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Tempest in Toulon: Far-Right Mayor Refuses to Honor Jewish Author

November 23, 1996

TOULON, France (AP) _ By spiking plans to honor a Jewish author, the far-right mayor of this southern French city has turned a sleepy book fair into a political battleground.

Mayor Jean-Marie Le Chevallier of the National Front hailed Friday’s opening of the three-day event as ``a celebration of the liberty of books.″

But he was quickly rebuked by the government’s culture minister, among others, for refusing to honor Jewish writer Marek Halter as fair organizers had requested.

Le Chevallier, a close friend and confidant of Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, last week dismissed the plans to honor Halter as ``inopportune.″

He asked that the award instead be presented to former actress Brigitte Bardot for her new memoirs. Bardot turned down the offer, even though she is married to Bernard d’Ormale, another friend of Le Pen’s.

National Front politicians repeatedly have been accused of racism and anti-Semitism in France _ and the mayor’s actions triggered a fresh round of outrage.

``I was very troubled to be judged `inopportune’ at the Festival of Books,″ Halter said at a meeting to discuss the issue in nearby Chateau Vallon attended by Culture Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, previous culture ministers and some top writers.

Numerous participants pulled out of the fair in protest, and a parallel fair was quickly organized in the nearby village of La Garde.

Douste-Blazy called Friday for a fight against the Front ``without mercy, without respite, without compromise.″

The National Front is engaged in a ``general offensive ... against culture,″ he told French television. ``I think culture today is in political danger.″

The incident was the first major controversy to erupt in the Mediterranean port city since Le Chevallier won the mayoral election in 1995 _ one of three National Front candidates to win mayoral races last year.

Le Pen, the party’s leader, won 15 percent of the vote in the 1995 presidential election with a ``France for the French″ theme. The National Front, which wants North African immigrants deported, denies allegations that it is anti-Semitic or racist.

National Front spokesman Alain Vizier said the plans to honor Halter at the book fair were ditched because he is Jewish.

In a bitter statement, the Front ridiculed what it called the culture minister’s ``warlike hysteria.″

The statement denounced France’s high unemployment rate, now at a record 12.6 percent, and what it called the ``invasive immigration″ the conservative government has failed to stem.

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