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French Take to the Streets to Rally Against a Brutal Murder

February 28, 2006
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Sandrine Berda attended this week’s rally in Paris against hate to make a statement. “It seems that so much is going on now to try to force us to leave Paris,” said Berda, who runs a catering business. “I am here to show there are lots of Jews here and if we leave, Paris will become a pitiful city.”

Berda was among tens of thousands of Parisians, mostly Jews, who rallied on Sunday after a young French Jew was brutally murdered in what officials have called a hate crime.

Police estimated the number of marchers at 33,000, although others put the number much higher.

The question of whether France is still safe for its estimated 600,000 Jews was a major topic of discussion among the demonstrators.

“Many people decide on the safety of Paris by what happens to their children at school,” said Diana Tabbacoff, a psychologist originally from Brazil. “I think everyone believes we must react against ignorance, but personally, my daughter has not suffered for being Jewish. If she did, I would think of returning to Sao Paulo.”

But one French Jewish student leader said leaving France was not an option.

“We are here to demonstrate for France because we live here and we are fed up,” said David Riahi, a student at the HEC business school, marching under the banner of the French Union of Jewish Students. “This is not about calling for people to go live in Israel or the States.”

Ilan Halimi, 23, was kidnapped in January and tortured for three weeks. He then was found in a train station, reportedly with burn marks on 80 percent of his body, and died on the way to the hospital.

Youssouf Fofana, the alleged leader of a gang suspected of the murder, appeared Monday in a court in the West African country of Ivory Coast, where he fled after the crime was committed.

After initially hesitating, the French government declared the murder an anti-Semitic act.

“There can be no tolerance of this act of torture and murder and anti-Semitism, ” said Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who participated in the march. “This concerns the Jewish community and all French people.”

But one marcher was skeptical that anything could be done to improve the situation.

“Will this really move people to take a look at what is going on or push the government to take more action?” said Eric Chicheportiche, the former head of the France-Israel Chamber of Commerce. “I really don’t know, and I really don’t know what can be done.”

Although most of the marchers were Jewish, there were North African Muslims and blacks in the crowd, and all agreed that this was an anti-Semitic act.

“There are cultured and educated Arabs marching here today who believe we can live and work in peace with Jews” and other French people, said Khadidja Cherkaoui, who is finishing a master’s degree in management here. “This was an anti-Semitic act committed by savages. “

Cherkaoui said some typically racist attitudes may come from school.

“I have heard of youngsters being taught by certain teachers that Jews are all rich,” she said. “That is not true and is racist, like saying that all Arabs are terrorists.”

While the statistics show the climate of anti-Semitism has improved in France during the past few years, Malik Boutih, the president of the activist group SOS Racism, and a Socialist Party official, said the problems of anti-Semitism and racism remain. “We need firm reaction from the government to deal with anti-Semitism,” he said.

Also noted was the enormous stupidity of the crime.

“These guys are total idiots, ” said Audrey Benyoun, marching with friends and her father. “They got absolutely nothing from this except this demonstration. I think a lot of French people are fed up with hearing about such stupid acts.”

While the Jewish community is almost unanimous in its belief that the kidnapping and torture occurred because Halimi was Jewish, many French still want to believe that it was simply a criminal act committed by sick individuals.

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