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'Last Temptation' triggers unprecedented violence in France

By ELIZABETH RICCI

PARIS -- When 'The Last Temptation of Chirst' opened in France last month, protesters greeted it with the same cries of outrage and charges of blasphemy that have followed the film like a crusade to movie theaters the world over.

Banned in Israel, Morocco and South Africa, the Martin Scorsese film triggered a massive demonstration in Los Angeles, protest marches in Greece and the knife-slashing of a movie screen in suburban Madrid.

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An Ithaca, N.Y., man wrapped himself in protective covering and drove a bus into a theater showing 'Temptation' on Monday.

But nowhere have the scenes showing Christ tempted by carnal desire provoked as much violence or political turmoil as in France, the stronghold of excommunicated traditionalist Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

Silent rosary vigils and daily chanting outside theaters gave way to tear gas bombings and fires inside theaters. In Strasbourg, the film's opening, scheduled to coincide with a visit by Pope John Paul II, was cancelled.

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The violence came to a head last Sunday when a fire in a Latin Quarter theater showing the film injured 10 people.

Arson investigators, who suspect the fire began when someone ignited a gasoline-soaked theater seat in a stairwell, rounded up 37 militants from far-right groups for questioning.

Less than four weeks after 'The Last Temptation' opened at 17 cinemas in the capital, only one continued to show it to spectators willing to be searched at the door.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the burned-out theater to protest the fire and show support for its right to show the film.

A class action suit was filed in Paris against parties unknown on behalf of cinemas that suffered financial and material losses during the protests.

More than one accusing finger was pointed at followers of the General Alliance Against Racism and for the Respect of French and Christian identity, a right-wing group that has used its Christian fundamentalist bent to attract some of France's traditionalists.

The traditionalists, a small but militant minority in France, follow Lefebvre's defiant opposition to the modernization of the Roman Catholic church. The maverick archbishop was excommunicated in June after he consecrated four bishops without papal approval.

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Police said most of those rounded up for questioning about the fire were members of the General Alliance, which is led by a right-wing extremist member of the European Parliament, Romain Marie.

Marie also belongs to the National Front Party of anti-immigration crusader Jean-Marie Le Pen.

'Everyone knows that it was the religious groups who were opposed to this film,' said one member of the Society of Film Producers, one of the plaintiffs in the class action suit.

'It's fine for them to be opposed, but they have no right to stop others from seeing it,' she said. 'And resorting to acts of terrorism is worse yet.'

A recent editorial in the liberal newspaper Le Monde noted that fire has been used symbolically since the 15th century in the name of religion and cited Joan of Arc's burning at the stake for heresy as an example.

The editorial, titled 'Traditionalism French Style,' said the current violence may backfire against religious leaders and spark the kind of heated debate over the relations between church and state that marked 19th century French politics.

'Might not the current rise of religious fanaticism awaken a certain anticlerism?' Le Monda asked. 'Aside from being an attack that nothing can excuse, the events of today show that France has not yet completely rid itself of the politico-religious quarrels of the 19th century.'

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