PARIS - As Jews around the world marked Holocaust Day on Monday, France was confronted with the bruising accusation by the head of its Jewish community that it was tolerating a new and pernicious form of anti-Semitism.
Roger Cukierman, head of the CRIF umbrella group of Jewish organizations, sparked off a bitter dispute by warning that a "politically correct" anti-Semitism had wormed its way into the far-left amid a rising tide of protest against Israeli policies.
He charged a de facto "brown-green-red" alliance of neo-Nazis, environmentalists and left-wingers in France had started out criticizing Israeli treatment of Palestinians but slid over into outright anti-Jewish views.
Cukierman's accusation came after a French university called for ties with Israeli academics to be cut off in protest against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hard-line stand against a two-year-old Palestinian uprising and another university debated doing the same.
It coincided with the publication of a new book saying teachers in some French schools can hardly teach about the Holocaust anymore without being contradicted by Muslim pupils who loudly deny the Nazis ever killed six million Jews.
"France is neither racist nor anti-Semitic. But some of our fellow countrymen on the far-right and far-left are," he said at the annual CRIF dinner on Saturday evening.
Gilles Lemaire, head of the Greens Party, was so outraged at being linked to neo-Nazis and anti-Semites that he dropped his napkin and stormed out of the dinner in protest.
The dispute had lost none of its sting by Monday, when the Socialist Party called Cukierman's comments "excessive" and the LICRA anti-racist league defended the Greens and other leftists against the charge of anti-Semitism.
Henri Hajdenberg, Cukierman's predecessor at the head of the CRIF, chimed in to try to calm the storm.
"He used a hard-hitting expression, but I don't think he was aiming at the Greens," Hajdenberg told the daily Le Parisien. "He was aiming at the green flag of radical Islam and its anti-Semitism."
France is home to the largest of Europe's Jewish and Muslim minorities, and rising tensions between them - linked to the violence in the Middle East in recent years - looked set to escalate in the build-up to a possible war in Iraq.
The combination of increasingly open pro-Palestinian views among left-wing intellectuals and politicians and an unabashed anti-Semitism among some youths of North African origin has caused deep concern among France's 600,000 Jews.
Cukierman hit out hard against what he called the "bizarre connivance" between left-wing groups and pro-Palestinian movements calling to boycott Israeli goods or institutions.
"The good conscience of this vast group is assured by a progressive varnish that paints it as antiracist," he said.
Without naming him, Cukierman also lashed out at radical farmers' leader Jose Bove for visiting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in his Ramallah headquarters during an Israeli siege.
In his speech, Cukierman also touched on problems in schools where he said anti-Jewish sentiment was rife. Guests at the dinner received a new book which recounted recent anti-Semitic incidents, many instigated by Muslim pupils.
In one case, a 10-year-old boy was forced to leave his Paris school after his mostly Muslim schoolmates taunted and bullied him on learning he was Jewish.
The CRIF softened its tone on Sunday, saying it wanted to maintain dialogue with all political parties. Cukierman's fears stemmed from the fact some Greens had taken part in anti-Israeli demonstrations or backed Palestinian organizations, it said.
Monday marks the 58th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps where Jews were taken and killed under Nazi Germany's efforts to exterminate European Jewry.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now