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Reaction to Fake Anti-Semitic Attack in France Raises Questions  About Anti-Muslim Feelings - 2004-07-14

An alleged anti-Semitic attack that rocked France turns out to be a fabrication. Public opinion is now torn over whether authorities reacted too quickly and unfairly targeted the country's Muslim population.

The story was horrific enough when details emerged in recent days. A gang of youths allegedly attacked a young woman and her baby early Friday on a Paris-area commuter train.

They allegedly cut off the woman's hair, ripped her clothes and drew Nazi swastikas on her stomach. They allegedly selected the woman believing she was Jewish, although in fact she was not.

The media identified the assailants as being of African and North African origins, and many French presumed they were Muslims.

But suspicions mounted as not a single witness stepped up to corroborate the woman's claims, and train station video cameras did not capture any images of the alleged attackers.

Late Tuesday, according to media reports, the women retracted her accusations. Her mother, like several other people who knew her, said she had a history of making up stories. Now, she could face up to six months in prison, and more than $9,000 in fines for her lies.

French President Jacques Chirac had called the alleged attack shameful. But during his annual Bastille Day television interview, following the woman's retraction, he called the whole affair regrettable.

But Mr. Chirac said he does not regret his earlier condemnation of the alleged incident. He said France is currently in a period of racist acts against Jews, Muslims, and others. He said the attacks are unacceptable and violate the country's principles.

Other politicians and religious leaders, who were swift to condemn the fabricated event, are now offering mixed reactions.

In an interview with VOA, Soheib Bencheikh, the grand mufti of Marseilles, said France's North African and African communities have been unfairly targeted.

Mr. Bencheikh said it was normal that political leaders acted quickly to denounce the alleged attack. But now, he says, they must offer words to calm the situation and to take a stand opposing discrimination against both Jews and Muslims.

Anti-Jewish attacks in France have soared in recent years. In most cases, Muslim youths have been considered the prime suspects. France has Western Europe's largest populations of Jews and Muslims.

Roger Cukierman, head of the Representative Council of Jews in France, told French radio it was unfortunate that the young woman had fabricated her story.

Still, Mr. Cukierman says the fact that people believed the event happened shows that a climate exists in France that supports violence. In other interviews, representatives of anti-discrimination groups agreed.