Jewish leaders criticised French presidential frontrunner Francois Fillon on Wednesday for suggesting Jews had in the past not wanted to respect the country’s rules.
Fillon, tipped to win the second round of a primary this weekend to become the conservative candidate for next year’s presidential election, was talking to Europe 1 radio about the need to fight radical Islamism.
“We must fight that fundamentalism, in the same way that in the past … we fought some forms of Catholic fundamentalism and we fought the drive by Jews to live in a community that did not respect all the rules of the French Republic.”
It was not clear what precisely Fillon was referring to.
France’s Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia later spoke with Fillon about his comments, a spokeswoman for the rabbi said in a statement.
Korsia said that although Jewish groups may in the past have lived in relative isolation from wider society, that was “in no way Jewish citizens’ choice, but the consequence of French society not accepting their peers at the time,” the statement said.
Sacha Ghozlan, head of the French Jewish students’ union UEJF said: “Those surprising comments raise questions about how Francois Fillon defines fundamentalism.”
“The UEJF wonders what period Francois Fillon is referring to when he says Jews refused to abide by the rules of the French republic, if it’s not at the time of Vichy (the war-time government that collaborated with Nazi Germany) when Jews were forced to hide and wear a yellow star,” Ghozlan said in a statement.
Fillon later wrote on his Facebook page that his comments had been misunderstood.
“I never meant to call into question the Jewish community’s attachment to our common values and to the respect of the rules of the Republic,” he said.
Security is one of the top issues in the presidential race following a wave of Islamist attacks over the past year and half.
Fillon, who is likely to face the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen in the final presidential ballot if he wins Sunday’s primary, has repeatedly warned of the risk of French Muslims being radicalised.
“There is a rise of fundamentalism in the Muslim community, fundamentalists are in the process of taking the Muslim community hostage,” Fillon told Europe 1 before his comments on Catholics and Jews.
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