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Jean Francois Copé, Minister of State for Internal Security; Spokesman of the Government, France

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Address by Jean Francois Copé
Minister of State for Internal Security; Spokesman of the Government, France
Washington D.C.
Thursday, May 6, 2004

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear friends,

It is a very special pleasure to be here with you this evening, and I am greatly honored by your invitation. I come here with a deep sense of emotion, bringing a message of friendship from France, and with a sense of pride at having this opportunity to speak to you in the name of the French Government.

The United States and France are bound by ancient ties of fidelity, illustrating the strength and vitality of relations between our two countries. There is no area in which we have not cooperated in exemplary fashion, indeed over very many years. This is our common history. Our countries have suffered together. They have fought side by side in defense of freedom and to rid the world of barbarism. Those times will never be forgotten. They will remain deeply rooted in the memory of succeeding generations.

Please allow me, in that regard, to open my remarks by placing this evening—one month to the day before the 60th anniversary of the Allied landing in Normandy—under the sign of the 6th of June 1944, a date that strikes me as particularly emblematic of the friendship between France and the United States.

Sixty years ago, hundreds of thousands of men of honor from all of the allied nations, foremost among them being very many Americans, of course, alongside Canadians, Britons, Australians and Frenchmen, of all origins and beliefs, successfully undertook to free France and Europe from the Nazi yoke. They did so in the name of a common ideal, freedom and a shared vision of human rights. Together, they set the scene for the restoration of a Republic in France, guaranteeing respect for the principles of equality and fraternity.

It is this exceptional friendship that Presidents Bush and Chirac will be celebrating together on June 6th. And it is in the name of that friendship that I am delighted to be able to present my own personal testimony. That of a 40 year-old, the son of a generation that experienced the atrocities of war, and who holds gratitude and tolerance foremost among his values. That of a friend of the United States, and that of an implacable defender of freedom of religion and of the elementary respect due to all those who wish to practice their religion without falling victim to intolerance or stupidity.

Recent events have cruelly shown that anti-Semitic acts, alas, still take place in France. Last week, a Jewish cemetery in Alsace was desecrated, with neo-Nazi inscriptions scrawled on tombs. The French Government immediately responded with extreme firmness, launching a hunt for the perpetrators in order to punish them with the utmost severity.

This painful episode serves as a reminder that, although the situation in France today is fortunately a far cry from what the Jews in Europe suffered in the 1930s, the Government daily needs to be vigilant in the extreme. It is precisely because we have experienced that agonizing past that we will not tolerate the slightest anti-Semitic act on French soil.

As Jacques Chirac has solemnly reminded us: "when a Jew is attacked in France, it is an attack against the whole of France." We are guided by that clear, simple principle.

Some in France preferred to avoid speaking of anti-Semitic acts, in recent years, as if denying a reality could help in fighting this persistent evil.

I want to tell you, solemnly, that the Government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin to which I have the honor to belong, has resolutely chosen the opposite course over the past two years.

We lost no time in passing the Lellouche Act in 2002, which prescribes appreciably tougher penalties for racist and anti-Semitic acts. As a result, henceforward absolutely no anti-Semitic act will go unpunished.

At the initiative of Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Nicolas Sarkozy, this law was implemented without delay, showing that the days of laxity are well and truly over. Let me give you one very telling example:

  • five months ago, a 15 year old youngster was beaten at an ice rink because he was Jewish. His assailants have been condamned, and they are still in prison.

Backing up this exemplary severity in dealing with those committing anti-Semitic acts is an innovative, top-level Government initiative in the form of an inter-agency committee against racism and anti-Semitism. This body, unique in Europe, holds monthly meetings under the authority of the Prime Minister, attended by everyone involved in the issue, namely the Ministers of Internal Security with Dominique De Villepin, Justice, Education, Social Affairs, the Prefects concerned, experts, and so forth. We are thus able to identify the problems, follow up each case diligently, and respond swiftly and effectively to anti-Semitic acts.

This committee has overseen the establishment of a fund to secure the most sensitive sites, such as Jewish schools, synagogues and cultural centers.

Lastly, we wanted to put France in the forefront of preventive measures and educating our youth, to bring home to them the gravity of anti-Semitic speech and acts. Media regulators covering all types of media, including the Internet, have stepped up their vigilance. The Ministry of Education has strengthen the school program on the Shoah and organizes school trips to places of memory such as Auschwitz. Furthermore we have decided to add teaching of tolerance and history of religious at school.

The message is clear: never again. This is a top priority for us. We will never give in.

It is for this reason, also, that France felt the need for clear legislation on the issue of secularism, what we call in France: laicite, a principle that guarantees freedom of religious practice for all. Laicite has been based since the end of the 18th century on a strict separation between religions (or many often cultural or ethnic identities) and the body politic. And France has a strong tradition on that matter.

I would like to discuss this theme in greater detail, because it has been the cause of much perplexity and misunderstanding. Some people have claimed the ban on the Islamic headscarf inside public schools as well as the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols is an attack on freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth.

For it is impossible to understand properly the background to the adoption of this law without a clear view of the state of France today. Successive waves of immigration, the most recent being from North Africa, have considerably changed relations between the French and their Republic. During that time, meanwhile, no genuine policy for successful integration was ever put in place along the lines, for example, of the one that gave forged and underpinned the unity of the American people for more than 200 years.

It is therefore vital that the Government to which I belong reaffirm the "republican values" that underlie what I would call "the desire to live together." The only way to tackle the challenge of integration is by making sure that everyone living on French soil feels both fully respected, and fully responsible. To belong to a nation, to a country that takes you in, is to adopt the values that have led millions of men and women to seek a common destiny.

For my part, I shall never forget a particularly striking incident that occurred when I was a local elected representative. For nine years I was a councilman in the town of Meaux, near Paris. I was walking down the street one day when a Frenchwoman of Algerian origin came up to me with a her 10 year-old French-born son. Turning to her son she said, slightly carried away by her enthusiasm: "Look, here comes the Mayor. Ask him anything you like. He can do anything!" I couldn't resist the temptation to reply with President John F. Kennedy's celebrated phrase: "Ask not what your country can do; ask rather what you can do for your country." And, to my amazement, the boy looked at his mother and said: "Mom, when are we going back to my country?"

That revealing anecdote tells the story of a Republic that has fractured in silence, a Republic now obliged to battle relentlessly against communitarism. That is the meaning of the law banning schoolchildren and students from wearing ostensible—i.e. deliberately visible—religious emblems. By unanimously enacting this law, the French Parliament has sought to send out a threefold message:

  • first, a modern vision of secularism. Secularism is not the negation of religion but, on the contrary, the means to practice one's religion while respecting that of others,
  • second, we wanted to protect children, girls especially, who, as we know, are too often forced to wear the headscarf against their will. The aim is to ensure that all children are treated equally,
  • finally, we have sent a firm message to the fundamentalists. In France, religion cannot be, and will not become, a political project.

Today, we are faced with a young generation of children of immigrants, who are totally without bearings and are often influenced by people who give a strict fundamentalist interpretation of the Muslim religion.

We have also witnessed rare, but significant occurrences such as the whistles that greeted our national anthem in a soccer stadium, or people trampling on our flag. You have to know when to say "Enough!" That is exactly what we have done.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear friends,

The French Jewish community is the largest in Europe. We are determined to guarantee that it can live in our country in total security.

Not a day goes by without our relentlessly fighting anti-Semitism in all its forms. In that sense, we are engaged in a battle for respect for freedom and democracy, with no concessions to communitarist tendencies of any kind.

We will not falter in this struggle, because we are deeply attached to peace, to brotherhood, and to tolerance. Sixty years after the Normandy landings, we know we will continue this fight together. And you can count on our total determination to ensure the security and freedom of religious practice for all our citizens.

Thank you.