Government condemns violence at French anti-Israeli protests

France has Western Europe's largest Muslim and Jewish populations, and crises in the Middle East, like the one triggered by the Gaza offensive, often spill into France.

Thibault Camus/AP
Rioters face riot police, following a pro-Palestinian demonstration, in Sarcelles, north of Paris, July 20. French youth defying a ban on a protest against Israel’s Gaza offensive went on a rampage in a Paris suburb, setting fire to cars and garbage cans after a peaceful demonstration.

France's interior minister promised on Monday to crack down on anti-Semitism after violence marred pro-Palestinian rallies in and around Paris to protest against Israel's role in the two-week-old Middle East conflict.

France has both the largest Jewish and Muslim populations in Europe and flare-ups of violence in the Middle East often add to tensions between the two communities.

Local media showed the burnt-down front of a kosher grocery shop in the heavily Jewish Parisian suburb of Sarcelles after a non-authorized protest on Sunday. Last weekend pro-Palestinian marchers clashed with riot police outside two Paris synagogues.

"It is unacceptable to target synagogues or shops simply because they are managed by Jews," Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters during a visit to Sarcelles, which is also home to large non-Jewish immigrant populations.

"Nothing can justify anti-Semitism, noting can justify that kind of violence. This will be fought and sanctioned," he said.

Local media said youths in Sarcelles clashed with police and cars were burnt amid widespread looting that also hit non-Jewish targets. Clashes had marred another non-authorized protest in Paris on Saturday, while other rallies around France went ahead peacefully with the permission of local authorities.

Police, backed by a helicopter overhead, responded with tear gas and shots from non-lethal guns during hours of unrest in the northern suburb of Sarcelles, home to a large Jewish community.

An umbrella group representing French Jews, known as CRIF, said Sunday night that the Sarcelles synagogue was attacked. The group said that in nearby Garges les Gonesse, Molotov cocktails were thrown at another synagogue, starting a small fire that was quickly extinguished.

Some protesters and even ruling Socialist politicians criticized the bans on the Sarcelles and Paris rallies as counter-productive. But Cazeneuve said he would react the same way if mosques or churches were targeted.

CRIF denounced "fanatic groups" behind the attacks and said anti-Semitic violence "is growing by the day."

"It is time to treat it as a 'form of terrorist deviation and treat it as such," the group said in a statement.

The clashes came hours after France honored some 13,000 Jews rounded up 72 years ago, most kept in a cycling stadium before being sent to Auschwitz.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls denounced a "new form of anti-Semitism" on the Internet that he said was spreading among youth in working-class neighborhoods.

"France will not allow provocations to feed ... conflicts between communities," Valls said in a speech.

That message was echoed by President Francois Hollande as he decorated Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, who were famous for tracking down old Nazis, as Grand Officer and Commander of the Legion of Honor respectively.

France "will tolerate no act, no words that could give rise to anti-Semitism," Hollande said.

The words by the French leaders were ignored by Sunday's events.

In the first three months of 2014 more Jews left France for Israel than at any other time since the Jewish state was created in 1948, citing economic hardships in France's stagnating economy but also rising anti-Semitism as a factor.

Since fighting in the Middle East started on July 8, the death toll has passed 500, with 484 Palestinians among the casualties as Israeli jets and tanks pound Gaza. The U.N. Security Council has called for an immediate ceasefire.

Some pro-Palestinian protesters have accused France of siding with Israel in the conflict, citing the rally bans and a statement by President Francois Hollande's office saying Israel was justified in taking action to assure its citizens' security.

France has rejected any bias and Cazeneuve said decisions on any future rallies would be taken on a case-by-case basis. 

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