Arson attack raises fears of anti-Semitic epidemic in France

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The Independent Online

An arson attack destroyed a Jewish social club in the heart of Paris yesterday, alarming and infuriating French politicians and Jewish leaders who are struggling to halt an epidemic of anti-Semitic incidents across France.

An arson attack destroyed a Jewish social club in the heart of Paris yesterday, alarming and infuriating French politicians and Jewish leaders who are struggling to halt an epidemic of anti-Semitic incidents across France.

Before it was set alight, anti-Jewish graffiti and swastikas were scrawled on the walls of the social centre on the first floor of a building in the 11th arrondissement in eastern Paris, near the Place de la Bastille.

No one was injured and the fire was halted before it spread to the rest of the building. Nonetheless, politicians - led by President Jacques Chirac - expressed outrage that such a potentially murderous attack should be made on the Jewish community in the heart of the French capital.

President Chirac spoke of his "profound indignation" and promised that the arsonists would be hunted down and "punished with the greatest possible severity".

Jewish leaders expressed impatience, however, that little progress has been made in tracing the perpetrators of other anti-Semitic incidents in France this year, including a series of graffiti attacks on Jewish cemeteries and the destruction of a frieze painted by Jewish children in a wartime transit camp near Perpignan.

Most of the verbal and low-level physical attacks on Jews in France are carried out by youths of Arab origin, who support the Palestinian cause and make no distinction between Jews and Israelis. But the cemetery attacks and yesterday's fire at the community centre bear the hallmarks of the neo-Nazi and white supremacist ultra-right, several groups of whom operate on the fringes of French society.

A neo-Nazi bookshop exists a couple of blocks away from the scene of yesterday's blaze in the Rue Popincourt, near the Rue de la Roquette, in a former working-class area of the capital, which has been gentrified.

The social centre, which was once a synagogue, offered companionship and free, kosher meals to elderly and deprived members of the Sephardic Jewish community in Paris.

Many of the people who attended the club were in their 70s and 80s and had survived the Nazi Holocaust and the round-up of Jews by the collaborationist Vichy regime in France in 1940-44.

The fire was started in the early hours of yesterday, using petrol or heating fuel. Swastikas were scrawled on the walls of the centre in red pen. There were also slogans in ungrammatical French saying, "the world will be purer when there are no more Jews" and "death to the Jews". Similar anti-Semitic slogans were scribbled on a wall beside Notre Dame cathedral on Saturday.

Many of President Chirac's ministers have expressed outrage at the attacks. Mr Chirac issued a plea to the French nation last month to stand firm against all forms of racism. A few days later, the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, infuriated French politicians and French Jewish leaders when he urged all French Jews (more than 600,000 people) to leave a country where, he said, they were in "imminent danger".

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