which President Jacques Chirac in his Nov. 14 speech before the nation, referred to.
To the Jewish community of Los Angeles which, I know, has legitimately been concerned by the latest developments in France, where some of its members have kept family ties, I would like to draw a preliminary review of what has been done by the French government to address the scourge of anti-Semitism and racism.
First a few remarks:
• With about 600,000 members, the French Jewish community is the third largest Jewish community in the world after Israel and the United States;
• French Jews are not, as I too often hear, a tiny group of immigrants struggling for integration. They are French citizens.
There have been Jews in France for centuries: We all remember the venerable figure of Rashi, the immense commentator of the Bible born in Troyes in the 11th century.
Since the French Revolution guaranteed their full civil and political rights, French Jews have played a major role in the development of the French republican ideal and model. A list, from that time onward, of the French political leaders tied to the community, illustrated by real statesmen and women, would simply be too long. Not to mention artists, scientists, philosophers, writers, actors and musicians, spiritual figures.
• We cannot and will not forget the darkest periods of history. We cannot forget the Dreyfus case, which saw the victory, after 20 years of struggle and heated debates, of the defenders of this bright, young army officer. Fully rehabilitated in 1920, Capt. Dreyfus was made Knight of the Legion of Honor and continued his military career.
We cannot forget the horror of the Shoah, in which the Vichy regime played such a revolting role -- 77,320 French Jews died in the death camps (about 22 percent of the 1939 community). And yet, some among the French people chose to resist -- 2,500 of them stand as Righteous among the Nations and are remembered at Yad Vashem.
Conscious of its own history and heritage, France cannot accept anti-Semitism. France cannot accept any form of bigotry, intolerance and racism. As Chirac put it so forcefully: "Any attack against a Jew is an attack against France itself."
Confronted with this scourge, the French government's determination is absolute. The creation in 2003 of the Interministerial Committee to fight racism and anti-Semitism, a coordinating body chaired by the prime minister, testifies to the entire government's commitment to this fight. The French government's proactive approach since 2002 has translated into a large number of measures taken in close coordination with the Jewish community in several priority areas: protection, suppression, education, means of communication and international cooperation.
Protection: Since the summer of 2002, we have increased security at Jewish community establishments, including cemeteries, which, as we all know, have too often been targeted.
Last June, the government created a high authority to fight against discrimination and for equality (HALDE). Its mission is to reach out to victims by allowing the public to refer any matter involving any form of discrimination (be it racism, religious intolerance, sexism, homophobia, rejection of the disabled). If mediation fails, HALDE is empowered to bring the case before the courts.
Suppression: We have strengthened our 30-year-old legislation by ensuring that the existence of racist or anti-Semitic motives in the commission of a crime is an aggravating circumstance, resulting in a heavier sentence. Firm instructions were given to public prosecutors, who are invited to appeal sentences deemed overly lenient. For instance, the author of Nazi graffiti on the Douaumont Memorial was sentenced to two years in prison.
Education: We are convinced that school is the best place to fight racism and anti-Semitism. A "Republican Booklet" inspired by the ideal of tolerance and mutual respect has been widely distributed in schools. Screenings of movies, like "Shoah" by French director Claude Lanzman, are organized.
A system for identifying and dealing with racist and anti-Semitic acts in learning environments has been established in school districts. Our pedagogical approach also consists of developing a curriculum about religions.
The French government's efforts also apply to means of communication. Thanks to adaptations in our laws, the Conseil supérieur de l'audiovisuel, the French watchdog of the broadcast media, was able in December 2004 to prohibit broadcasting by the Al-Manar network over French territory, due to the anti-Semitic content of its programming. Likewise, we interrupted Al-Manar's signal to Asia and South America, which had been relayed by Globecast, a subsidiary of the French company, France Telecom.
Finally, efforts undertaken in France to fight racism and anti-Semitism are also being undertaken abroad through international cooperation with the European Union, the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). We are particularly attached to the definition of an ethic code to counter Internet abuse.
In Los Angeles, we also try to play our part. It is for me a matter of great satisfaction to maintain faithful relations with some of the prominent representatives of the Jewish community. The Simon Wiesenthal Center welcomed in May 2003 a high-ranking delegation of the French national police for a one-week working session. The American Jewish Committee hosted several successful and useful events with the consulate general of France, including a memorable lunch with our ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte.
Since the impression has developed over the years that French foreign policy was biased against Israel, I would like to add a few comments on the present state of our bilateral relations. As you certainly remember, Chirac very strongly condemned as "senseless" the recent, unacceptable threats of Iranian President Ahmadinejad against the very existence of Israel. The existence of a secure Israel is not negotiable nor questionable.
As you may know, the pace of our bilateral visits goes fast these days. Foreign Minister Shalom was in Paris last October, Prime Minister Sharon last July, former French Foreign Minister Barnier was in Israel last February.
Please note that during Sharon's visit, Chirac made it a point to praise his exceptional courage with regard to the withdrawal from Gaza. What France hopes to see in the Middle East is, of course, peace, security and reconciliation.
In order for this to happen, there must be a viable, democratic Palestinian state coexisting peacefully with a secure Israel. France, along with its European partners, is committed to that goal.
Our fight against anti-Semitism thus takes many forms. And it is unflagging.
Today we are seeing our policies have been fruitful. We recently learned that the number of anti-Semitic acts reported during the first quarter of 2005 dropped nearly 50 percent, compared to the same period in 2004. Violent acts have fallen the most, with three times fewer incidents reported in 2005 than in 2004.
Such results do not go unnoticed. On his visit to Paris this past July, Sharon thanked Chirac publicly for "his staunch fight against anti-Semitism and his full and entire faith in the strengthening of the deep friendship between France and Israel."
A recent poll published by the Israeli daily, Maariv, ("Who Likes Us ?" Sept. 21) shows that 82 percent of French people have a positive opinion of Jews, the second-highest result behind the Netherlands (85 percent ) but ahead of Canada, the U.K., the U.S.A. (77 percent ) and Germany.
All this is comforting. But let us make no mistake: as revealed by the outburst of our suburbs, the challenges to foster equality, equal opportunities and to fight any form of discrimination are high. But we want to remain faithful to the ideals of the French republic: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.
We want to make this ideal a reality. It is our every day fight.
Philippe Larrieu is French consul general in Los Angeles.