LONDON: A former prime minister of France faced an angry backlash on Wednesday after comments that many people interpreted as a veiled, antisemitic criticism of Jewish control of the arts, culture and the media.
During a TV interview, Dominique de Villepin talked about the alleged pressure on American actors and other public figures to avoid criticizing Israel during the Gaza war.
“You can see in the background how substantial the domination of finance is on the realms of media, art and music,” he told TMC television. “They can’t say what they think simply because their contracts are immediately ended. Unfortunately, we see this as well in France.”
Some commentators described his comments as dangerous and reminiscent of bigoted beliefs in the 19th and early 20th centuries about Jewish power within French society.
These beliefs resulted in events such as the Dreyfus affair from 1894 to 1906, in which a Jewish military officer was wrongly convicted of treason, the rise of right-wing political parties with antisemitic views in the 1930s, and the French state’s deportation of 76,000 Jews to Nazi death camps during the Second World War.
“The antisemitism that was so long hidden is being unleashed,” said Jacques Attali, a prominent intellectual and former presidential adviser.
Yonathan Arfi, the head of Crif, an organization for French Jews, said: “Dominique de Villepin did not make a gaffe. He revealed himself in spite of himself.
“His words reveal insidiously antisemitic rhetoric which is aimed, without naming them, at Jews as the party of international finance and the puppet masters of the media and artists.”
Eric Ciotti, the leader of de Villepin’s former party, The Republicans, also criticized him and expressed shock about “conspiracy theory remarks that remind us of dark times” in French history.
While serving as foreign minister, de Villepin spearheaded France’s decision not to participate in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
He has said that it is not antisemitic to criticize the suppression of free speech by the financially powerful, and that his criticism of the Israeli government and its policies, and the country’s assault on Gaza, is not the result of any form of hatred of or prejudice against the Jewish people.
French politicians and media figures on the extreme left of French politics have voiced support for de Villepin, saying that his comments about financial influence were misinterpreted, and that in other comments about the Middle East he was simply reflecting France’s long-standing impartial stance on Israel and Arab nations.
However, the controversy has brought renewed attention to long-running social issues in French society, where there has been a prevailing wave of antisemitism of late.
French police have recorded hundreds of antisemitic attacks in the past month alone. Studies have found that 75 percent of the Jewish population in France claimed to have personal experience of offensive treatment, and 50 percent admitted to concealing their Jewish identity in public.