PARIS — Thousands of people, some carrying banners proclaiming ’That’s enough’, took to the streets of the French capital on Tuesday evening to protest a spate of recent anti-Semitic attacks, including the daubing of swastikas on nearly 100 graves in a Jewish cemetery in eastern France.
The Paris rally, in the city’s central Place de la Republique, was one of about 70 staged nationwide on Tuesday in response to a surge in anti-Semitic hate crimes which have triggered a deluge of outrage in France and Israel.
Eighteen political parties urged citizens to attend the protests, with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and more than half his cabinet attending the rally in Paris.
Two former presidents, the socialist Francois Hollande, and the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy also turned up. Parliament suspended its work for several hours to allow MPs to attend the rally, while religious leaders met with the interior minister to affirm their unity.
Speaking on television Philippe said it was necessary to punish those who "because of ideology, because they think it’s an easy option, because of ignorance or hostility call into question what we are -- a diverse but proud people".
Earlier in the day President Emmanuel Macron also promised to crack down on hate crimes when inspecting a cemetery in Quatzenheim in the Alsace region near Germany where 96 Jewish tombstones were spray-painted with blue and yellow swastikas the previous night.
"We shall act, we shall pass laws, we shall punish," Macron told Jewish leaders as he toured the cemetery.
"Those who did this are not worthy of the Republic," he said, later placing a white rose on a tombstone commemorating Jews deported to Germany during World War II.
Another grave bore the words "Elsassisches Schwarzen Wolfe" ("Black Alsatian Wolves), a separatist group with links to neo-Nazis in the 1970s.
It was the second recent case of extensive cemetery desecration in the region. In December nearly 40 graves as well as a monument to Holocaust victims were vandalised in Herrlisheim, about a half-hour drive from Quatzenheim.
Macron and his wife, Brigitte, later laid a wreath at the Paris Holocaust memorial.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the "shocking" anti-Semitic vandalism, while one of his cabinet colleagues urged French Jews to "come home" to Israel.
Many French Jews are on edge after the government announced a 74 per cent jump in anti-Jewish offences in 2018 after two years of declines.
Tensions mounted last weekend after a prominent French writer was the target of a violent tirade by a "yellow vest" protester in Paris on Saturday.
A video of the scene showed the protester calling the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut a "dirty Zionist" and telling him "France belongs to us".
In France, several officials have accused the grass-roots yellow vest movement of unleashing a wave of extremist violence that has fostered anti-Semitic outbursts among some participants.
"It would be false and absurd to call the yellow vest movement anti-Semitic," Philippe told L’Express magazine in an interview published on Tuesday.
The prime minister, who has promised a tough new law targeting online hate speech by this summer, warned however that "anti-Semitism has very deep roots in French society".
Macron, for his part, is to lay out his plans to combat anti-Semitism during a speech at the annual dinner of the CRIF umbrella association of French Jewish groups today.
Anti-Semitism has a long history in France where society was deeply split at the end of the 19th century by the Alfred Dreyfus affair, a Jewish army captain wrongly convicted of treason.
During World War II, the French Vichy government collaborated with Germany notably in the deportation of Jews to death camps.
More recently French anti-Semitism, traditionally associated with the far right, has also spread among far-left pro-Palestinian extremists and radicals from amongst the growing Muslim community.
But Macron has resisted calls by some lawmakers to explicitly penalize so-called anti-Zionist statements calling into question Israel’s right to exist as a nation.
A recent Ifop poll of "yellow vest" backers found that nearly half those questioned believed in a worldwide "Zionist plot" and other conspiracy theories. — AFP