Bashar Assad, president of Syria, arrived in France on
Monday for an official visit, as many protests were
organized against his recent expressions of extreme
antisemitism. The protests were barely mentioned in the
Assad was greeted with all the official honors the French
government could muster. President Chirac waited for him at
the door of the Elysee Palace and dined him at an official
state dinner there. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin will also
give him an official dinner at the Quay d'Orsai. Assad will
also speak before the National Assembly and be the guest of
honor at an official reception of the City of Paris.
The French Foreign Ministry, in an obvious attempt to
justify the pomp, declared, "Peace in the Middle East is
impossible without Syria." A ministry spokesman added, "It
is impossible to bypass Syria in the quest for peace."
When the honor guard was greeting Assad at the Champs
Elysee, tens of thousands of Jews demonstrated against him
at the Jewish Suffering Square, a "safe" distance away. The
protests were held at the old bicyclist sports arena that
was used by the French police during the German occupation
as a way station for arrested Jews.
The demonstration drew not only Jews from all backgrounds,
but many others as well. Members of the National Assembly
from both the Right and the Left attended, as did the mayors
of eight of the Quarters of Paris. Even a spokesman for the
Communist Party and the Green Party, perennial opponents of
Israel, came to explain that their anti-Israeli position was
distinct from the religious antisemitism expressed by Assad
during the visit of the pope.
The French media were uniformly silent about the anti-Syrian
demonstrations. The government radio station, France Info,
mentioned in passing that the demonstrations were organized
by the "Israeli community." Syrian spokesman called the
demonstrations "pressure tactics of the Israeli lobby."
Though the demonstrations prevented the Syrians from fully
projecting the image they sought of a dynamic young leader
who is worthy of the confidence of foreign investors, they
aroused their own antisemitic response among the French.
Before his arrival, Assad tried to explain, in an interview
on French radio and TV, that in the antisemitic declarations
he made in the presence of the pope in Damascus and in
Madrid, he didn't mean Jews, but rather Israelis.
The French government did not yield to the pressures to
cancel the visit, despite the concern over Assad's
declarations. The French ambassador in Damascus asked Assad
not to refer to the Jews in the declarations he makes in
Paris. At the meeting with the chairman of the CRIF, Roger
Zuckerman, Chirac said that Assad was invited in order to
advance the peace the Middle East, and that Zuckerman's
protests will be of no avail.
Opposition to the visit was expressed by Jewish
organizations, the French Catholic Church, socialist and
rightist delegates and the Lebanese opposition, all of whom
denounced Assad. The League Against Antisemitism pressed
charges against Assad for his antisemitism. In articles in
the press Syria's crimes not only against Jews and Lebanon
are mentioned, but also those against France. Zuckerman
reminded the French public that Syria murdered the French
ambassador in Beirut and 75 French soldiers.
Syria has been banishing and murdering Palestinians for many
years. She even exiled Yassir Arafat. Her Defense Minister,
Mustafa Talam said: "If I see a Jew, I'll kill him, and if
all the of the Arabs would do likewise, we will rid
ourselves of the problem. " People like that, who are at the
heads of Syria, are welcomed to France.
The French government announced that Prime Minister Sharon
will be received in Paris on the 5th of July, as planned.
Heads of the French Catholic Church wrote a letter, asking
French Interior Minister Daniel Vaillant to cancel Assad's
visit. The Church heads cautioned that the Syrian
President's trip to Paris "may endanger French Jewry."
Cardinal Bidet stated that the Church will participate in a
joint protest with Jewish organizations against Assad.
It is the first time ever that the French Church has joined
in protest with Jews against an Arab leader. This is in
direct contrast to the Pope's conciliatory gestures to the
Arab world. On May 6, Pope John Paul II visited a Syrian
mosque, becoming the first Pope in history to visit a
mosque. When the Pope met with Assad in Damascus, the Syrian
leader made antisemitic comments, quoting from discredited
Christian doctrine. To date, the Pope has not responded.
Coinciding with Assad's visit the French government's news
agency distributed an antisemitic article regarding the
observance of shemittah in the Israeli territories.
The article mocks the laws of Shemittah, Jewish law in
general, and observant Jews.