PARIS - Thousands of people took to the streets of the French capital Tuesday evening to protest a spate of recent anti-Semitic attacks, including the daubing of painted swastikas on nearly 100 graves in a Jewish cemetery in eastern France.
The Paris demonstration, in the city’s central Place de la Republique, was one of more than a dozen to be staged nationwide Tuesday in response to a surge in anti-Semitic hate crimes which have triggered a deluge of outrage in France and Israel.
Some 18 political parties called for the protest, with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe among those attending along with other ministers.
Earlier in the day President Emmanuel Macron vowed to crack down on hate crimes as he visited 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 case of extensive cemetery desecration in the region since December, when nearly 40 graves as well as a monument to Holocaust victims were vandalized in Herrlisheim, about a half-hour drive from Quatzenheim.
Macron 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 percent jump in anti-Jewish offenses 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 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 on Wednesday.
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.
Macron himself has been targeted in some of the anti-Semitic graffiti found in the wake of recent protests, though many prominent yellow vest demonstrators have said they plan to participate in the anti-racism marches.
But a recent Ifop poll of “yellow vest” backers found that nearly half those questioned believed in a worldwide “Zionist plot” and other conspiracy theories.
“The yellow vests aren’t an anti-Semitic movement,” said Jean-Yves Camus of the Political Radicalisation Observatory in Paris.
“But it’s a leaderless, horizontal movement … and extremist elements have been able to drown out the voices of its high-profile figures in the media,” he said.