A French cleric endorses the author of a book he has not read and later apologizes - not generally the stuff of banner headlines.
But in this case, the cleric, Abbe Pierre, is the most popular man in France, and the book, Roger Garaudy's "The Founding Myths of Israeli Policy," raises questions about the Holocaust.
The mass deportation and subsequent murder of Jews in Nazi concentration camps is a highly charged topic in France. Only last year did a French head of state, President Jacques Chirac, admit the responsibility of the French state in the deportation of 65,000 to 70,000 Jews to Nazi camps. Only 2,800 of these deportees returned.
Abbe Pierre is known as the "prophet of the poor." He took the name Abbe Pierre as a fighter in the anti-Nazi French Resistance during World War II, when he helped Jews obtain false papers to escape to Switzerland. After the war, he began organizing for the homeless and founded the Roman Catholic charity group Emmas, now active in dozens of countries.
For many social-action groups in Paris, his presence in a campaign has meant instant publicity and access to decisionmakers. Most recently, he has backed efforts to help illegal immigrants in France, in the face of a government crackdown against them.
The release of Abbe Pierre's letter endorsing Mr. Garaudy at an April 17 press conference set off a firestorm of protest. The French priest was expelled from the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, denounced by the French episcopate, and repudiated by social groups he supported.
The mainstream French press spoke with one voice on the issue, with banner headlines such as "The Fault of Abbe Pierre" and "The Lost Honor of Abbe Pierre." Some commentators ascribed this fall from grace to advanced age or mental impairment; others said it was the effect of old Catholic theology, which the church has since abandoned.
However, Abbe Pierre's five-page letter, contrary to press reports, does not endorse Garaudy's book. Rather, his letter endorses the integrity of the author, a friend of 50 years.
But no French newspaper ever published the full text of Abbe Pierre's letter, and few critics say they read the book that prompted it. Press coverage amounted to a "public lynching," said one Abbe Pierre supporter, Abdel Kader Djeghloul. Abbe Pierre's apology, in which he withdrew his statements and left "to God to judge the integrity of the motives of all involved," merely ran on the inside pages of newspapers.
Roger Garaudy, the author of the disputed book, is a former hard-line Communist, who subsequently converted to Islam and has become an outspoken critic of the state of Israel. His most recent book is on display in only one bookstore in Paris, and unavailable, even on order, in many others.
He faces criminal charges for violation of a 1990 French law that makes it a criminal offense to challenge facts of the Holocaust as determined by French courts or the 1945 international war crimes tribunal at Nuremberg.
"We will order any book in the world for you, but not that one," said the owner of a small Paris bookstore.
Contrary to French press reports, Garaudy does not deny that millions of Jews were murdered by the Nazis - a point argued by so-called "negationists." The book is an uneven compilation of press clippings, official documents, memoirs, and the writings of Zionists as well as revisionist Israeli historians that challenge "official histories" of the Holocaust and their influence on Israeli politics.
Israeli journalist Tom Segev's recent book "The Seventh Million," one of the most frequently cited texts in the Garaudy book, raises similar questions, but with a far greater attention to historical context and the stark moral choices Jewish leaders faced during the Holocaust.
But for many critics of Abb Pierre in France, such questions could lend support to extremist and anti-Semitic movements in France. "What's painful and surprising about the Abbe Pierre's [endorsement] is the doubt and suspicion [toward the Holocaust] it sowed in public opinion," said Monseigneur Jacques Gaillot, a Catholic social activist who has worked on many of the same social issues as Abbe Pierre.
"Many of the young people that supported Abbe Pierre have refused to come to any meeting that denounced him - especially those sympathetic with the Palestinian cause," he added in an interview.
Last month, a series of yellow-and-black posters appeared in Paris's poor, largely immigrant suburbs asking the question: "And what if Abbe Pierre is right?" The posters were signed by the Union for the Defense of Liberty of Expression, a group that police sources say has extremist anti-Semitic ties.
"We are very concerned about the progress of the extreme right, because each time there is an economic crisis, extremists grow stronger. They attack poor foreigners as well as Jews," says Serge Klarsfeld, president of the Association of the Sons and Daughters of Jewish Deportees of France, who supported the campaign against Abb Pierre.
But one consequence of revisionist debates on the Holocaust has been to deepen the quality and accuracy of research on this issue, Mr. Klarsfeld said, adding, "Our painful contact with revisionist arguments has raised the level of historical studies."
Critics of how the press covered the Abbe Pierre affair argue that efforts to curb debate on the Holocaust will damage the fight against extremism. A prominent jurist, Franois Terre, called the 1990 Gayssot law, invoked against the Garaudy book, "totalitarian."
"This law kills historical research and dishonors France," says Mr. Terre. "There are many historians that oppose this law, but they are not well known. .... Even politicians who oppose the law have been reluctant to speak out against it."
He adds that a group of prominent historians will be mounting a campaign to repeal the Gayssot law.