With a preponderance of voices from the international media, human rights groups, the French clergy and some politicians denouncing French President Nicolas Sarkozy for fueling negative ethnic stereotypes with his new immigrant-focused security crackdown, many Jewish community representatives in France are taking a more measured stance.
In July, Sarkozy launched some security-related initiatives that included a proposal stripping French nationality from foreign-born individuals who attack police officers and starting a program to rapidly deport Roma — or Gypsy — migrants to Romania and Bulgaria. The French leader also is dismantling hundreds of illegal Roma homes in shantytowns in France.
Sarkozy says the government is merely upholding French and European law, not “stigmatizing.” But critics say Sarkozy is pitting communities against one another and violating the French constitution. Some have gone so far as to compare Sarkozy’s policies with the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews, calling it a tactic for gaining support from the far-right National Front Party.
Jewish community organizational leaders have tried to take a more diplomatic course regarding the controversial policies of a president who, as interior minister during a wave of anti-Semitism in France in 2002-04, took a hard line against those who posed a security risk to French Jews.
At first the community leaders sat out what has evolved into a major political storm for the government. Now some are responding, but their divergent responses reflect the divisions among French Jews about the efficacy of Sarkozy’s proposals.
France’s main Jewish umbrella group, the CRIF, has not put out any statement on Sarkozy’s new policies. But in an interview with JTA, CRIF President Richard Prasquier said he supports the idea of expelling illegal Roma from the country and that the idea of denaturalizing certain foreign-born criminals is “understandable” if they are guilty of attacking officers.
Prasquier warned, however, against allowing prejudice to develop against Roma migrants who are French citizens.
“When we become French citizens, it must be merited,” he said.
In explaining Jewish reticence to weigh in on the matter, Marc Knobel, the editor for CRIF’s newsletter, said that “Jewish institutions are generally more discreet when handling questions that mostly concern the French.”
The tepid reaction from Jewish officialdom has upset some Jews here.
“I think it’s the role of the Jewish community to be heard,” said Patrick Klugman, a member of the CRIF director’s committee and co-founder of JCall, a European-wide group that supports pressuring Israel into cutting a two-state deal with the Palestinians.
Jewish leaders traditionally were “reminders of the principles of equality,” Klugman said. Now, “I notice that almost all of French society has criticized Sarkozy, except the Jewish community.”
Catholic leaders have not been silent as Sarkozy has dismantled Roma shantytowns and deported Roma.
With Sarkozy’s security program, “an unhealthy climate has developed in our country,” André Vingt-Trois, the archbishop of Paris, told French radio last week.
One Catholic priest returned his national medal of honor to protest Sarkozy’s policies.
The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance said it is “deeply concerned” about the treatment of Roma in France and warned that Sarkozy’s “government has taken action stigmatizing Roma migrants” who “are held collectively responsible for criminal offenses.”
“Government policies or legislative proposals that are grounded in discrimination on ethnic grounds are impermissible and run counter to legal obligations binding on all Council of Europe member States,” the commission said in a statement.
France’s chief rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, was more circumspect.
“This affair is not easy,” he said last week. “It requires both moderation and firmness.”
While Bernheim said he hoped decisions on security “are made case by case, and that we never stigmatize a community,” he also voiced support for Sarkozy’s tough-cop proposals.
“I haven’t forgotten that there’s a real war that has been established against the police, against the forces of order, and when I see the violence that is exercised against the representatives of public order, I tell myself that we also need firmness to react to that,” he said.
Like Jewish officials, most official Muslim community representatives, traditionally reluctant to publicly comment on French policy that does not refer directly to their community, also have stayed quiet about Sarkozy’s security plans.
The new security measures were announced following two separate incidents of violent skirmishes between youth, believed to be partly of immigrant origin, and the police, plus a case involving violence by some Roma migrants who appeared to be French citizens.
Sarkozy’s new policy proposals include denaturalizing those who attack public officials if they had become French fewer than 10 years before committing the crime, and denying automatic citizenship to immigrant youth approaching the age of eligibility but who are “anchored” in criminal activity.
He is also dismantling Roma encampments that include people of Roma origin who are French citizens and has proposed legislation that will make it more difficult for deported Roma to return to France.
Roma have been subject to discrimination throughout Europe for decades, and hundreds of thousands were exterminated in Nazi death camps. Roma rights groups say Sarkozy’s new policies paint them as criminals.
Alain Finkielkraut, a leading French Jewish intellectual, said the attacks against Sarkozy’s policies are politically motivated and overreactions.
“I’m happy that for the moment the Jewish community has refused to give in to this critical rush of enthusiasm,” he said, adding that the current media storm had “lost sight” of Sarkozy’s intention: to curb crime.
Depicting France as fascist and comparing Sarkozy’s policies to the Vichy government’s Nazi collaboration is “shameful,” Finkielkraut said, adding that he does not see the security measures as racist in themselves.
“The whole world is revolting against Sarkozy,” he said, “but what is really dismal is the continual elevation of violence in France.”
Related: France and other European countries have been quietly expelling Roma, commonly referred to as Gypsies for a number of years, after they are unable to either obtain a work permit or show proof of employment. This is nothing new. Roma have been scapegoated and cast out from other countries for centuries. But French President Nicolas Sarkozy is being criticized for his very public, mass expulsion of Roma, after vowing to break up their makeshift camps, to combat crime and illegal immigration. French riot police have been conducting early morning raids of the shack encampments. The Roma are then given a choice to “voluntarily leave” the country and return to Romania with about $385 in their pockets, or face a forced deportation without the funds. This past week, over two-hundred Roma were flown back to Romania. And French officials say they plan to deport a total of 850 Roma by the end of August.
The New York Times points out that mass expulsions of one ethnic group are illegal under European Union rules, but Sarkozy’s “voluntary” deportations skirt the rules.