President Jacques Chirac made a "solemn" and emotively worded appeal to "the entire French nation" to stand firm against a recent surge in anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic and other racist acts.
The statement was intended as a political landmark, or line drawn in the sand, according to his advisers: a fact emphasised by the location in which he chose to speak.
The President was addressing the people of Chambon-sur-Lignon, in the Massif Central, a village with a tradition for resisting intolerance which rescued more than 5,000 Jews, many of them children, during the Second World War.
"Odious and disgraceful acts of hatred dirty our country,"M. Chirac said.
"Fanaticism, the desire to humiliate or diminish others, reflect the darkest part of the human soul. I will do everything in my power to stop them."
There has been a rash of anti-Semitic and racist incidents in France in recent weeks, including the desecration with swastikas and neo-Nazi slogans of several Jewish and Muslim cemeteries in Alsace and the destruction of a frieze painted by Jewish children in a wartime transit camp near Perpignan.
There has also been an upsurge in the past three years of verbal and physical attacks on Jews, mostly by youths of Arab origin who take the Palestinian side in the Middle East conflict.
M. Chirac's advisers said the speech was written largely by the President himself and intended as a "founding moment" or appeal to the national conscience. Significantly, the President extended his appeal to cover acts of "homophobia". He is said to have been deeply upset by an incident in northern France earlier this year, when a homosexual was set alight by a mob of youths.
"Discrimination, anti-Semitism, racism - all kinds of racism are spreading insidiously," M. Chirac said. "A France, true to its history, its roots and its culture, is a France capable of better, a France which rejects selfishness, exclusion and discrimination. That is the France I believe in."
Although M. Chirac is a politician with a reputation at home and abroad for flexible ideas and values, he has always taken a strong stand against racism. He was the first French president to recognise, and apologise for, the role of the French state machine in the persecution of jews under the pro-Nazi Vichy administration.
The president, who has been criticised recently for his lack of attention to domestic affairs, is due to give his traditional, live, pre-scripted television interview on Bastille Day next Wednesday. He is said to have made yesterday's speech because he did not want his stand against racism to be treated as just one chapter of his 14 July comments. More than two thirds of racist incidents recorded in France last year were anti-Semitic, mostly involving youth of North African origin.
After a relative lull in 2003, verbal and physical attacks have surged again this year. The interior ministry recorded 67 attacks on Jews or their property and 160 threats against Jews in the first quarter of this year.
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