French President Emmanuel Macron will announce measures to fight a flare-up in anti-Semitism during a dinner with Jewish community leaders Wednesday, a day after a spate of hate crimes brought thousands onto the streets in protest.
Macron’s address to the annual dinner of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions will be closely followed by Europe’s biggest Jewish community.
On a visit Tuesday to a cemetery in the Alsace region, near Germany, where 96 Jewish tombstones were spray-painted with blue and yellow swastikas, Macron promised Tuesday: “We shall act, we shall pass laws, we shall punish.”
His visit came as thousands of people took part in rallies around France to condemn a recent spike in anti-Jewish crimes, which Macron and his government has linked in part to anti-Semitic elements within the “yellow vest” protest movement.
On Tuesday evening, a protester caught on video hurling abuse at Jewish writer and philosopher Alain Finkielkraut during a “yellow vest” demonstration in Paris last weekend was taken into custody in the eastern city of Mulhouse.
Authorities confirmed the suspect, who has been named in French media as telephone salesman Benjamin W., was the bearded man seen on video calling 69-year-old Finkielkraut a “bloody Zionist” and telling him “France is ours” after the philosopher ran into demonstrators on the street.
The suspect, who wore a green “keffiyeh” scarf, was one of the most vocal members of a group that jeered Finkielkraut and called him a “racist”, apparently referring to the academic’s repeated warnings about what he sees as the failure of Muslim immigrants to integrate into French society.
On Tuesday, thousands of people, some carrying banners proclaiming “That’s enough”, took to the streets of Paris to denounce the rise in anti-Semitic acts and attacks — one of around 70 protests staged nationwide.
Focus on anti-Zionism
Several officials have accused the “yellow vest” movement, which includes far-right and far-left elements, over the outpouring in anti-Semitism.
The protests began three months ago over fuel taxes but quickly grew into a broader anti-establishment, anti-capitalist rebellion, with some demonstrators using anti-Semitic slurs to denigrate Macron, a former Rothschild investment banker.
A recent Ifop poll of “yellow vest” backers found that nearly half of those questioned believed in a worldwide “Zionist plot” and other conspiracy theories.
But the number of anti-Semitic incidents reported to police had already risen before the “yellow vests” began occupying roundabouts last November, up by 74 percent last year.
Anti-Semitism has a long history in France where society was deeply split at the end of the 19th century by the Alfred Dreyfus affair, a Jewish army captain wrongly convicted of treason.
During World War II, the French Vichy government collaborated with Germany notably in the deportation of Jews to death camps.
Traditionally associated with the far right, anti-Semitism has shot up in the French Muslim community, also Europe’s largest, in the past two decades, with Jews the target of several attacks by French jihadists.
Some French politicians have called for a crackdown on statements that criticise the Zionist movement which established the Jewish homeland, calling them code for anti-Jewish hatred.
But others argue that criticising Zionism or Israeli policies is not the same as anti-Jewish prejudice.
Macron has argued that criminalising anti-Zionist remarks is “not a good solution” and said he will set out other proposals on Wednesday.