France Will Not
Tolerate the Slightest Anti-Semitic Act on French Soil
France Will Not
Tolerate the Slightest Anti-Semitic Act on French Soil
Speech of Jean-François Copé, Minister delegate for the
Interior, to the Congress of the American Jewish Committee.
France, Washington, May 6, 2004.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a very special pleasure to be here with you this
evening, and I am greatly honored by your invitation. I come here with a deep
sense of emotion, bringing a message of friendship from France, and with a sense
of pride at having this opportunity to speak to you in the name of the French
The United States and France are bound by ancient ties of
fidelity, illustrating the strength and vitality of relations between our two
countries. There is no area in which we have not cooperated in exemplary fashion,
indeed over very many years. This is our common history. Our countries have
suffered together. They have fought side by side in defense of freedom and to
rid the world of barbarism. Those times will never be forgotten. They will
remain deeply rooted in the memory of succeeding generations.
Please allow me, in that regard, to open my remarks by
placing this evening—one month to the day before the 60th anniversary of the
Allied landing in Normandy—under the sign of the 6th of June 1944, a date that
strikes me as particularly emblematic of the friendship between France and the
Sixty years ago, hundreds of thousands of men of honor from
all of the allied nations, foremost among them being very many Americans, of
course, alongside Canadians, Britons, Australians and Frenchmen, of all origins
and beliefs, successfully undertook to free France and Europe from the Nazi yoke.
They did so in the name of a common ideal, freedom and a shared vision of human
rights. Together, they set the scene for the restoration of a Republic in
France, guaranteeing respect for the principles of equality and fraternity.
It is this exceptional friendship that Presidents Bush and
Chirac will be celebrating together on June 6th. And it is in the name of that
friendship that I am delighted to be able to present my own personal testimony.
That of a 40 year-old, the son of a generation that experienced the atrocities
of war, and who holds gratitude and tolerance foremost among his values. That of
a friend of the United States, and that of an implacable defender of freedom of
religion and of the elementary respect due to all those who wish to practice
their religion without falling victim to intolerance or stupidity.
Recent events have cruelly shown that anti-Semitic acts, alas,
still take place in France. Last week, a Jewish cemetery in Alsace was
desecrated, with neo-Nazi inscriptions scrawled on tombs. The French Government
immediately responded with extreme firmness, launching a hunt for the
perpetrators in order to punish them with the utmost severity.
This painful episode serves as a reminder that, although the
situation in France today is fortunately a far cry from what the Jews in Europe
suffered in the 1930s, the Government daily needs to be vigilant in the extreme.
It is precisely because we have experienced that agonizing past that we will not
tolerate the slightest anti-Semitic act on French soil.
As Jacques Chirac has solemnly reminded us: “when a Jew is
attacked in France, it is an attack against the whole of France.” We are guided
by that clear, simple principle.
Some in France preferred to avoid speaking of anti-Semitic
acts, in recent years, as if denying a reality could help in fighting this
I want to tell you, solemnly, that the Government of
Jean-Pierre Raffarin to which I have the honor to belong, has resolutely chosen
the opposite course over the past two years.
We lost no time in passing the Lellouche Act in 2002, which
prescribes appreciably tougher penalties for racist and anti-Semitic acts. As a
result, henceforward absolutely no anti-Semitic act will go unpunished.
At the initiative of Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Nicolas
Sarkozy, this law was implemented without delay, showing that the days of laxity
are well and truly over. Let me give you one very telling example: five months
ago, a 15 year old youngster was beaten at an ice rink because he was Jewish.
His assailants have been condamned, and they are still in prison.
Backing up this exemplary severity in dealing with those
committing anti-Semitic acts is an innovative, top-level Government initiative
in the form of an inter-agency committee against racism and anti-Semitism. This
body, unique in Europe, holds monthly meetings under the authority of the Prime
Minister, attended by everyone involved in the issue, namely the Ministers of
Internal Security with Dominique De Villepin, Justice, Education, Social Affairs,
the Prefects concerned, experts, and so forth. We are thus able to identify the
problems, follow up each case diligently, and respond swiftly and effectively to
This committee has overseen the establishment of a fund to
secure the most sensitive sites, such as Jewish schools, synagogues and cultural
Lastly, we wanted to put France in the forefront of
preventive measures and educating our youth, to bring home to them the gravity
of anti-Semitic speech and acts. Media regulators covering all types of media,
including the Internet, have stepped up their vigilance. The Ministry of
Education has strengthen the school program on the Shoah and organizes school
trips to places of memory such as Auschwitz. Furthermore we have decided to add
teaching of tolerance and history of religious at school.
It is for this reason, also, that France felt the need for
clear legislation on the issue of secularism, what we call in France: laicite, a
principle that guarantees freedom of religious practice for all. Laicite has
been based since the end of the 18th century on a strict separation between
religions (or many often cultural or ethnic identities) and the body politic.
And France has a strong tradition on that matter.
I would like to discuss this theme in greater detail, because
it has been the cause of much perplexity and misunderstanding. Some people have
claimed the ban on the Islamic headscarf inside public schools as well as the
wearing of conspicuous religious symbols is an attack on freedom. Nothing could
be further from the truth.
For it is impossible to understand properly the background to
the adoption of this law without a clear view of the state of France today.
Successive waves of immigration, the most recent being from North Africa, have
considerably changed relations between the French and their Republic. During
that time, meanwhile, no genuine policy for successful integration was ever put
in place along the lines, for example, of the one that gave forged and
underpinned the unity of the American people for more than 200 years.
It is therefore vital that the Government to which I belong
reaffirm the “republican values” that underlie what I would call “the desire to
live together.” The only way to tackle the challenge of integration is by making
sure that everyone living on French soil feels both fully respected, and fully
responsible. To belong to a nation, to a country that takes you in, is to adopt
the values that have led millions of men and women to seek a common destiny.
For my part, I shall never forget a particularly striking
incident that occurred when I was a local elected representative. For nine years
I was a councilman in the town of Meaux, near Paris. I was walking down the
street one day when a Frenchwoman of Algerian origin came up to me with a her 10
year-old French-born son. Turning to her son she said, slightly carried away by
her enthusiasm: “Look, here comes the Mayor. Ask him anything you like. He can
do anything!” I couldn’t resist the temptation to reply with President John F.
Kennedy’s celebrated phrase: “Ask not what your country can do; ask rather what
you can do for your country.” And, to my amazement, the boy looked at his mother
and said: “Mom, when are we going back to my country?”
That revealing anecdote tells the story of a Republic that
has fractured in silence, a Republic now obliged to battle relentlessly against
communitarism. That is the meaning of the law banning schoolchildren and
students from wearing ostensible—i.e. deliberately visible—religious emblems. By
unanimously enacting this law, the French Parliament has sought to send out a
first, a modern vision of secularism. Secularism is not the negation of religion
but, on the contrary, the means to practice one’s religion while respecting that
second, we wanted to protect children, girls especially, who, as we know, are
too often forced to wear the headscarf against their will. The aim is to ensure
that all children are treated equally,
finally, we have sent a firm message to the fundamentalists. In France, religion
cannot be, and will not become, a political project.
Today, we are faced with a young generation of children of
immigrants, who are totally without bearings and are often influenced by people
who give a strict fundamentalist interpretation of the Muslim religion.
We have also witnessed rare, but significant occurrences such
as the whistles that greeted our national anthem in a soccer stadium, or people
trampling on our flag. You have to know when to say “Enough!” That is exactly
what we have done.
The French Jewish community is the largest in Europe. We are
determined to guarantee that it can live in our country in total security.
Not a day goes by without our relentlessly fighting anti-Semitism
in all its forms. In that sense, we are engaged in a battle for respect for
freedom and democracy, with no concessions to communitarist tendencies of any
We will not falter in this struggle, because we are deeply
attached to peace, to brotherhood, and to tolerance. Sixty years after the
Normandy landings, we know we will continue this fight together. And you can
count on our total determination to ensure the security and freedom of religious
practice for all our citizens.