France not anti-Semitic: Chirac

Tuesday, September 23, 2003 Posted: 0140 GMT ( 9:40 AM HKT)

President Chirac says France and the U.S. will remain friends.


NEW YORK (Reuters) -- French President Jacques Chirac has told U.S. Jewish leaders the image of France as an anti-Semitic country was "wrong and dangerous" and that his government had taken action to combat violence against Jews.

"The president reaffirmed forcefully that France is not an anti-Semitic country, has never been so in its culture and will never be so," Chirac's spokeswoman, Catherine Colona, said.

While recognizing there had been attacks on synagogues and Jewish property, Chirac said the number of incidents had fallen to 72 in the first eight months of this year from 172 in the same period in 2002 under his "zero tolerance" policy.

Protection of places of worship had been boosted and recent legislation had increased penalties for racist, xenophobic or anti-Semitic attacks, he said.

Flanked by leaders of the French Jewish community -- the largest in western Europe at 600,000 to 800,000 -- Chirac met with leaders of the World Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.

Chirac also earlier said the friendship between France and the U.S. would prevail, despite recent differences, The Associated Press reports.

"Events over the past few months have led to tension in relations between our countries. I want to share my personal conviction with all of you, however, that the friendship between France and the United States is deeply rooted in our history," he said.

"It is our common treasure and heritage, an alliance founded on shared values. It is up to us to help it bear fruit and to make it look to the future," AP reports Chirac saying.

Meanwhile, another Jewish group, the Anti-Defamation League, set up to fight bigotry and anti-Semitism, is giving its "distinguished statesman award" at a gala dinner to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi recently claimed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini "did not murder anyone," a comment that caused an uproar in Italy, given that the wartime Italian fascist was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews.

In July, Berlusconi, in a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, likened a German legislator to a Nazi concentration camp guard. In both cases he apologized.

Friend of America

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the award would go ahead as planned, calling Berlusconi a friend but a "flawed friend."

ADL spokeswoman Myrna Scheinbaum said Berlusconi was a friend of America and a strong supporter of Israel. She said he had apologized to the Italian Jewish community.

Not everyone agreed. Tullia Zevi, a former leader of Italy's Union of Jewish Communities, told Italian newspapers she had asked Foxman to rescind the award because of Berlusconi's calling fascism a "mild dictatorship."

"Mussolini never killed anyone," Berlusconi was quoted as telling the British Spectator magazine. "Mussolini used to send people on vacation in internal exile."

Berlusconi has excused himself for any offense caused, adding that the interview had taken place after several glasses of champagne, although he is not known to drink alcohol.

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