PARIS: Anti-Semitism appears to have reached its worst levels since World War II, French President Emmanuel Macron told Jewish community leaders on Wednesday, a day after thousands of people took to the streets to denounce hate crimes.
The scourge has grown in recent years “and the situation has got worse in recent weeks,” Macron told the annual dinner of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF).
“Our country, and for that matter all of Europe and most Western democracies, seems to be facing a resurgence of anti-Semitism unseen since World War II,” he added.
Europe’s biggest Jewish community is reeling after a string of attacks that have made global headlines.
Macron announced measures including legislation to fight hate speech on the internet, to be introduced by May.
He said he had asked his interior minister to take steps to ban racist or anti-Semitic groups, singling out “for a start” three far-right groups – Bastion Social, Blood and Honour Hexagone and Combat 18 – which he said “fuel hatred, promote discrimination or call for violence”.
He also vowed that France would recognise anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism.
Macron earlier balked at a call by a lawmaker in his Republic on the Move party to criminalise anti-Zionist statements, which criticise the movement that established Israel as a home for Jews.
On a visit Tuesday to a cemetery in the Alsace region, near Germany, where 96 Jewish tombstones were daubed with swastikas, Macron promised: “We shall act, we shall pass laws, we shall punish.”
Also Tuesday, thousands of people, some carrying banners proclaiming “That’s enough”, held a rally in Paris to denounce anti-Semitism – one of around 70 protests staged nationwide.
Macron and his government have linked the appearance of swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti on artworks, shopfronts and headstones to far-right and far-left elements within the “yellow vest” protest movement.
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 Tuesday in the eastern city of Mulhouse, authorities said.
Police 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 “dirty Zionist” and telling him “France is ours” after the philosopher ran into demonstrators on the street.
Police sources described the 36-year-old suspect as a small-time delinquent with ties to ultra-conservative Muslim groups.
He was one of the most vocal members of a group that jeered Finkielkraut and called him a “racist”, apparently referring to his past warnings about what he sees as the failure of Muslim immigrants to integrate into French society.
The incident caused outrage both in France and abroad, with Israel’s Immigration Minister Yoav Gallant urging French Jews to “come home” to Israel for their safety.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin voiced support for Macron and Finkielkraut, calling the anti-Semitic incidents an “affront” to France.
Earlier Wednesday, Rivlin spoke with Finkielkraut to express his solidarity over the “wicked and hurtful attack.”
“I heard that the demonstrators told you to go back to Tel Aviv. I am sure you know that Tel Aviv is a wonderful place but be in no doubt that every Jew, and every person, has the right to choose wherever they live”, said Rivlin, who also wrote to Macron to thank him for visiting the Jewish cemetery.
Also on Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke by telephone with Macron, the Israeli leader’s office said.
Several officials have accused radical “yellow vest” of fomenting a climate of hatred.
The anti-government 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.
The number of anti-Jewish crimes rose 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 over 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 become ingrained in the high-rise French housing estates that house many members of France’s Muslim community, Europe’s largest.
Jews have been targeted in several attacks by French jihadists in recent years.
But the proliferation of anti-Semitic graffiti is seen as a new trend.
In recent days, the word “Juden” was spray-painted on the window of a Paris bagel bakery and swastikas were daubed on postbox portraits of late French Holocaust survivor and women’s rights icon Simone Veil.