Page last updated at 15:19 GMT, Tuesday, 13 January 2009

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.

Ahmed el Keiy
Some of Ahmed el Keiy's listeners are boiling with anger

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 in France."

Anti-Israeli anger

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.

Anti-Israeli protest in Paris
Thousands have condemned Israel's actions in street protests

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 silenced.

"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 identity."

Divided society

In the past, Middle East violence has provoked an increase in tension in ethnically mixed neighbourhoods here.

Guillaume Ayme from the campaign group SOS Racisme
Guillaume Ayme thinks anti-Jewish feelings predate the Gaza fighting

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 Jewish.

Rabbi Gabriel Farhi
Rabbi Farhi worries about President Sarkozy's stance on Israel

"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" of Israel.

A better political balance for France? Rabbi Gabriel Farhi is not convinced.

"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 well."

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