PARIS, Aug. 22 — Fire swept through a Jewish community center in eastern Paris in the early morning hours today after arsonists broke into the building and scrawled swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans inside. It was the latest in a wave of neo-Nazi acts sweeping the country.
The center, which prepares kosher food for needy Jews, occupies the ground floor of a five-story residential building. There were no casualties.
President Jacques Chirac and other politicians were quick to issue statements condemning the attack and vowing to find and punish the perpetrators. Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, visited the site today and said he felt “shock and horror.”
The attack comes at a particularly sensitive time for the city, falling between two emotional anniversaries. On Aug. 18, 1944, the Red Cross entered a Nazi detention camp outside of Paris, freeing about 1,500 Jews awaiting deportation to extermination camps in Germany. A week later, Paris itself was liberated from the Nazis.
Much of this year’s neo-Nazi activity in France has been concentrated in the eastern region of Alsace, a traditionally German-speaking area along the German border. Officials there say Alsace’s neo-Nazi movement is an extension of a broader movement in Germany. On Saturday, about 3,000 people took part in a neo-Nazi march in the German town of Wunsiedel, about 250 miles from Alsace, to commemorate the death, in 1987, of Adolf Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess.
More than a dozen neo-Nazi acts have taken place across France this year, in some cases by lone copycats with no clear relationship to an organized movement. Earlier this month, for example, an emotionally disturbed man named Michael Tronchon attacked a North African man with a hatchet and desecrated a Jewish cemetery in Lyon before turning himself in to the police in Paris. He told the police that he had been inspired by an earlier case of neo-Nazi vandalism in Alsace.
France’s neo-Nazism appears to have no clear ideology beyond anti-Semitic slogans and the lyrics of white supremacist, heavy metal music by such groups as Ninth Panzer Symphony, Kontingent 88 and Elsass Korps. Adherents are mostly men in their teens or early 20′s, people who monitor the movement say, and their targets are as often Arabs as Jews. France is home to Europe’s biggest Muslim and Jewish communities.
But the rise in neo-Nazi acts is particularly disturbing to France’s Jews, who are already concerned about increasing anti-Semitism among the country’s Arab youth. They fear that both anti-Semitic strains are growing.
In July, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel set off a minor diplomatic crisis between France and Israel after he urged French Jews to move to Israel to escape the growing anti-Semitism. He later revised his remark to say that Jews should move to Israel because it is their homeland.
According to France’s interior ministry statistics, there have been 135 acts of physical violence against Jews so far this year and 95 against Arabs and other ethnic groups, though there are nearly 10 times as many Arabs as Jews in France.
On Aug. 14, vandals drew a swastika and wrote “death to the Jews” on a low wall in front of Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral.
France has toughened punishments for anti-Semitic and anti-racist crimes. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, visiting the site of today’s attack, said the arsonists could face life in prison under the new law.
The Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France issued a statement urging “authorities to promptly arrest and sanction in an exemplary manner the perpetrators of this odious act that besmirches France.”