MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, French authorities today announced the arrests of more than 50 people as part of a crackdown on hate speech - speech that's anti-Semitic or speech defending the attacks. Among those arrested was the popular and controversial French comic Dieudonne. He's been convicted numerous times before for racism and anti-Semitism. We're going to talk about this and more with the French ambassador to the United States, Gerard Araud. Welcome to the program.
GERARD ARAUD: Thank you. Good evening.
BLOCK: And how do you explain to Americans the distinction drawn in France between permissible, if offensive, free speech and speech that is punishable by law?
ARAUD: That's the debate that we have had with our American friends for some time because of your First Amendment. For a long time, for instance, you know, we have a debate on the Internet because you accept on the Internet that you could have hate speech.
BLOCK: Hate speech.
ARAUD: You know - yes, apology of Adolf Hitler and so on - why it's forbidden in France. In France, the speech is free, but if it could lead either to a crime or if it could be seen as libel, which is, of course, under the control of the judge. It's to the judge to decide whether the red lines have been crossed.
BLOCK: What do you think the message should be to France's Muslim population, who have - many of them - been deeply offended by what they've seen in the paper, in Charlie Hebdo, and also have been the target of attacks, reprisal attacks after what happened last week?
ARAUD: You know, France is a country of 65 million inhabitants. There are something between five and six million Muslims and I guess 99.9 percent of the Muslims are peaceful citizens. All the polls are showing their commitment to France. They are French; most of them are born in our country. So the message that we have to send to them is that they are part of the nation. I do think that the main problem is not so much religious. The main problem is a social problem of integration. We have had a high level of unemployment for 10, 20 years. And as usual, you know, that's - the immigrants are the first victims of unemployment, so to have a rate of unemployment of 20 percent and - which means you have a lot of these youths - Muslim youths - who are excluded from the social life. And they fall into petty crimes - you know, drug trafficking or small thieves - they go to prison. And in prison, they are radicalized. They find a sort of raison d'etre, you know, in religion.
BLOCK: I want to ask you about new security measures that the French prime minister presented to parliament yesterday, including anti-radicalization programs, more air travel monitoring, more monitoring of phone calls and Internet communication, things like that. In hindsight, do these all appear to you as measures that should've been in place before. If they had been in place, maybe we wouldn't be having this conversation right now.
ARAUD: Maybe. Obviously, you know, there is somewhere - something went wrong in our monitoring systems. The question is the balancing between the public liberties and the need of the police forces. And it's a very - in a democratic society, it's a very delicate balance that we have to find. This - we had one, and obviously, we have to find a new one.
BLOCK: Does the French government give credence to the claims of responsibility for last week's attacks that we were just hearing about, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula saying we ordered this, we are behind this?
ARAUD: That's one of the questions we have to solve. You know, the French authorities have been expecting for some time a terrorist action. We have 5,000 radical youth. We have 1,200 young people who are in Syria or are coming back from Syria. They are trained; they are radicalized. I say 1,200 means that we have identified 1,200. There are more than that, so we were sooner or later - unfortunately, we were fearing that something would happen. And what happened was, in a sense, maybe worse than what we were expecting because it was done in a very professional way.
BLOCK: Well, let me ask you about that. Given what you just said - we were expecting this - these attackers were men who were well known to French intelligence authorities, Charlie Hebdo, the target, had been targeted before, was under threat. Was this a real failure of intelligence here?
ARAUD: We are conducting an investigation and we will see what went wrong. I think that something went wrong and we have to adjust our work abilities. But, you know, let's say we have 5,000 radicalized youth. We are a democracy, so it means that we can't arrest them for their opinion. But it's impossible to monitor 24-7 5,000 people. It means you need between eight to 10 agents a person. It's impossible.
BLOCK: Except in this case, of course, at least one of the attackers had been convicted of recruiting jihadists, had served time in prison.
ARAUD: Yeah, he served time in prison. But even if you monitor them, it's difficult to know when they become dangerous.
BLOCK: Mr. Ambassador, you were not so long ago France's ambassador to Israel. And the number of Jews emigrating from France to live in Israel doubled last year, many people saying they're leaving France because they don't feel safe, that there's a dangerous and rising climate of anti-Semitism in your country. How troubling is that for you and what do you do about it?
ARAUD: No, it's not troubling. It's devastating - it's devastating. The French prime minister said in parliament yesterday that without the Jews, France wouldn't be France. And would it be a royally major failure of the French Republic if we couldn't protect our compatriots. For some time, we have introduced - in the curriculum of the schools, we have introduced teaching about the Shoah. We are organizing trips to Auschwitz. But obviously, it's not enough.
BLOCK: Mr. Ambassador, thank you for coming in.
ARAUD: Thank you very much.
BLOCK: Gerard Araud is the French ambassador to the United States. And tomorrow on Morning Edition, we'll visit a French district where Jews and Muslims live together.
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