Paris -- The brutal murder of a young Jewish man in Paris is roiling the community and reviving questions over whether France is a safe place for Jews.
In an incident that has dominated headlines across the country, Ilan Halimi, 23, was lured away from the store where he sold mobile phones on Jan. 21 by a woman, abducted and then held in a suburban housing project for three weeks by a criminal gang, where he was repeatedly tortured, according to French officials. Halimi's captors allegedly beat, burned, stabbed and poured toxic fluid on him.
He was then dumped, barely alive and reportedly with burn marks all over his body, at a suburban train station on Monday, Feb. 13. Halimi died while being driven to a hospital.
Until last week, officials and detectives investigating the case said they were not linking it to anti-Semitism. But in a turnaround, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin told a Jewish communal gathering last week that officials had decided to treat the case as an act of anti-Semitism.
De Villepin said the minister of justice had ordered that Halimi's torture and murder be considered "premeditated murder motivated by religious affiliation."
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy was among tens of thousands of Parisians, mostly Jews, who rallied last weekend in what was billed as a community march against hate.
"There can be no tolerance of this act of torture and murder and anti-Semitism," said Sarkozy. "This concerns the Jewish community and all French people."
Among the marchers was Sandrine Berda, who runs a catering business. "It seems that so much is going on now to try to force us to leave Paris," Berda said. "I am here to show there are lots of Jews here, and if we leave, Paris will become a pitiful city."
Police estimated the number of marchers at 33,000, although others put the number much higher.
The question of whether France is still safe for its estimated 600,000 Jews was a major topic of discussion among the demonstrators.
"Many people decide on the safety of Paris by what happens to their children at school," said Diana Tabbacoff, a psychologist originally from Brazil. "I think everyone believes we must react against ignorance, but personally, my daughter has not suffered for being Jewish. If she did, I would think of returning to Sao Paulo."
Ironically, officials recently announced that anti-Semitic acts in France dropped by 47 percent in 2005 over the previous year.
The earlier spike of anti-Semitic attacks was largely perpetrated by youths of North African origin, and these incidents had increased in France during the first few years of the Palestinian uprising against Israel. This rise had been largely attributed to tensions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The climate for Jews had seemed to improve, however, in recent months, as had France's relations with Israel. One factor was Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to Paris last summer and the Israeli pullout from Gaza.
But the recent incident has rocked the Jewish community, with many saying they had felt all along it was a deliberate act against Jews.
"We are here to demonstrate for France, because we live here and we are fed up," said David Riahi, a student at the HEC business school, marching under the banner of the French Union of Jewish Students. "This is not about calling for people to go live in Israel or the States."
But one marcher was skeptical that anything could be done to improve the situation.
"Will this really move people to take a look at what is going on or push the government to take more action?" asked Eric Chicheportiche, former head of the France-Israel Chamber of Commerce. "I really don't know, and I really don't know what can be done."
Although most of the marchers were Jewish, there were North African Muslims and blacks in the crowd, and all agreed that this was an anti-Semitic act.
"There are cultured and educated Arabs marching here today who believe we can live and work in peace with Jews [and other French people,]" said Khadidja Cherkaoui, who is finishing a master's degree in management here. "This was an anti-Semitic act committed by savages."
Cherkaoui said some typically racist attitudes may come from school.
"I have heard of youngsters being taught by certain teachers that Jews are all rich," she said. "That is not true and is racist, like saying that all Arabs are terrorists."
While the statistics show the climate of anti-Semitism has improved in France during the past few years, Malik Boutih, the former president of the activist group SOS Racism, who is currently a Socialist Party official, said the problems of anti-Semitism and racism remain. "We need firm reaction from the government to deal with anti-Semitism," he said.
"We need firm reaction from the government to deal with anti-Semitism," he said.
Also noted was the enormous stupidity of the crime.
"These guys are total idiots," said Audrey Benyoun, marching with friends and her father. "They got absolutely nothing from this except this demonstration. I think a lot of French people are fed up with hearing about such stupid acts."
While the Jewish community is almost unanimous in its belief that the kidnapping and torture occurred because Halimi was Jewish, many French still want to believe that it was simply a criminal act committed by sick individuals.
Police have made 15 arrests among associates of a gang that apparently called itself the Barbarians. Eleven face charges of conspiracy, kidnapping and murder motivated by anti-Semitism. Those arrested include suspects of North African and black African Muslim origins and of white French background.
French police officials said they originally thought the only motive of the kidnapping was money. After questioning several of the suspects, the police reported that there had been six other kidnapping attempts, four of them against Jews.
Officials said the suspects told police that because Jews were all rich, someone would find the money to ransom them. Only one of those attempts was reported to the police when it took place.
Authorities tracked the accused ringleader, Youssouf Fofana, to the West African country of Ivory Coast, where he was arrested. Extradition proceedings are under way to return Fofana to France.
JTA correspondent Lauren Elkin contributed to this report.