PARIS, Oct. 20 (UPI) -- A newly released report on anti-Semitism in France has touched off a firestorm of controversy by asserting the phenomenon is far more widespread than experts previously acknowledged, touching far-left and anti-globalization groups critical of Israel.
The government-commissioned report, released late Tuesday, comes as the French foreign minister wrapped up a three-day trip to Israel, largely aimed at improving bilateral relations frayed by allegations of anti-Semitism in France, and Paris' perceived sympathy for the Palestinian cause.
A few years ago, a member of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government called France the "most anti-Semitic country" in Europe -- though other Israeli officials quickly distanced themselves from the comment. But anti-Semitism has long dogged France, a country still haunted by its World War II past.
Authored by Jean-Christophe Rufin, former vice president of the French relief group, Doctors Without Borders, the report denounces acts against Jews as a pretext to "legitimize the armed Palestinian conflict."
Indeed, experts largely blame the recent increase in anti-Semitic acts in France on the country's large population of ethnic-Arab youths sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. But the report suggests anti-Semitic feelings are far more widespread in the French population. It says a "subtle" form of anti-Semitism exists in "radical anti-Zionism" expressed by far-left and anti-globalization groups.
On Wednesday, French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin offered a qualified defense of the report, but notably did not repeat previous remarks the government might penalize those blamed for anti-Semitic acts.
"It's an independent report that shows the responsibility of each individual," de Villepin said at a news conference.
At the same time, he added, "One must be vigilant in condemnations of Zionism, and be careful in mixing up things and making comparisons."
The report has sparked sharply different reactions by an array of human rights groups and Jewish associations.
The anti-discrimination group, SOS-Racism, described the study as "a good analysis" of a new breed of anti-Israel, anti-Semitism. Jewish groups also hailed the study as a far-reaching effort to tap the roots of anti-Jewish acts.
But France's Human Rights League denounced Rufin's study, saying it would fuel hostility by introducing a subject -- the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- which had nothing to do with the problem at hand.
The new study comes at a delicate time in France -- coinciding with two high-profile charges of anti-Semitism. On Monday, Alain Menarges, information director for the state-funded Radio France International was forced to step down, after describing Israel as a racist state.
Menarges statements on France's LCI TV -- along with separate radio remarks that Jews had created "the first ghetto" in Venice -- drew protests from Radio France's own reporters and from the French Foreign Ministry.
But Menarges remained unapologetic, telling France's Liberation newspaper in an interview published Tuesday his remarks were taken out of context, and that he was the victim of conservative Jews who could not abide criticism of Israel.
The French political establishment is already roiled by separate remarks by Bruno Gollnisch, second in command of the far-right National Front.
Last month Gollnisch, a university professor, cast doubt on the dimensions of the Holocaust, telling reporters the numbers of Jews that died in Nazi concentration camps was smaller than historians attest.
The National Front's leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, sparked outrage in 1987 when he described the Holocaust as a "detail" in history.
Le Pen placed second in the first round of French presidential elections in 2002. He was trounced by President Jacques Chirac in the second round, in a virtual referendum against extremism.
On Friday, French Justice Minister Dominique Perben suggested that the state might press charges against Gollnisch for "negation of crimes against humanity."