PARIS – At least 9,000 people marched in eastern Paris on Sunday to denounce a recent increase in anti-Semitic acts in France.
An array of lawmakers and celebrities took part in the march, triggered mainly by recent cases of vandals spray-painting swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti on Jewish sites in eastern France.
“What is awaking in France these days is a poison – it’s anti-Semitism,” Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe told reporters at the front of the march organized by human rights groups and political parties.
Organization of the protest was marked with controversy, however. Two anti-racism groups – MRAP and the Human Rights League – initially had sought to broaden the protest to denounce all forms of racism, but SOS Racisme and several Jewish groups opposed that idea.
A street-wide banner at the head of the demonstration read: “A black, white, and Arab France against anti-Semitism.”
Organizers urged marchers to avoid waving Israeli flags – only French flags were authorized. The few people who did bring out Israeli flags were delicately asked to leave the parade or tuck them away.
Hundreds of riot police were deployed to help prevent a possible outbreak of skirmishes during the peaceful march from the Place de la Republique to the Place de la Bastille.
Meanwhile, War Veterans Minister Hamlaoui Mekachera joined Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious leaders at a ceremony in eastern France to condemn vandalism at a monument honoring Jewish soldiers who died in the Battle of Verdun in World War I.
Vandals painted swastikas and other neo-Nazi graffiti in black overnight May 7-8 across the monument, the centerpiece of the Jewish section of a national cemetery honoring the war dead.
“By insulting the remembrance of our soldiers of Jewish faith who gave their lives for our land, they offended the entire nation,” President Jacques Chirac wrote in comments read by Mekachera.
One of the other most significant in a string of recent anti-Semitic incidents occurred last month when unknown vandals used red paint to draw swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti on more than 120 headstones at a Jewish cemetery in the town of Herrlisheim.
In the last several years, France has suffered a wave of violence against Jewish schools, synagogues and cemeteries that coincided with new fighting in the Middle East. Many of the attacks have been blamed on young Muslims.
The interior ministry has reported 67 anti-Semitic acts in the first quarter of the year in France, a 60-percent increase from the same time a year earlier. Most have prompted swift condemnation by top government officials.
“The silence must disappear, and give way to truth,” French filmmaker Elie Chouraqui told marchers, estimated at 9,000 by police and 20,000 by organizers. “France is not an anti-Semitic country. There are anti-Semitic acts that we must react against.”
The march was the first of its kind since April 2002, when more than 50,000 people took to the streets of Paris to denounce a string of attacks on Jewish schools, cemeteries and synagogues in France.
France’s 6-million strong Muslim community has also faced recent attacks. In a case of suspected arson in March, fire damaged a mosque and destroyed a Muslim prayer hall in the southeast.