January 7, 2009
Pro-Palestinian march in Paris sparks anxiety
"After yesterday, I was two seconds away from not coming. You never know what can happen," Deborah said on her way Sunday toward the Israeli Embassy, where nearly 4,000 people gathered to sing Israeli songs and defend Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip.
Deborah, a French Israeli citizen who asked that her last name not be used, chose to attend despite concerns for her safety after the virulent anti-Israel march numbering 21,000 held Jan. 3. During the march, cars and Israeli flags were burned, and 10 riot police were injured in clashes with 400 to 500 youths wearing kaffiyehs and carrying Palestinian flags. The violence took place in Paris near the landmark Galeries Lafayette department store and Place de la Madeleine.
Tens of thousands participated in anti-Israel protests across France on Saturday. Some of the largest demonstrations reached 15,000 in Lyon, according to police.
A pro-Palestinian group that includes France's Communist Party organized the movement. Its leader, the increasingly popular Olivier Besancenot, told the French daily Nouvel Observateur that Saturday's marches showed that "France's opinion cannot be summarized by the opinion of [French President] Nicolas Sarkozy, who rolled out the red carpet" for Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livini during her recent Paris visit.
Sarkozy, who was scheduled to head to the Middle East on Monday in an effort to negotiate a cease-fire, has blamed Hamas for the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza.
As Deborah approached the heavily guarded, flag-waving Jewish contingent Sunday, she consistently reassured her mother by cellphone of the significant police presence. She understood her mother's concerns, Deborah said, because "I have a lot of friends who were afraid to come today. But I had to come for my country."
A Paris police spokeswoman said security was high for the pro-Israel event because of developments in the Middle East but was not altered in reaction to the earlier rioting in Paris.
No negative incidents were reported at the pro-Israel event. Still, Deborah was one of many participants at the march organized by CRIF (Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France), the Jewish umbrella group, who said they left behind friends who were "afraid" of publicly siding with Israel a day after they saw Haussmann Street covered in broken glass.
Two stores were looted and several vandalized by youths who ran through the streets with metal bars, jumping on cars and smashing windows on stores, cars and a parked bus. Families with young children and elderly members participating in the anti-Israel rally fled in fear.
Those who turned out for the pro-Israel rally said they were eager to defend the Israeli military, but many also came to express their outrage and concern at the previous day's events.
"They shouted, ‘down with the Jews' and ‘down with Israel.' It was horrible. They are anti-Semites!" said Namy, 47, about the pro-Palestinian rally. She declined to give her full name.
Namy's comments quickly triggered a storm of commentary from other supporters of Israel standing nearby, who complained about what they described as the lack of security Jews felt in France.
"This happened right in the middle of Paris," Namy said. "They broke one store window after another, all up Haussmann Street. We had to hide in our apartments."
The previous day's anti-Israel march passed through a district where many less-religious French Jews live and own businesses.
In addition to the violence and damage -- one of the burned cars was a police vehicle -- anti-Israeli slogans and signs comparing the Star of David to swastikas were common among protesters. According to the French Press Agency and the daily Le Parisien, at least two Israeli flags were burned, while France and its president were repeatedly called "accomplices" to Israeli "assassins."
Bystanders also heard protesters utter slurs against the Jewish religion. The French press did not cover such incidents, focusing instead on the violence and damage.
A veiled young woman holding a child stamped her foot repeatedly on a paper Starbucks coffee cup after her friend said that "Starbucks is Jewish." Many in the crowd wore traditional Muslim clothing.
Crowds also booed as they passed a poster of French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy on the cover of a Jewish monthly, the Jewish Tribune. Participants said they booed at the image because "the magazine is Jewish and because of Carla."
"The media didn't talk about it," Namy said of such anti-Jewish sentiments at the violent protest.
Joel Mergui, president of France's largest religiously oriented Jewish organization, the Consistoire, said at the rally, "To see Israeli flags burn is ... worrisome,"
Mergui and a CRIF delegation met with the Israeli ambassador to France, Daniel Shek, following the pro-Israel rally to reiterate their support for the Jewish state.
During the rally Sunday, France's chief rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, declared, "Israel fights for its freedom and the survival of its people; there is no desire to destroy another people."
Bernheim also said it was important for French Jews and Muslims to get along and "trust" each other.