French fries are back on the menu at the Congressional dining rooms, and it's no longer unpatriotic to order a French cabernet sauvignon at an American restaurant, so it's a good time to lunch with the French ambassador. Jean-David Levitte describes himself as a "happy ambassador" now that relations between the United States and France, despite the continuing warfare in Iraq, are in harmony, sort of, once more.
"Today our relationship is back on the right track," Ambassador Levitte says, noting that France and the United States hold similar positions on most key issues. "These are not only words, these are deeds," he tells editors and correspondents at The Washington Times over a lunch of chicken cutlets in butter sauce with capers and a salad with "French" dressing. (Served with a modest little H2O, properly chilled with a strong finish, and no fries with that.) The ambassador's new comfort level with the Bush administration includes similar positions on Lebanon's political crisis, the Iranian nuclear threat and avoiding, for now, high-level talks with Syria.
The gentleman with the debonair style and gracious manner that make him one of the most popular and effective diplomats in town is eager to celebrate the newly warmed relations between Paris and Washington, but a columnist, pleased to bask in the warmth of authentic Gallic charm, nevertheless feels compelled to ask about the numbers of anti-Semitic incidents continuing to plague France.
With the air of Maurice Chevalier charming Leslie Caron in "Gigi," the ambassador talks of former prime ministers of the Jewish persuasion -- Leon Blum in the '30s and '40s and Pierre Mendes-France in the '50s. He tells of his own Russian Jewish father and his Jewish mother from Mozambique of Dutch descent. "That's how you get to be a French ambassador," he says with an impish smile.
He cites a Pew Poll from last summer, that France has the highest numbers with a favorable opinion of Jews -- 86 percent, compared to 77 percent in the United States, 74 percent in Britain and 69 percent in Germany. The poll found that even 71 percent of French Muslims hold a favorable opinion of Jews, against 32 percent for British Muslims and 38 percent of Muslims living in Germany.
Anti-Semitic incidents continue to disturb the peace in France, but M. Levitte says the government will show zero tolerance for the bigotry. "We are determined to do whatever necessary to eradicate the scourge of anti-Semitism." Over the past four years the government has strengthened the police units specifically charged with protecting Jewish communities and sensitive religious sites. Penalties for anti-Semitic offenses have been made stronger.
Despite all this, questions, as the clich goes, remain about France and the Jews, beginning with the French attitude toward Israel. The ambassador insists that the riots in the Muslim suburbs of Paris were the result of a "subculture of gangs rather than Islamist jihad," where frustrated young men without jobs turn violent in the bleak neighborhoods of high-rise housing projects. "That's why we have to put the emphasis on improving the social conditions -- schools, jobs, better housing -- and hopefully all this will trigger better absorption in the social fabric of France of this minority."
But these Muslim ghettos, argues David Pryce-Jones in his book "Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews," are "a seedbed for Islamist jihad." He observes how a Muslim population of 6 million drives a French anti-Israel policy that is inevitably expressed against individual Jews in a country where the Muslims outnumber Jews by 6 to 1.
"Commitment to the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel," he writes, "incites the growing underclass of Arabs first to resent Jews, and then to force into the public arena the contradiction whereby the French state claims to be protecting Jews at home while doing what it can do to oppose Jews in Israel."
Ilan Halimi, a French Jew, was kidnapped and tortured last year by a gang that called themselves "the Barbarians," made up mostly of violently radical Muslims. The Barbarians, now in jail awaiting trial, say they "hate" Jews and kidnapped M. Halimi because they thought all Jews were rich. This week Ilan Halimi's family will fly to Israel with his body to bury it in a Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem. The family leaves behind a controversy in which many Frenchmen insist the murder had nothing to do with his being Jewish, that the government labeled it an anti-Semitic crime to placate Jews.
After a Jewish school was torched outside of Paris, President Jacques Chirac belatedly acknowledged French anti-Semitism: "An attack against a French Jew is an attack against France." And, he might have added, an attack against the good name of Marianne.
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