by Dave Clark - Paris
(Middle East Online)
France, home to Europe's biggest Arab and Jewish populations, was braced Tuesday for an increase in anti-Semitic violence as the conflict in Gaza stirred communal tensions.
These fears increased after unidentified attackers rammed a car into the gate outside a synagogue in the southern city of Toulouse late on Monday and set it on fire with a petrol bomb.
No-one was hurt, but the ugly incident revived memories of a sharp spike in anti-Semitic crimes in 2002, against the backdrop of earlier fighting between Israel and the Palestinians.
Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie branded the attack "stupid and revolting" and admitted that she was concerned that fighting in the Middle East could raise the temperature in France.
"I am, in fact, worried by the international situation," she told RMC-Info radio. "My concern is that the situation should not degenerate in our country, that the violence not be imported."
Leila Shahid, the Palestinian envoy to the European Union, had no doubt that the attack was linked to rising anger among France's five million Muslims at news coming from the conflict.
"Look at the awful incident yesterday in Toulouse with this car rammed into a place of worship, which is unacceptable, but a result of images from Gaza," she told the same radio station.
France, once the colonial ruler of several territories in the Mediterranean, is home to the biggest populations of Muslims and Jews in Europe, who often live alongside one another in the suburbs of major cities.
In 2000, with the outbreak of the second intifada or Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, the leaders of France's 600,000 Jews complained of a spate of assaults and attacks on their cemeteries and synagogues.
By 2002, as fighting raged in the Middle East and Afghanistan and the United States prepared its invasion of Iraq, the number of recorded anti-Semitic attacks had jumped from 32 to 193 per year.
Now, with Israeli tanks once more in action in Gaza, street demonstrations against the war have begun to trigger outbreaks of violence. On Saturday, a mob of protesters burned cars and looted a Paris jewellers.
The Paris rioting was not aimed specifically at Jews, but the Toulouse attack has sounded alarm bells at the community's Central Consistory.
"We insist the public authorities quickly investigate these warning signs of a new wave of anti-Semitic acts arriving at our doorstep," the representative body said in a statement.
The Union of Jewish Students in France has recorded two attacks on kosher stores in southwestern Bordeaux, one on a Jewish apartment in Paris and another on a synagogue in southeastern Toulon since New Year's Eve.
"We must not allow the Middle East conflict to shatter our lives together," the group warned in a statement.
France's National Bureau of Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism also raised the alarm over an attack on a rabbi's car near Paris last week, as well as a spike in "menacing" anti-Jewish posts in French Internet chatrooms.
The central consistory called on France "to take all necessary measures to guarantee the security of Jewish living spaces in France and more generally the Jewish community."
Dominique Sopo, the head of France's main anti-racist movement SOS Racisme, also condemned the arson in Toulouse, adding that: "It's most likely that this crime is linked to the situation in the Gaza Strip.
"Those who want to import the Middle East conflict over here aren't helping the Israelis or the Palestinians, unless they can explain why hitting a Jew here improves the situation in Gaza, or how Arab-bashing helps protect Israel."