Israeli-Palestinian conflict echoes loudly in tense France

Paris (AFP) - The Israeli-Palestinian conflict stirs up passions the world over and France -- where large Muslim and Jewish communities, a colonial past and divisions in society create an explosive mix -- is no exception.

Like many European countries, France has been the scene of protests against the Jewish state's deadly Gaza offensive, but in Paris and the suburb town of Sarcelles, three rallies descended into violence, sending locals scurrying as protesters clashed with riot police.

"The conflict stirs passions, opposition, stigmatisation (in France) much more than elsewhere," says Pascal Boniface, director of the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations and author of a book on the subject.

At the start in 2000 of the second Palestinian intifada, for instance, Jewish people, synagogues and businesses were targeted in a wave of anti-Semitism that caused huge concern.

Many point to the fact that France has the largest Muslim and Jewish communities in western Europe -- around five million Muslims and half a million Jews.

Many of the country's Muslims are of Arab origin -- from North Africa -- unlike other European countries such as Britain where many come from South Asia.

"It's one of the reasons why echoes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are louder in France," says Marc Hecker, a political scientist and author of "French Intifada?"

President Francois Hollande warned last week that he does not want to see the conflict "imported into France".

But for sociologist Michel Wieviorka, the Middle East unrest merely exacerbates already-existing tensions in society where Jews fear a rise in anti-Semitism, second-generation immigrants feel marginalised and a radical Islamic fringe grows.

"You have people who say 'I am from the Arab-Muslim world, my universe was colonised and exploited and today I am excluded, I am a victim of discrimination and in a way what is happening to me is the same thing as what is happening to Palestinians in Gaza'," he said.

- Far-left heavily involved -

But experts say it is too simplistic to merely point to tensions between Muslim and Jewish communities.

"This conflict has had echoes in France for decades, particularly since the Six-Day War in 1967," says Hecker, referring to the conflict that saw Israel take control of territories in Egypt, Jordan and Syria in less than a week.

Before that, public opinion in France was largely pro-Israel -- as was the country's foreign policy.

But the end of France's war with former colony Algeria in 1962 contributed to a gradual change in thinking, sealed by President Charles de Gaulle's 1967 comments condemning Israel.

At the time, pro-Palestinian activism was largely driven by the far-left and Muslim activism on the issue only emerged in the 1990s, according to Hecker.

Even now, "when you go to the biggest pro-Palestinian demonstrations, there are parts of the procession where you think you're in a May 1 rally due to the sheer number of union and far-left activists".

The violence in Sarcelles -- sometimes known as "Little Jerusalem" for its large community of Sephardic Jews -- saw looters destroy Jewish businesses and shout anti-Israel obscenities.

Georges Asaraf, the Jewish owner of a pizzeria in Sarcelles whose windows were destroyed, was still reeling from the shock Monday.

"They were after Israelites but we have always lived together as brothers," he said.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls criticised "intolerable" acts of anti-Semitism.

- Policies 'provoke' tensions -

Some experts say that in the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the French government has not helped ease tensions.

After Israel launched its offensive in response to rocket attacks by Hamas militants, Hollande initially condemned "aggressions" against the Jewish state but made no mention of Palestinian casualties, which 14 days into the conflict have gone over the 500 mark.

Then a decision to ban the protests in Paris and Sarcelles due to fears of unrest further fanned the flames of resentment.

They went ahead anyway, and turned violent. By contrast, rallies in other parts of the country were peaceful.

"The French exception is not the protests in support of Gaza victims -- these take place all over the world, even in Israel. It's the ban on protesting," said sociologist Eric Fassin.

"In other words, what needs to be explained are not social tensions but governmental policies that supposedly respond to these, but in reality provoke them."

Whatever the reasons behind the violence, the Jewish community has once again expressed its concern at what it says is a rise in anti-Semitism.

About 2,200 Jews left France in the first six months of the year compared with fewer than 600 a year ago.

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