Sitting on the banks of the Seine on Saturday afternoon, which Paris turns into a faux “plage” each summer, the police sirens were just background noise. Until they ceased to stop. The wind picked up and skies darkened as staff rushed to put down umbrellas ahead of severe storms. There was the sense that something ominous was to come.
As my overly cautious husband rushed us home – we also hadn’t closed the windows – I learned where all the police were heading. A pro-Palestinian protest that had been banned by the French government proceeded anyway, leading to riots in the 18th arrondissement. They were followed the next day by clashes in the heavily Jewish Parisian suburb of Sarcelles known to some as “Little Jerusalem." And these both come after clashes between pro-Palestinian marchers and riot police outside two Paris synagogues last weekend.
The severe storms never came to Paris Saturday, but there are indeed dark signs of trouble ahead.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve struck out at the displays of anti-Semitism on Monday, pledging to crack down. "It is unacceptable to target synagogues or shops simply because they are managed by Jews," Mr. Cazeneuve said in Sarcelles Monday, where a synagogue and Jewish kosher grocery store were attacked, as well as other non-Jewish locales. "Nothing can justify anti-Semitism, nothing can justify that kind of violence. This will be fought and sanctioned.”
France, which has Europe’s largest Jewish and Muslim populations, is bracing for more tension as a consequence of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza that began July 8. The death toll in Gaza has exceeded 500, most of them Palestinian.
Some political parties criticized the ruling Socialists for banning the protests in the first place – saying it fueled unnecessary tension. Planned protests in other parts of the country that were allowed to go forward were largely peaceful.
"France is the only country that has banned a pro-Palestinian demonstration. I came today to defy this unfair and illegitimate ban," a protester named Boudgema at the Paris protest on Saturday told France24. He said he was angered not by Jews but by the actions of the Israeli state.
France’s numerous Muslim immigrants, many of them shut out of the country’s stagnating economy, have accused France of siding with Israel in the conflict. Jews have also been uneasy in France lately. In the first three months of the year, more Jews left for Israel from France than any other time since the Jewish state was created in 1948, according to Reuters. They cited rising anti-Semitism, as well as economic hardship. In all of this, France has to toe a fine line to balance public sentiment with geopolitical realities.
Now the interior minister will have to decide whether to ban upcoming marches planned for later this week and this weekend. He has said they’ll be decided on a case-by-case basis, but if conflict in the Middle East rages, the government might not get to decide at all.