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– Twenty-First Century Crusades?
An increase in anti-Semitism
Arab-Jewish tensions rise in France
The conflict in Gaza is provoking tensions between France's large Muslim
and Jewish communities, the BBC's Emma Jane Kirby reports from Paris.
France is home to Europe's largest Muslim and Jewish communities - five
million and 600,000, respectively.
In the past couple of weeks there have been three separate attacks on
synagogues and the weekend saw more clashes with police during
pro-Palestinian marches in several French cities.
Watching Ahmed el Keiy present his phone-in show on Gaza at Beur FM in
Paris, you cannot fail to be impressed. The station is aimed at French
North African listeners, and the subject matter is provoking heated
comments from irate callers.
"Calm down! Calm down!" warns Ahmed, waving his arms around like a
passionate conductor of an orchestra. "I understand your point, but I
don't like your use of language!"
With more than 900 Palestinians now dead, Ahmed says his listeners
simply cannot understand why the international community cannot step in
to stop the Gaza war.
But Ahmed is quick to point out that this war is not a French war and
the violence of the Middle East should not be imported to France.
"I still tell my angry callers that they shouldn't think that the people
responsible for this conflict are from France," he tells me.
"This is a foreign conflict and we will not tolerate any violent act,
verbal or physical, against any member of the Muslim or Jewish community
At the weekend 120,000 people took part in protest marches against the
war in Gaza, in scores of cities and towns across France. For the most
part, the demonstrations were peaceful but 180 people were arrested and
many Israeli flags were burned in the streets by Arab youths.
And attacks on Jews are increasing.
In the past two weeks, three French synagogues and a Kosher restaurant
have been firebombed. According to the UEJF, a Jewish students'
association, Sunday's attack on a synagogue on the outskirts of Paris
was the 30th anti-Semitic action recorded in France since 27 December,
when Israel began its bombardment of Gaza.
Rabbi Gabriel Farhi, who works in an ethnically mixed Parisian
neighbourhood, is very aware of an increase in tension. He used to hold
regular forums with the neighbouring Muslim community - but after more
than two weeks of fighting in Gaza, the talks in Paris have been
"Even as a rabbi I'm used to having a fruitful dialogue with imams," he
told me. "But I've noticed that over the past days we cannot talk
together - even over the phone. So I'm quite worried about this
situation and all these tensions."
As we chatted over lunch I noticed that Gabriel was bare-headed - since
the 2002 intifada, French rabbis have been warned not to wear their
kippas in public places.
"It's not that I want to shout about being a Jew," he said "but as a
rabbi not being able to wear my kippa, it feels like I am hiding my
In the past, Middle East violence has provoked an increase in tension in
ethnically mixed neighbourhoods here.
French ministers have already held emergency meetings with Muslim and
Jewish community leaders and the security forces.
As the war in Gaza escalates, the last thing the French government wants
is to see is the violence replayed on the streets of France.
But some critics, like Guillaume Ayme from the campaign group SOS
Racisme, believe the current tension here simply reflects the country's
general integration problem.
"I think what's happening in France is a picture of France," he said.
"The people who attacked synagogues, for example, they hated Jews before
the start of the conflict and it just gives them a reason or an easy
explanation to express this hatred."
On Monday, almost 90 mainly French and mostly pro-Palestinian
organisations held a press conference in Paris to announce that they
were planning to press charges before the International Criminal Court
for alleged war crimes committed during the Israeli offensive in Gaza.
According to Dr Haytham Manna, a spokesman for the Arab Commission for
Human Rights, more than a third of the lawyers pressing the charges are
"We are Muslim, Jewish and secular," he said. "This is an act to defend
the human rights principles." The ICC prosecutor will receive the first
draft of the petition on Wednesday.
The Middle East has always been a politically sensitive subject here in
France. Since General De Gaulle, France has traditionally had close ties
with the Arab world.
But under President Nicolas Sarkozy, who favours better relations with
the United States, the political tide is beginning to turn.
It is true that the new French leader has courted the Arab world since
his election to office in May 2007. He has unfrozen relations with
Syria, found a good business partner in Saudi Arabia and, amid much
protest, even did a multi-million-dollar arms deal with the estranged
Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi before inviting him to spend his
holidays in Paris.
But President Sarkozy has also boldly done what no previous French
leader has done before - he has declared himself to be "a great friend"
A better political balance for France? Rabbi Gabriel Farhi is not
"This position is quite new for us," he said, "but I'm not sure it's a
very good thing.
"Obviously for the Arabic population in France, they feel a certain kind
of anger towards their president, thinking that the president will now
support the Jewish community in France and not the French Muslim
community. I think that's untrue, but I can understand this feeling very