French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin on Tuesday told lawmakers he would ask the center-right government to back a proposal to break up all neo-Nazi groups.
Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim attacks are on the rise in France
"These movements must be dissolved, and I will propose this to the cabinet" in accordance with a January 1936 law that authorizes the disbanding of associations seen as a threat to public order and democracy, De Villepin said.
The interior minister estimated that some 3,000 people belong to neo-Nazi groups across France.
"We will see to it that these groups are not reconstructed under false names," De Villepin added, calling the movements "a threat and a danger, especially when we know their activities are more and more violent."
The minister said neo-Nazi groups were responsible for 65 acts of violence in 2004, as compared with just 27 such acts in 2003.
De Villepin, the government's point man on law and order, said he would crack down on the spread of neo-Nazi ideas via the Internet, and ask mayors and regional officials to help prevent public meetings of neo-Nazi groups.
Alsace, in eastern France along the German border, is one of the country's neo-Nazi strongholds, where the extreme right-wing party Front National also does well. The groups operate there surreptitiously, organizing meetings under the guise of friendly soccer matches, for example, where the tone changes once the players retire to bars for some after-sport refreshment.
Local authorities are almost powerless to stop the neo-Nazi gatherings. Renting out meeting rooms is a private affair that officials can't simply ban. Many mayors are too afraid of the consequences if they took aggressive measures against the sometimes large groups of neo-Nazis that meet in their small towns and villages.
"'If we chase them away, there'll be a brawl and then it'll be difficult,' says the mayor who fears the neo-Nazis will terrorize his village," according to Mayor Gilbert Reutenauer in Hinsbourg, where around 800 of them held a gathering in October 2003.
Some are skeptical that the interior minister's plans will make a difference at all since it's hard to identify the culprits in the first place.
"They don't show pictures of Hitler, or anything that recalls the past," said Rene Monzat, an expert on the right-wing extremist scene. "The minister's push is welcome but it remains symbolic." Europe's largest Muslim and Jewish populations live in France. Both communities have been the victims of increasing violence in recent years. Earlier this month, a government investigation found that France's far-right groups were increasingly targeting Muslims rather than Jews.