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Last Updated: Friday, 16 July, 2004, 05:18 GMT 06:18 UK
Uneasy France quick to judge
By Hugh Schofield

French President Jacques Chirac
Chirac expressed his 'horror' at the supposed attack

It was with an immense sigh of relief that France learned this week that the story of Marie-Leonie was untrue.

Marie-Leonie (her family name has not been released) was the 23-year-old mother whose tale of an anti-Semitic attack on Paris' RER suburban railway system sent the nation into a paroxysm of guilt and fear.

According to her account to police at the weekend, she was set upon by a gang of six young men of Arab and African origin who mistook her for a Jew because she was travelling to the rich 16th arrondissement of the capital.

After ripping her clothes and cutting off a length of hair, they reportedly scratched her face with knives and drew swastikas on her body. They also overturned the pram with her 13- month old baby inside, and then robbed her.

France nervy

And all this while a carriage-full of fellow passengers looked on aghast - but failed to lift a finger to help her.

It is a measure of the country's febrile state of nerves when it comes to questions of anti-Semitism, Arab integration and suburban yobbery that Marie-Leonie's tale was so readily believed.

Within hours of the story becoming public on Saturday, President Jacques Chirac had himself issued a statement from the Elysee palace putting on record his "horror" at what had happened and calling for the perpetrators to be punished "with all due severity".

Political and community leaders of every stripe followed suit, and there were even demonstrations held in Marie-Leonie's support.

The Muslim community cannot keep on being the butt of every accusation, dragged through the mud at the pettiest incident
Kamel Kabtane
Muslim Council
But had they waited a short while before rushing to judgment, they would have learned that Marie-Leonie has a history of psychological disorders. On five separate occasions she has claimed to be the victim of a robbery or attack, without ever providing police with evidence.

Her boyfriend, who had doubts about her story from the start, described her as a "mythomaniac."

"She has always had a tendency to make up stories," her mother said.

And when police visited her flat near Charles de Gaulle airport, and discovered the knife and marker-pen used in the alleged attack, Marie-Leonie herself cracked and confessed she had made it all up. She now faces charges of "reporting an imaginary crime", which carries a possible six-month prison term.

'Relief and disgust'

Understandably, Muslim community leaders are furious at the haste with which the press, public and politicians pinned the blame on what are euphemistically called here "banlieusards" or "jeunes de quartiers" - i.e. Arab and African youth from the high-rise suburbs.

Swastikas and Nazi signs on headstones at a Jewish cemetery in Herrlisheim, eastern France
Attacks on Jewish targets like gravestones have been rising
"We cannot go on living in this climate. The Muslim community cannot keep on being the butt of every accusation, dragged through the mud at the pettiest incident," said Kamel Kabtane, head of the Muslim Council in the Rhone-Alpes region.

According to Saadia Sahali, who heads a youth integration project in the Paris suburb of Sartrouville, the reaction of young Arabs to news that Marie-Leonie's story was a lie has been a mixture of relief and disgust. "Disgust because once again they are the chosen scapegoat," she said.

That there is indeed a rise in anti-Jewish feeling and behaviour among young French Muslims is not seriously contested - even by their staunchest defenders. Palestine is their reference, says Sahali, and "they make short-cuts: first it is [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon, then the settlers, then the Jews of France."

Nor is it a matter of debate that a disproportionate amount of crime in France is committed by young men of North African origin. There are no official figures on this - racial breakdowns are banned - but it is an open secret.

But the story of Marie-Leonie - and the ease with which it was taken to be true - shows how quickly it is possible to slip into lazy habits of mind.

That the story could have been true is no defence. France leapt too readily to an assumption that speaks volumes about its yawning racial divide.

'Race attack' woman faces trial
15 Jul 04 |  Europe
Cemetery desecrated in France
03 May 04 |  Europe


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