The French army has opened an investigation after the publication of a photo showing three paratroopers from Montauban in southern France performing a Nazi salute and holding a Nazi flag. The photograph was published in France's weekly satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné Wednesday, European Jewish Press has reported.

The photo has been circulating in the unit for a long time.

The affair is not without some elements reminiscent of the Dreyfus affair over a century ago: according to the paper, the army’s leadership ignored reports of the soldiers' neo-Nazi tendencies, preferring to punish a former captain in the unit who reported the events to his superiors several times since 2006.

The soldiers in the photo faced no consequences at first, the weekly said. Instead, the army decided not to extend the employment contract for Jamel Benserhir, the officer who complained against the neo-Nazis, due to "emotional instability."

Army hierarchy 'hid facts'

After being kicked out of the unit, Benserhir decided to write directly to Defense Minister Hervé Morin and report the facts. An army chief said two of the soldiers accused by Benserhir were "immediately confined." Another report said they have been under arrest since March 28, 2008. The third is no more a member of the unit.

The army decided not to extend the employment contract for Jamel Benserhir, the officer who complained against the neo-Nazis, due to "emotional instability."

The National Bureau of Vigilance Against anti-Semitism (BNVCA), which monitors anti-Semitic incidents in France, called for stiff sanctions against the three soldiers and asked for the investigation to make clear why facts were hidden by the army’s hierarchy.

In a statement, the bureau’s head, Sammy Ghozlan, declared: “We consider that official France is not anti-Semitic but the last cases involving civil servants and policemen call us to be vigilant.”

He mentioned the recent firing by the Interior Minister of a deputy prefect who published an anti-Israeli pamphlet on internet and the suspension of policemen after an anti-Semitic outburst.

Anti-Semitism has 'total freedom'

Ghozlan also referred to the recent report by a governmental human rights commission on racism and anti-Semitism which noted a drop of the number of anti-Semitic acts in France. He added: "While the number of anti-Semitic incidents is slightly decreasing, it remains very meaningful and confirms that anti-Semitic speech is now enjoying total freedom through the internet, among other media, and that it has reached and penetrated the institutions."

In February, three French police officers were witnessed making Nazi salutes and shouting "Sieg Heil," as well as other racist and anti-Semitic slurs, in a northern France pub.

The Dreyfus Affair was a political and anti-Semitic scandal which divided France from the 1890s to the early 1900s. It involved the wrongful conviction for treason of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish artillery officer. The intense political and judicial scandal that followed lasted until Dreyfus was fully vindicated and reinstated as a Major in the French Army in 1906.