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French Try to Reverse Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism - 2004-09-19

In an effort to stem a rising tide of anti-Semitism in public schools, the French government is distributing excerpts of a haunting documentary on the Holocaust to high school classes. But experts are uncertain whether the new effort to instill tolerance among French students will be successful.

Samuel Coulon is a history teacher at Lycee Sophie-Germain in Paris, one of about 44-hundred public high schools in France. The school is a beautiful old stone building, located in the heart of city's ancient Jewish quarter. Mr. Coulon's students come from all parts of the city, and from all ethnic and religious backgrounds.

In the past, Mr. Coulon says, the school has experienced what he calls anti-Semitic tension, but nothing very serious. He believes the school's diversity is one reason it has had few incidents of racism and anti-Semitism. There is a lot of mixing among the student body, he says, which means there's not one ethnic or religious body of students confronting the other.

But the relative harmony among students at Sophie-Germain is not the rule in France. The country has been battling a worrying spike in anti-Semitic acts in recent years, many of them by young people. Tensions are generally highest among Jews and Muslims, in a country which has the largest population of both groups in Western Europe.

That's one reason why the French government has decided to distribute copies of the movie Shoah - or the Holocaust - to every public high school in the country. Some of the schools received copies excerpting the more than nine-hour documentary a few years ago. But many teachers reportedly never showed the movie to their students.

This time, the government is pushing for all schools to air the documentary, which recounts stark accounts of Holocaust survivors. A preview of the film was shown last week at Sophie-Germain high school. Other schools will soon be getting their own copies of the movie.

French officials are also distributing a primer for history teachers on how to give lessons on civics and French culture to their students.

But teachers like Klarisse Brouwer say they haven't waited for the government to act, they've been teaching about tolerance and civic values for years. Ms. Brouwer also teaches history at Sophie-Germain high school. For decades, she says, the school has organized debates on topical issues such as Islam in modern life, or violence in the Middle East. Students may not always agree with each other, she says, but they learn to accept different points of view.

Nonetheless, Simon Vacheron, a senior at Sophie-Germain, says he often hears students talk in a way that he finds alarming. Mr. Vacheron says they will call each other dirty Arab, or dirty Jew. But he says they often do so jokingly. Still, he believes those remarks may reflect what the teenagers really feel about each other.

Whether the new government effort will instill more tolerance among students is a matter of debate. Emmanuel Weintraub, a senior member of France's Representative Jewish Council, is doubtful a movie on the Holocaust will change matters. "The major problem we have with anti-Semitism in France is that it's very difficult to teach about those matters. In most of the state schools there are very often 50, 60, 70 percent of the students are of North African descent and they are very influenced by propaganda, and they often say this (the Holocaust) is all untrue," he says.

Although there are no official estimates of the percentage of ethnic Arabs in public schools, most people agree that percentage is far lower than Mr. Weintraub's estimate. But others share his concern about discrimination in schools. Two years ago, a book called The Lost Territories of the Republic, shook the country. It depicted public schools as breeding grounds for anti-Semitism and racism.

Sociologist Michel Wieviorka, who has written several books on racism and violence in France, believes the book exaggerated the problems. But he says many times school administrators don't know how to deal with racial tensions in their classes. And Jewish students, he says, aren't the only victims of discrimination.

"As soon as something is said against Jews there will be a great scandal. But there will not be a great scandal if the same thing is said against Arabs," he says.

As a result, Mr. Wieviorka says, some Arab students feel they are victims of unequal treatment. Still, Mr. Wieviorka credits the French government for trying to combat the problems of discrimination in school. Distributing the

Holocaust in high schools is not enough, he says - but it's a good start.