Whenever the Palestinian issue heats up, the temperature rises in the gritty neighbourhoods the French call the banlieues (suburbs). These areas, best known for the low-cost housing projects that postwar city planners planted out there, are a vibrant and edgy mix of local working class, recent immigrants and minorities now in France for several generations. (Photo: Police survey housing project in Paris suburb, 1 June 2006/Victor Tonelli)
Among those groups are Muslims and Jews, many of whose families came from the same parts of North Africa. About 7-8 years ago, at the start of the second Palestinian intifada, some of the far more numerous Muslims took out their anger at Israel on their Jewish neighbours. The official reaction against that wave of anti-Semitism was slow in coming back then, but leaders in France today — especially leaders of the main religious groups — seem determined to do their best to head that off this time around.
They have their work cut out for them. According to a French Jewish Students’ Union (UEJF) list (here in French), there have been 46 anti-Semitic acts in France since Dec. 27, when Israel began its bombardment of Gaza. That includes several firebombs and several Jews beaten by thugs. Muslim and Jewish leaders have already issued several calls for calm. In some cities such as Strasbourg and Lyon, they have joined the mayor and their Catholic colleagues. After meeting President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday evening, the national heads of the Muslim, Jewish and Catholic communities said they would produce a joint appeal soon. See my story on this here.
The impromptu news conference in the courtyard of the Elysee Palace showed how delicate this project can be. Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the Catholic archbishop of Paris, could simply say a few words about peace and not have to explain too much more. (Photo: From left, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, CFCM head Mohamed Moussaoui and Grand Rabbi Gilles Bernheim, 12 Jan 2009/Charles Platiau)
But Mohamed Moussaoui, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), and Grand Rabbi Gilles Bernheim were grilled about what they and their communities should do to avoid more violence. One reporter badgered them to say they would march together at the head of a parade for peace that, until now at least, has neither been suggested nor organised by anyone. Both thoughtful and soft-spoken men, Moussaoui and Bernheim made sure they showed enough support for “their” sides in the Gaza conflict without burning the shaky bridges between their communities here.