French PM Calls for Calm as Jewish, Muslim Communities on Edge
French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin called Tuesday for all parties in the Middle East to exercise restraint, as Jews and Muslims here feared the mounting violence could rekindle latent tensions between them.
"We call upon all those engaged in this conflict to exercise restraint," Jospin told the National Assembly, France's lower house of parliament, in response to a deputy's query.
"We should remember that considerable steps forward have been made in addressing the important questions that divide the Palestinians and the Israelis, and even notable advances on the main, symbolic issue of Jerusalem," the prime minister said.
France is trying to "calm passions, to envision a return to the Oslo peace process, to find peace once again," Jospin said. "Peace is still possible if we want it."
Violence across the Palestinian territories, sparked by Israeli right-wing opposition leader Ariel Sharon's visit to Jerusalem's disputed al-Aqsa mosque complex on September 28, has claimed nearly 100 lives, most of them Palestinians.
In the capital, several thousand demonstrators gathered Tuesday evening near the Israeli embassy, demanding the release of three Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah guerrillas.
Marchers, organized by French Jewish organizations, chanted "Arafat is a terrorist" in reference to the Palestinian leader. Organizers aid the march drew 30,000, while police put the figure at 8,000.
They also carried signs reading "Chirac, we will remember," lambasting what they consider to be the French president's pro-Palestinian stance.
Earlier Tuesday, Parisian Jews and Muslims alike said they were unlikely to allow events in the Middle East to change their attitudes at home.
But those interviewed by AFP seemed to imply that continued violence in the Palestinian territories, now nearly two weeks old, could spark tensions between the two communities in Paris, until now largely at bay.
"I have good friends who are Muslim and this situation should not change our relations," said one Jewish sales executive, aged about 40, who was selling lemons Tuesday in the heart of Paris' Jewish quarter.
"But with my Muslim friends as with women, I prefer not to discuss politics or religion," the man added.
Paris' Jewish community, one of Europe's largest at 700,000, is "morose," the salesman said.
"Since the image of the child, people are changed," said a restaurant patron in the French capital's Belleville neighborhood, home to many North African Jews.
A French television cameraman captured images of 12-year-old Mohammed Jamal al-Durra, shot dead on September 30 in a gun battle between Israeli troops and Palestinians as he huddled with his father behind a concrete barrel in the Gaza Strip.
"We are worried. For the Yom Kippur holiday, people barely went out. Normally, people go from synagogue to synagogue, and this time, it wasn't done," the man added.
In the northern part of the city, sometimes called "Jerusalem on the Seine" 15-year-old student Yossa said he was thinking about carrying tear gas grenades.
"This area is always a bit tense. But today, we're on the lookout with everything that's going on," he said.
In the same area, Ygal Allou assessed the damage to his kosher restaurant, which was ruined Saturday by a Molotov cocktail.
"They are trying to plant the seeds of terror. We hear things like 'It's war there, we have to do it here.' It's not a good sign," he explained.
Near the Arab World Institute, located on the Seine River in central Paris, Muslims called for moderation but said the crisis in the Middle East was on everyone's minds.
"I can discuss what is going on with Jews in a peaceful and intelligent way. Strong-arm tactics don't work, that is obvious," said Algerian student Fouad Amara.
Islam is France's second most followed religion, with four million faithful in the country.
Amara decried the stepping-up late Sunday of security around Paris' synagogues, saying it was time to "stop equating Muslim with terrorist."
Arson attacks against two suburban synagogues last week were "isolated incidents," Amara said. "The attackers, whoever they are, can't be true Muslims."
On Sunday, the imam of Paris' main mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, issued an appeal for calm in the capital's Muslim community, asking all to "keep their heads, so as to avoid causing any provocation."
"They're thugs, it's a particular case," said Mohamed, a secondary school history and geography teacher in the Paris suburbs, when asked about anti-Semitic slogans displayed Saturday during a pro-Palestinian demonstration in the capital.
"The crisis, it's between Israel and the Palestinians. It's not a French problem," he emphasized -- PARIS (AFP)
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