PARIS, March 5 (JTA) – A major scandal has hit the heart of Paris’ heavily Jewish clothing district.
The affair’s ingredients include a pyramid scheme, $80 million, 12 of the 124 accused fleeing to Israel, charges of anti-Semitism and one of France’s most popular films.
The defendants, a majority of whom are Jews from Morocco and Tunisia who came to France in the 1960s immigration wave, are store owners accused of having swindled French banks for loans to buy non-existent goods.
The affair blew open last month when a vast pyramid scheme, which some suggest has been going on for decades, came tumbling down after a series of bank loans were defaulted.
Several store owners who sell a variety of major fashion brands in small boutiques had sought loans to stabilize their faltering businesses, but were told they could secure the loans only if they proved business would pick up.
So the owners turned to friends and family who form a tight-knit community in Sentier, an area that covers approximately 10 square blocks in the center of Paris. To obtain the bank loan, another store would sign a contract agreeing to buy a large amount of stock over a certain time.
But it turns out that the majority of stores who signed such contracts had no intention of purchasing the goods. When it came time to settle the loan, the next store would search out a new loan from another bank and a new contract from another store. The banks are also accused of knowingly aiding the illegal process.
The scheme ended when police began searching for shop owners who had not paid their loans, prompting several of the accused to flee for other countries, including Switzerland and Israel.
But the case took on a different tone as the French government accused Israel of knowingly harboring fugitives, despite having signed an international extradition pact.
“By intentionally pursing this policy, Israel removed itself from the family of nations,” said French prosecutor Francois Franchy.
Israel responded that it had not received an official demand for extradition.
While the French government has sent documents requesting the capture of the accused, it failed to include proper evidence of their guilt according to international standards, Israeli officials said.
“They have no one to blame but themselves,” said Irit Kahn, director of the international department at the Israeli Justice Ministry, noting that France has failed to resubmit their request after having been informed of the proper guidelines.
However, the French prosecutor has suggested during the trial that Israel has willingly harbored fugitives in the past, noting that Israel is on a blacklist of 15 countries that are not cooperating in the war against money laundering.
Some French media outlets have chosen to press this aspect of the trial, with one television channel broadcasting a program titled “Israel – A Criminal’s Paradise.”
This immediately raised outrage in the French Jewish community, which claimed that such programs perpetuated anti-Semitism.
“They are putting all Jews in the same sack,” said one Sentier store owner who spoke on condition that his name not be published.
However, others in the Jewish community said they feel that Israel should extend more cooperation in the case.
“In principle, I think that Israel has caused itself damage by harboring criminals on its soil,” said William Goldnadel, a well-respected French-Jewish attorney who represents one of the suspects in the case. “They are not good citizens and do not contribute” to Israel’s image.
The trial opened last week without the 12 who are alleged to have fled to Israel. But the tribunal involved such a huge number of defendants, lawyers and their families that Paris could not find a courtroom big enough for all of them. So the judge ordered a makeshift courtroom to be created in the giant hall of the Palace of Justice to hold everyone.
Business continues in the Sentier district, and most of those who own shops had a positive view of the trial.
“Personally, I am very happy,” said a woman who had worked in Sentier for more than 30 years. The woman declined to give her name, claiming that she had already seen the community treat others who were quoted in the media as betrayers and gossipers.
Nevertheless, she added, “The affair gives all of us a ridiculous and bad reputation. The trial is necessary, whether they are Jews or not.”
The final ingredient in the scandal, a recently released film titled “Would I Lie To You 2?” has unwittingly added to the circus-like affair.
The comedy, which has achieved a huge success at the French box office, features four Paris-based Jews from North Africa who work in the Sentier district. The Jews are cheated by a large European corporation, but react with bravado and charm to exact a just revenge in the end.
Though completely unrelated to the real Sentier affair, the French public has continually used one to refer to the other.
Said one store owner in the Sentier, “Don’t pay attention to the media and the trial. Better just go see ‘Would I Lie To You 2?’ “