French PM Manuel Valls launches action plan against 'unbearable' racism

CRÉTEIL, France (AFP) - France's prime minister announced on Friday the government would pour 100 million euros (S$145 million) into a major anti-racism and anti-Semitism action plan devised in the aftermath of the deadly Paris jihadist attacks.

The programme, which among other measures increases penalties for crimes deemed to have been fuelled by racism and anti-Semitism, comes at a time when acts against Muslims and Jews have shot up in France.

"Racism, anti-Semitism, hatred of Muslims, of foreigners, homophobia are increasing in an unbearable manner," Manuel Valls said in the Paris suburb city of Creteil, the scene of a brutal attack on a Jewish man and his girlfriend in December.

On Thursday, the country's Islamophobia watchdog said anti-Muslim acts had leapt six-fold in the first three months of the year compared with the same period in 2014, fuelled by the January 7-9 attacks when Islamic extremists went on a killing spree that left 17 people dead.

The Jewish community is also increasingly worried, with anti-Semitic acts doubling last year compared with 2013, prompting a rising number of Jews to leave for Israel.

"French Jews must no longer be scared to be Jewish" and "French Muslims must no longer be scared to be Muslim," Valls said.

And it is not just these two communities - the largest in Europe with an estimated four to five million Muslims and around 600,000 Jews - that are targets.

The Roma, a minority group that comes mainly from Romania and Bulgaria, also face considerable discrimination, according to activists.

Apart from the harsher penalties, the action plan also calls for the implementation of a national unit to fight against hatred online, as the Internet increasingly becomes a zone of impunity for racist comments.

In schools, teacher training will be reinforced, head masters will be encouraged to report incidents, and students will visit various relevant memorial sites during their school years.

The 100 million euros, will be used over three years to finance a large-scale communications campaign and various local-level initiatives.

Valls and Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem visited a high school in Creteil on Friday where they emphasised they were both born abroad - in Spain and Morocco respectively.

"You're all from different origins, and that's a strength," Valls said.

"It's through education and the understanding of others that you can counter cliches and negative images."