August 4, 2008

'Anti-Semitic' satire divides liberal Paris

Controversial columnist's aside about Sarkozy's son and a Jewish heiress reignites old embers

Take an elderly anarchist, anti-capitalist, anti-clerical cartoonist and add a suspicion of anti-Semitism and a dash of politics. Into this explosive mix stir several thousand amateur polemicists and a few score professional ones. Now, in a Paris sweltering in the summer heat, light the touchpaper and stand well back.

There is no indication when the blast waves from the Affaire Siné are likely to stop reverberating around France. Already the mayor of Paris, the country's best-known philosopher and the minister of culture have spoken out against Siné, whose real name is Maurice Sinet, while an internet petition in his support has more than 7,000 signatures and is going strong.

Two of the bastions of left-wing publishing - the newspaper Libération and the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo - are riven by fevered and bad-tempered debate. Every day sees a new avalanche of opinion pieces and web posts and no one expects them to stop soon.

The row kicked off last month when Siné, 79 and ill, filed his weekly satirical column complete with cartoons for Charlie Hebdo as he has done for two decades. Philippe Val, the editor, barely read the veteran contributor's standard ironic invective and so missed the reference made to aspirant politician Jean Sarkozy, the smooth-talking 21-year-old law student son of the right-wing President.

The young man, Siné wrote without a shred of evidence, was planning to convert to Judaism before marrying Jessica Sebaoun-Darty, the Jewish heiress of a huge electronics chain. 'He'll go a long way in life, this lad!' Siné commented. The piece was published without controversy - until several days later, when a radio presenter referred to it as anti-Semitic. The families of those concerned were said to be 'sickened'. Val, who took the controversial decision to re-publish a Danish newspaper's cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed two years ago in the name of freedom of the press, agreed that the piece was offensive and told its author to apologise.

Siné refused, saying he would rather 'cut his own nuts off' and was, more or less, fired. Cue outrage, argument, counter argument, argument. Was the original statement anti-Semitic? For Val, there was no doubt. Siné's statements, he said last week, 'could be interpreted as making a link between conversion to Judaism and social success' and that they spread the old stereotype associating Jews and money.


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