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Hundreds Denounce Anti-Semitism Spike In France


There's been an uptick in anti-Semitism in France, which is home to Europe's largest Jewish community. Many say the anti-government yellow vest movement has fueled hate speech. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports on how the nation has been shocked by some recent acts of anti-Semitic vandalism.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: This week, people gathered at a memorial service for a young Jewish man who was murdered 13 years ago. The ceremony in the Paris suburbs takes place every February 13. But this year, hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds showed up to honor Ilan Halimi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: They stood together at the spot by the railroad tracks where the 23-year-old was dumped after being targeted, kidnapped and tortured for three weeks in 2006 by a gang seeking ransom. Frederic Petitta, the mayor of Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, addresses the crowd.

FREDERIC PETITTA: (Through interpreter) Ilan means tree in Hebrew, and this is why we planted trees here in his memory. It's this symbol the criminals attacked on Monday. Through this anti-Semitic act, they wanted to murder him a second time.

BEARDSLEY: Retiree Isabel Lizzie (ph) and her two friends came to the ceremony from a neighboring town.

ISABEL LIZZIE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "I'm revolted that someone has cut down trees that are the symbol of Ilan Halimi," she says. "We've thought of him for the last 13 years. There are just no words for what's happened." The French interior minister says anti-Semitic acts are up 74 percent from a year ago. Another occurred this week when two public mailboxes decorated with the portrait of former Justice Minister Simone Veil were tagged with swastikas. Veil was deported to Auschwitz at 16. She survived and went on to become one of the country's most beloved figures. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe called the recent spate of anti-Semitic vandalism sickening.


FRANCE EDOUARD PHILIPPE: (Through interpreter) When swastikas are drawn on Simone Veil's face and someone spits on the memory of Ilan Halimi, it's a body blow to the whole nation. But we are not knocked out, and we will fight this tooth and nail.

BEARDSLEY: Rabbi Michel Serfaty came to Halimi's memorial. Serfaty is president of the French Judeo-Muslim Association. And for the last decade, he and his Muslim colleagues have been fighting stereotypes about Jews in mostly African and Muslim immigrant communities in France's suburban housing projects. Serfaty says radical Islam has been behind anti-Semitism in France in recent years, but now it seems to be coming from a second source.

MICHEL SERFATY: (Through interpreter) We haven't heard from the classic World War II anti-Semitism in 70 years. But with these recent acts, like Juden being written on a shop window, it seems to have made a resurgence. Something has unleashed it, and that something is the yellow vest movement.

BEARDSLEY: Political commentator Christophe Barbier says the yellow vest movement has created a dangerous climate.


CHRISTOPHE BARBIER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "The movement is a roiling cauldron of anger and hatred," he says. "And the anti-Semites took advantage and slipped in. And everything spreads like wildfire on social media, including conspiracy theories involving Jews."

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing in French).

BEARDSLEY: Back at the ceremony, a school choir sings the national anthem as kids and officials put shovels full of dirt around two newly planted trees. These trees are bigger, stronger and more beautiful, says the mayor, to show that we will never stop fighting barbaric anti-Semitism and that Ilan's memory is forever engraved in our hearts. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois, France.

(SOUNDBITE OF COYOTE SONG, "ELECTRIC SUNBURST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.