Officials in Alsace have urged the French government to ban private neo-Nazi gatherings after a number of covertly organised skinhead celebrations were held in the region.
Up to 400 neo-Nazis invaded the quiet village of Hipsheim, nine miles from Strasbourg, earlier this month. The group had booked the local hall and sports ground for a “football tournament followed by a “convivial dinner”. Villagers were horrified when, after a cursory kickaround, the visitors unfurled swastika banners and yelled “Sieg Heil” in between chants glorifying the Third Reich.
They later retired to the hall to drink and pogo-dance in front of a giant German imperial eagle. A plaque on the wall bore the inscription “Elsass beim Reich” – a Nazi slogan stating that this corner of France is part of the German empire. Alsace, a German-speaking region, was annexed by Hitler in 1940. Many skinheads travel across the border from nearby Germany, where such events are banned.
Local mayors, politicians and police chiefs are also worried by a recent series of recent attacks on Jewish and Muslim cemeteries. A few days before the skinheads arrived in Hipsheim, graves in a Jewish cemetery near Lyon in southern France were daubed with swastikas and SS symbols. A few days later, a similar attack was carried out on a Muslim graveyard on the outskirts of Strasbourg.
Adrien Zeller, the president of the regional council, said that neo-Nazis were holding regular gatherings that were legal because they were privately organised. Mr Zeller, a member of Jacques Chirac’s Right-of-centre UMP Party, said that the problem had united politicians. “We have to propose a law to ban these kind of gatherings on our national territory,” he said. “It won’t be easy because it touches on the question of liberty and freedom of speech, but we have to do what we can to give mayors more power to stop this.”
Raphael Nisand, a lawyer and local president of Licra (The International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism), said: “Even if an event is organised in a public hall, the evening is a private occasion. Because of this, the incitement of hatred which may take place is not a crime.”
Previous meetings in Alsace organised by neo-Nazis from Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and France have been called under the pretext of legitimate celebration: a wedding, birthday party or football match. By the time the local mayor realises that he has been duped, it is almost always too late to stop the event.
Edmond Mahler, the mayor of the Alsacian town of Ringendorf, where 800 skinheads gathered in April last year to celebrate the birth of Hitler, said that the legal loophole needed to be closed. “At the moment, the trouble is that once they’re here, you can’t do anything about them.”