France’s interior minister promised on Monday to crack down on anti-Semitism after violence marred pro-Palestinian rallies in and around Paris to protest Israel’s role in the latest round of fighting in Gaza.
France possesses both the largest Jewish and Muslim populations in Europe and tensions between the two communities often flare up as a result of violence in the Middle East.
Local media showed the burnt-out front of a kosher grocery shop in the heavily Jewish Parisian suburb of Sarcelles after a non-authorized protest on Sunday. On July 13, pro-Palestinian marchers clashed with riot police outside two Paris synagogues.
“It is unacceptable to target synagogues or shops simply because they are managed by Jews,” Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters during a visit to Sarcelles, which is also home to large non-Jewish immigrant populations.
“Nothing can justify anti-Semitism, nothing can justify that kind of violence. This will be fought and sanctioned,” he said.
Local media said youths in Sarcelles clashed with police and cars were burnt amid widespread looting that also hit non-Jewish targets. Clashes marred another non-authorized protest in Paris on Saturday, while other rallies around France went ahead peacefully with the permission of local authorities.
Some protesters and even ruling Socialist politicians criticized the bans on the Sarcelles and Paris rallies as counterproductive.
But Cazeneuve said he would react the same way if mosques or churches were targeted.
In the first three months of 2014 more Jews made aliya than at any other time since the state was created in 1948, citing economic hardships in France’s stagnating economy, but also rising anti-Semitism as a factor.
Some pro-Palestinian protesters have accused France of siding with Israel in the conflict, citing the rally bans and a statement by President Francois Hollande’s office saying Israel is justified in taking action to assure its citizens’ security.
France has rejected any bias and Cazeneuve said decisions on any future rallies would be taken on a case-by-case basis.
The hatred and violence on display at the demonstrations, like that which took place in Sarcelles, seemed to shock both French officials and the Jewish community.
During a meeting on Monday inside the same synagogue that rioters tried to set fire to on Sunday, Mayor Francois Pupponi said: “We never saw such hatred and violence as we witnessed in Sarcelles. This morning people are astonished and the Jewish community is frightened.”
The Nahouri grocery store that was torched on Sunday was targeted in a grenade attack in September 2012 by a subsequently dismantled terrorist cell.
“It is not the prohibition of protest that brings violence, but the violence that brings prohibition... It is legitimate to be able to express a position, but intolerable to attack synagogues or businesses because they are owned by Jews,” Cazeneuve said.
Roger Cukierman, the president of CRIF (the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions), said in an interview on French radio: “There is a risk of public disorder. The fact is that they systematically attack Jews... none of the these protesters went to demonstrate in front of the Syrian Embassy, where [the Assad regime] has killed 170,000 Muslim Syrian citizens.”
In a separate interview he said, “They don’t shout ‘death to Israelis’, but ‘death to Jews,’ and they attack synagogues, which are places of worship.”
A member of the Sarcelles Jewish community spoke to The Jerusalem Post on condition of anonymity.
“I don’t see myself anymore as a young girl building my future in France – the future is too uncertain. I was already thinking of making aliya, but for sure now these events have accelerated my plans.”
Rabbi Laurent Berros, the chief rabbi of Sarcelles, said that “the demonstrations were aimed against the Jewish community – it was pure anti-Semitism.”
He said that the day before, flyers appeared encouraging demonstrators “to come fight with the Jews” and many came armed with hatchets and cudgels.
“I stayed at the synagogue with the youth and the police trying to protect the community... lots of Jewish stores were burnt; the pharmacy, bank, tramway...the town has been really devastated.”
Eva Attal contributed to this report.