French Jews accused a left-wing presidential candidate of encouraging Holocaust denial following his comparison of the Nazi persecution of Jews to the situation of French Muslims today. Vincent Peillon, who is running in the Socialist Party primaries ahead of the elections this year, made the analogy Tuesday during an interview aired by the France 2 television channel. Peillon, a former education minister who has Jewish origins, was commenting on a question about France’s strict separation between state and religion, referred to in France as “laicite.” “If some want to use laicite, as has been done in the past, against certain populations … Forty years ago it was the Jews who put on yellow stars. Today, some of our Muslim countrymen are often portrayed as radical Islamists. It is intolerable.” In a statement Wednesday, CRIF, the umbrella group of French Jewish communities, accused Peillon of making “statements that only serve those trying to rewrite history.”
Peillon neither retracted his remark nor apologized in a statement published Wednesday on his website, but said he would wanted to elaborate on what he meant in light of the controversy it provoked and to “refine my view, which may have been misrepresented because of brevity.” Peillon wrote that he “clearly did not want to say that laicite was the origin of anti-Semitism of Vichy France,” which was the part of the country run by a pro-Nazi collaborationist government. He also wrote that “what the Jews experienced under Vichy should not be banalized in any way” and that he was committed to fighting racism and anti-Semitism. “I wanted to denounce the strategy of the far right, which always used the words of the French Republic or social issues to turn them against the population. It is doing so today with laicite against the Muslims,” Peillon wrote.
But in its statement condemning Peillon’s remark, CRIF wrote that the history concerning the deportation of more than 75,000 Jews from France to concentration camps and death and the looting of their property, “as well as discriminatory laws such as the one about wearing yellow stars, should not be instrumentalized to create a false equivalence of suffering.” CRIF “demands a clarification and immediate correction on the part of Vincent Peillon,” it said. Peillon, a lawmaker in the European Parliament, announced his candidacy in December to succeed President Francois Hollande as party leader and run as its candidate in April. He was appointed education minister in 2012 and served for two years. In the Socialist primaries, Peillon will face Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who has strong support in the Jewish community. Peillon’s mother, Françoise Blum, is Jewish. Peillon, who rarely talks about his Jewish roots publicly, signed a petition by the left-wing Jcall group, the European counterpart to J Street, supporting Palestinian statehood. In 2009, he celebrated the bar mitzvah of his son Elie at a Paris synagogue. He has another son, Isaac. Peillon is married to Nathalie Bensahel, a journalist who has written about about France’s anti-Semitism problem.
MPs have approved a bill to outlaw inciting religious hatred, although the government’s original plans were partially defeated after Lords and then MPs forced through amendments. The government’s attempts to give religious groups the same protection from incitement to hate crimes as racial groups have split opinion. Last year the proposed legislation was defeated in the House of Lords. And attempts to strike a compromise prompted a double defeat in the Commons on Tuesday. Amendments to the plans reflect the strength of feeling among critics, many of whom felt the proposals – which will now become law – would infringe freedom of speech. The amendments means threatening language will be outlawed, but not words that are insulting and abusive. They also require the offence to be intentional. In the run-up to Tuesday’s vote, Blackadder star Rowan Atkinson has been one of the most high profile critics of the measures. He said they were a “sledgehammer to crack a nut” and urged that existing race hate laws be amended rather than hampering the right to criticise ideas. He welcomed the government’s defeat, saying the resulting law was a perfect compromise. Different countries around the world adopt varying approaches in an attempt to balance freedom of speech and protecting individuals from hate crimes. Dr Agnes Callamard, the executive director of international human rights group Article 19, says there is “a real patchwork of approaches worldwide”, although methods tend to fall into three distinctive categories. She identifies the “American model” where the state “will not hamper freedom of speech except under extreme circumstances”. The other extreme involves countries where “freedom of speech is curtailed” and there is widespread censorship. Dr Callamard says the UK, as with much of Europe, falls into a third category in which the state “attempts to strike a balance between the right to freedom of speech and the right to equality, and therefore freedom from discrimination.” Holocaust denial Despite the UK’s presence in this category, she says other western European countries have a stricter stance where hate crimes are concerned. “France and Germany, in particular, have far stronger laws in terms of protecting people against religious hatred,” she says, pointing out that the introduction of such legislation will bring the UK in line with other European nations. “For example, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands have Holocaust denial laws and laws that prohibit the expression of particular ideas that might be seen as anti-Semitic.” The case of controversial historian David Irving is a recent example of a situation in which these laws have been tested. Mr Irving, 67, was arrested on 11 November in connection with two speeches he gave in the country in 1989. He could face up to 10 years in prison if found guilty of Holocaust denial charges. “Laws in other European countries are more detailed than in the UK. Much of this is due to historical differences because they experienced national socialists,” says Dr Callamard. Under current UK laws, Sikhs and Jews have full protection from incitement because the courts regard them as distinct races. The new laws will give protection to Christians, Muslims and others. The bill adds to the racial hatred offences in Part III of the Public Order Act 1986 by banning the stirring up of hatred against persons on religious grounds. In October, the government suffered a huge defeat at the hands of opposition peers, when the Lords voted to protect “discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions”. This was followed by the government’s two shock defeats by MPs when they voted on the bill on Tuesday. ‘Causal link’ Luitgard Hammerer, a consultant at Article 19, suggests caution should be exercised where the new laws are concerned. “The danger with religious hatred laws is that they tend to define legislation very broadly,” he says. “There has to be a definite causal link between a speech and a violent incident. And the legislation should protect the person rather than prohibiting comments. “If you prohibit criticising a belief system, you are entering very dangerous territory that can be abused.”