PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday condemned a steep rise in anti-Semitic violence in France as tens of thousands gathered nationwide to protest repeated attacks on Jews.
In its annual report, the French Interior Ministry said last week that instances of anti-Semitic violence increased by 74 percent in 2018.
On Tuesday, a Jewish cemetery was desecrated in the eastern French city of Quatzenheim, with swastikas scrawled on about 80 graves.
“Anti-Semitism is the opposite of what France is,” Macron tweeted as he made his way to the site.
Anti-Semitism has been a persistent problem in France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish community. Since 2003, isolated instances of anti-Semitic violence in the country have claimed 12 lives. Successive governments have struggled to address the problem, especially as more and more French Jews have left the country for Israel.
Macron’s government is no exception: Despite any number of speeches and campaigns against anti-Semitism, the violence against Jews has continued.
Earlier this month, a tree planted in memory of Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Jewish cellphone salesman murdered in 2006 by a group calling itself the “gang of barbarians,” was chopped down ahead of a ceremony planned to mark his death anniversary.
Last week, “Juden”— the German word for Jew and a clear reference to Nazi anti-Semitism — was scrawled across the window of a Paris bagel shop. Swastikas were drawn on a mailbox that depicted the face of Simone Veil, a French Holocaust survivor, abortion rights advocate and national hero who died in 2017.
Although authorities have not named suspects in these recent incidents, their coincidence with a weekend “gilet jaune,” or “yellow vest,” demonstration raised fears about the real motivations of a protest movement that regularly decries high finance, the media and Macron, who formerly worked at the investment bank Rothschild, a favorite target of anti-Semitic vitriol.
In the past, a number of yellow vest protesters have been caught on camera making anti-Semitic gestures and saying that journalists “work for the Jews.” In December, a small group of protesters harangued a Holocaust survivor on the Paris metro.
This weekend, concerns about anti-Semitism within the yellow vest movement grew more acute after protesters surrounded prominent French Jewish intellectual Alain Finkielkraut as he got out of a taxi near his home in Paris on Saturday.
“Dirty Zionist!” the protesters yelled, in a scene that was caught on camera. “Go back to Tel Aviv!”
Macron leaped to Finkielkraut’s defense, writing on Twitter that the philosopher, whose parents were Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Poland and whose father survived Auschwitz, “is not only an eminent man of letters but the symbol of what the republic allows everyone.”
“The anti-Semitic insults of which he was the object are the absolute negation of what we are and what makes us a great nation,” Macron continued. “We will not tolerate them.”
Finkielkraut did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In Paris on Tuesday, thousands gathered in the symbolic Place de la Republique, many wielding signs that read “Ça Suffit!” (“That’s enough!”).
“I am not Jewish, not at all, but I’m with them,” said Blanca Blazic, 70, a retiree of Serbian origin who said she has lived in France for 55 years, having arrived from the former Yugoslavia. She said the number of anti-Semitic attacks today is the highest she has ever seen in France.
“It’s gotten worse. Granted, there was always anti-Semitism and there was always the occasional attack,” Blazic said. “But now . . . We can’t leave things the way they are.”
Some in the crowd noted with resignation the number of such demonstrations in the French capital in recent years, notably after the attack on the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in January 2015 and after the killing of Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, in March.
For Bruno Turbé, an IT worker from the Paris suburbs, it was unclear what the latest march against anti-Semitism would accomplish, but he came anyway. “If we are numerous, it can at least shed some light on things,” he said. “We can’t just do nothing.”
People also gathered in solidarity in the cities of Toulouse and Marseille in the south, as well as several other locations across the country.