Anxiety is growing in France about a series of neo-Nazi attacks on Jewish, and now Muslim, sites especially in the Strasbourg and Colmar areas of Alsace.
There have been five serious incidents in or near the Alsatian cities in the past seven weeks, culminating in the desecration of a Muslim cemetery in Meinau last week.
Local politicians and police have mostly dismissed the attacks as the work of children or adolescents but community leaders insist that they are part of an entrenched pattern of racist abuse.
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More than 300 people of all races and religions gathered on Wednesday for a religious service and protest in the Muslim section of the Meinau cemetery, in the suburbs of Strasbourg, where 50 graves were daubed with black swastikas. A similar attack on a Jewish cemetery at Herrlisheim, near Colmar, in April also drew a protest by Alsatians of all races – the first time that there has been a clear anti-racist stand by ordinary people in the German-speaking province.
France has suffered a wider rash of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim attacks, and other neo-Nazi manifestations in recent months, ranging from attacks on Commonwealth war graves from the 1914-1918 war, to the desecration of a frieze painted by Jewish children in 1943 in a transit camp near Perpignan in the South-west.
The reasons for the upsurge in racist and neo-Nazi activity is unclear. Political analysts say that the attacks could be motivated by the relative failure of the “legitimate” far right in recent elections.
The situation is confused by the fact that the majority of anti-Semitic attacks in France in recent years have been carried out by disaffected Muslim youths who sympathise with the Palestinian cause.
However, concern is growing, especially in Alsace, that the rash of graffiti attacks could preface a campaign of neo-Nazi violence. The president of the council of Muslim organisations in Alsace, Abdelhaq Nabaoui, whose life was threatened in one of the slogans painted in the Meinau cemetery, says that there is a clear “escalation of monstrous behaviour”.
The president of the Alsace regional council, Adran Zeller, from the centre-right UMP party, has led the chorus of condemnation of the acts of desecration but has played down suggestions that Alsace faces a concerted attack.
M. Zeller says that incidents are the work of scattered bands of “people of weak intelligence”, often very young, who have little grasp of the significance of what they are doing. He said last week that “all religious communities” in Alsace “live together like brothers”.
Alsace has regularly returned some of the biggest scores for the xenophobic National Front party of Jean-Marie Le Pen – 23 per cent in the presidential elections in 2002 and 28 per cent in the regional elections in March, bucking the national trend towards a decline in the NF vote.