PARIS — A small cinema chain has set off a sharp debate in France about the deadly Israeli raid on a Turkish ship trying to break the blockade of Gaza, and whether some French are overreacting to the episode.
In what was described as a protest against Israeli actions, the Utopia chain canceled all screenings of an Israeli comedy, “Five Hours from Paris,” scheduled to open this month. Instead, it decided to show a French documentary about Rachel Corrie, a young American who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer while she protested the destruction of Palestinian housing in Gaza in 2003.
For Anne-Marie Faucon, the co-founder of Utopia, a chain of art cinemas in five cities, the ban was a gesture of disapproval for Israel’s use of violence and the blockade of Gaza. “It was a protest of our whole company,” she said in an interview. “We show many Israeli films, we organize a lot of debates on what happens in the world, but this time we reacted very strongly and in a very emotional way.”
But for others, including Richard Prasquier, the president of a major French Jewish organization, the ban was another sign of the growing “delegitimization of Israel” among the intellectual classes in France.
“It’s totally scandalous,” Mr. Prasquier said in an interview. “This cultural boycott is ridiculous, but it defines the way some people think in our country — in black and white, and they are always on the white side, and the black is always the most powerful and wealthiest and somehow Israel is always there.”
For increasing numbers of people in Western Europe, he said, the facts about Israel and its actions are irrelevant. “You can have the facts and nothing changes,” said Mr. Prasquier, who is president of CRIF — the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France. He noted that even the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, condemned the Israeli assault on the ship on May 31 almost immediately after it happened, and before the facts were clear.
Mr. Kouchner has since called for an international investigation and the involvement of the European Union to check cargoes heading for Gaza.
Mr. Prasquier commented, “A military war and a war of images has become a kind of war of law and war of words, including boycotts, and this leads to a kind of delegitimization of Israel.”
The reaction to the ban on the film was quick and fierce, with some in support and some warning about utopianism and the dangers to free speech. “We had tremendous reactions, very different, very enthusiastic,” Ms. Faucon said. “We were encouraged, people said we had done well and that we were brave, while others insulted us and said we were anti-Semites.”
And why this innocuous Israeli comedy? “Because it was there,” she said. “We replaced it by ‘Rachel,’ ” a documentary made by Simone Bitton, a Moroccan-born, French-Israeli director who emigrated to Israel with her family as a child, served in the Israeli Army, became a pacifist and mostly lives in France. She also made a 2004 documentary, “Wall,” about the Israeli security barrier that cuts inside the occupied West Bank.
The ban was widely criticized by the French press, including the Catholic daily newspaper La Croix, which reminded readers that the Israeli cinema, “during these last years, offers the international public films of great quality, without compromise, and very critical” of Israeli policy and society, while the government of Israel continues to provide financing.
Le Monde called the boycott censorship and part of a dangerous trend, as various French cultural festivals consider banning Israeli performers and Western performers choose to boycott Israel. “The flotilla assault is hard to defend, but the boycott is an unacceptable answer,” the paper editorialized. “It is counterproductive. It helps to weaken Israeli voices and eyes who are the most uncompromising about their government. If there is one country in which artists explore with talent and lucidity their state, their society, their leaders and their politics, it is Israel.”
Utopia relented after an Israeli-Dutch director, Ludi Boeken, told the company he was withdrawing his film, “Saviors in the Night,” from its cinemas “in solidarity with the censored.” Mr. Boeken said that Israeli filmmakers and Israeli state financing for them were “under constant attack from the Israeli right.”
Finally on Thursday, the culture minister of France, Frédéric Mitterrand, wrote Ms. Faucon a belated but stinging letter, speaking of “my incomprehension and my disapproval” of the cancellation and noting that the chain received government subsidies to encourage diversity of programming. Mr. Mitterrand said that cinema “plays an essential role in invigorating democratic debate and that is why respect for the freedom of expression of artists cannot be limited, and the opinions that you assert must not stand in its way.”
Ms. Faucon answered Mr. Mitterrand and said that the protest “was a symbolic and limited gesture” and that Utopia had always planned to release the Israeli comedy at some point. She called “Rachel” “a film that corresponds perfectly to this mission of participating in democratic debate.”
Mr. Prasquier said that the French government was sensitive to manifestations of anti-Semitism and to the difficulty of separating them from criticism of Israel. “But there are trends in the society that are very unpleasant,” he said. He noted that during anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations last week, tear gas was used and “the slogans were extremely harsh.”
Unfortunately, he said, they no longer shock. “We are getting used to them as a society, and this is very bad.”