By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
PARIS, Jan. 6 -- Alarmed by a firebomb attack on a synagogue, French leaders expressed concern Tuesday that strong feelings over the Israeli offensive in Gaza could lead to street violence and increased tensions between Muslims and Jews in France.
The appeals, from President Nicolas Sarkozy and his ministers as well as Muslim and Jewish figures, reflected this country's sometimes uncomfortable position as home to the largest Muslim and Jewish populations in Europe. More than 5 million Muslims and half a million Jews reside here, often integrated into the French mainstream but always sensitive to the politics and wars of the Middle East.
Concern heightened after a car set ablaze by a firebomb rammed into the gate of a synagogue Monday night in Toulouse, a major city in southwestern France, as a rabbi was giving lessons inside. The vehicle did not break through the steel barrier, and no one was injured, police said. But a second car, containing several bottles of flammable liquid, was found about 10 yards away with its motor running, according to Michel Valet, a Toulouse prosecutor.
No group asserted responsibility for the attack, police said. Witnesses said they saw three people running from the area, but no arrests were announced.
The attack followed scattered looting and street clashes Saturday between Muslim youths and police after a pro-Palestinian rally encouraged by some of France's major Muslim organizations. Rioters burned more than a dozen cars, touching off fears of a repeat of the extensive street violence in 2005 in the shabby Paris suburbs where the capital's Muslim population is concentrated.
The Gaza fighting comes at a time when young suburban Muslims of North African descent are already disgruntled by high unemployment and an economic crisis that has tightened already strained budgets. As a result, Sarkozy and French Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie were quick to condemn the firebombing in Toulouse and take steps to ease tensions among Jewish and Muslim groups.
"Our country cannot tolerate letting international tension translate into sectarian violence," Sarkozy said in a statement Tuesday. "National unity, solidarity among all French people and foreign residents of France, around efforts made by French diplomacy to bring a contribution to the search for just and balanced solutions, constitute our country's only possible response and only worthy attitude in the tragic circumstances that the Middle East is living through."
Sarkozy was on his way to a second stop in Egypt during a three-day trip to the Middle East seeking to encourage a cease-fire in Gaza. Israeli leaders, after meeting with him, declared they would not halt their attacks until they are convinced Hamas is no longer able to fire rockets into Israel.
Alliot-Marie, meanwhile, met with Richard Prasquier, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France, and Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council for the Muslim Religion, asking both to calm their followers.
In a radio interview later, she denounced the Toulouse attack as "particularly stupid and revolting," adding, "What I want to avoid above all is that a worrying international situation gets transposed onto our national territory."
Prasquier and Moussaoui responded to her appeal, calling on French Jews and Muslims to express their opinions peacefully. But the intensity of feelings over the bloodshed in Gaza was apparent despite the show of goodwill.
The Union of Islamic Organizations, a member of Moussaoui's federation, called Israel's attacks a genocide against the Palestinian people. Prasquier called such a declaration "unheard-of" and said he could not talk with anyone who would voice such an opinion.
Despite his repeated calls on Israel to halt the attacks, Sarkozy has been identified by many Muslims in France as a particularly fervent supporter of the Jewish state. Calling himself a "friend of Israel" since taking over in 2007, he has shifted the tone of French diplomacy in the Middle East, which was identified as sympathetic to the Arabs during the presidency of Jacques Chirac, his predecessor.
During the scuffles Saturday, some protesters were heard shouting, "Sarko accomplice," French reporters said.