The French president, Jacques Chirac, made a national appeal for racial and religious tolerance yesterday as part of a campaign to tackle an alarming surge in racist attacks.
In his strongest condemnation yet of the desecration of Muslim and Jewish cemeteries over the past three months, Mr Chirac called for urgent action to stem a rise in the "despicable and odious acts of hatred soiling our nation".
The setting for this keynote speech was selected to add greater resonance to the president's words.
Mr Chirac travelled to a village in the hills of south-western France famous for the bravery of its inhabitants who risked their lives during the second world war to shelter Jews from the Nazis and French collaborators.
As many as 5,000 people were saved from transportation to death camps as a result.
"Discrimination, anti-semitism, racism all kinds of racism are spreading insidiously," Mr Chirac said.
"I ask [the French] to remind their children of the mortal danger of fanaticism, of exclusion, of cowardliness and resignation to extremism All these acts reflect the darkest side of human nature. They are unworthy of France. I will do everything to stop them."
In a skilful piece of media management, the backdrop of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon was chosen to remind the country of France's shameful record on anti-semitism, while simultaneously evoking the memory of the few thousand villagers who resisted the climate of hatred.
Mr Chirac was accompanied by the former cabinet minister Simone Veil, an Auschwitz survivor.
The French government has this week stepped up its attempts to be seen to be tackling the unusual rise in xenophobic attacks that has shocked the country in recent months, and attracted bad publicity for France around the world.
At the end of April, 127 tombstones were desecrated at the Jewish cemetery in Herrlisheim-prhs-Colmar.
Although they have been disputed, official figures indicate that the number of anti-semitic attacks in France has been rising again this year, while Jewish commu
"The anti-semitic atmosphere in France has become a real problem," a spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Paris said.
There has also been an apparent surge in attacks on Muslims, and Mr Chirac was careful to insist that all forms of racism must be stemmed. Last month neo-Nazi slogans were daubed across about 50 tombs in a Muslim cemetery in Strasbourg, while in April racist slogans were painted on the wall of a mosque in central France.
In a further indication of the government's determination to be seen to be taking action, the interior minister, Dominique de Villepin, said earlier this week that "anti- semitic and racist acts are on the increase" and that the situation had become very serious. He promised that there would be heavy penalties in the event of future attacks.
Mr Chirac said yesterday it was the duty of teachers, police officers, mayors and local officials to stand firm against the trend.
"In the face of the risk of everyday indifference and passivity, I appeal solemnly for vigilance from each French woman and man," Mr Chirac said.
The timing of Mr Chirac's longest speech on internal affairs in recent months was met with cynicism by some commentators, who argued that the president had seized on an uncontentious and popular theme as part of his latest attempt to boost his crumbling popularity.
One recent poll showed that his rating had dropped 20 percentage points in 15 months down from 65% last April (when it peaked after his opposition to the war in Iraq) to 45% in June.
"This has been Chirac's strategy for the past nine years," Le Parisien wrote yes
The newspaper added that the president's public relations office, headed by his daughter Claude, was simply responding to a popular demand for a greater focus on internal affairs.
Mr Chirac also appeared to be attempting to claw back some of the immense support he won in 1995 when he became the first French president to accept France's "criminal" complicity with the Nazis during the war.
Jewish leaders welcomed the general tone of his speech, although there was some frustration that the president had not focused in greater detail on the punishment that might be in store for the perpetrators of racist attacks.
The Interior Ministry registered 67 attacks on Jews or their property and 160 threats against Jews in the first quarter of this year, compared with 42 attacks and 191 threats in the last three months of 2003.