Racial hatred in France

Attacks on Jewish, Muslim and Christian cemeteries have local residents demanding action -- not just expressions of disgust -- from police and other officials.

By Amelia Gentleman
Published August 11, 2004 2:12PM (EDT)

French President Jacques Chirac led politicians and religious leaders in a now familiar chorus of revulsion yesterday at the latest desecration of a Jewish cemetery to unsettle France.

Vandals smashed gravestones and scrawled swastikas, Celtic crosses and Adolf Hitler's name (misspelled) in black paint on 56 tombs in the graveyard in Lyon on Monday evening. A war memorial honoring Jewish members of the French resistance who died during the Second World War was also covered in graffiti.

It was the 11th similar attack on French cemeteries -- Jewish, Muslim and Christian -- since April. Victims' groups yesterday stressed that the government needed to translate its well-meaning expressions of disgust into action to punish the perpetrators.

Despite the intense national sensitivity to acts of race hatred, police have failed to identify those responsible for the spate of assaults that have seen more than 300 tombs defaced. It remains unclear whether coordinated neo-Nazi groups or lone vandals are to blame.

With politicians calling for the urgent arrest of the culprits, detectives were at the site at dawn yesterday. Families who arrived to see the damage wreaked on their relatives' tombs were turned away while the investigation continued.

Alongside anti-Semitic messages were anti-Muslim slogans calling for "resistance to the Islamic invasion." Police questioned two young men arrested near the scene, but initial inquiries suggested that they were not involved in the attack.

President Chirac, who last month launched a high-profile campaign for racial tolerance in the face of rising anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim abuse, broke off his holiday to condemn the incident as "dishonorable" and "cowardly."

"The perpetrators of this outrage are being actively pursued," he wrote in a letter to Marcel Dreyfus, a local Jewish leader in Lyon. "They will be punished to the maximum extent the law allows."

His words were echoed by the prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who expressed indignation at such an "odious" act.

"It's an indescribable shock," said Richard Wertenschlag, Lyon's chief rabbi, during a visit to the cemetery yesterday. "A crackdown is needed to make these people realize the consequences of their acts ... How is it that after the Holocaust, someone can still attack Jews -- even those who are dead -- for the simple reason that they are Jews?"

He raised the possibility that this was a copycat assault, part of a "snowballing phenomenon" inspired by the media attention on previous desecrations. "One has to question whether we are right to give these sacrilegious acts such a degree of publicity," he said.

A ceremony will be held in the next few days to mark local sadness at the event. It will come less than a week after a similar ceremony held in Strasbourg, in eastern France, after 30 Muslim gravestones were defiled.

At that event Adrien Zeller, the president of the Alsace region, where the vast majority of the recent cemetery attacks have taken place, said investigations had "not advanced." Abdellah Boussouf, rector of Strasbourg mosque, added: "I can no longer be content now with the condemnations and solidarity pledges of political rulers. I want results."

While much of the recent rise in acts of racial hatred in France is attributed to tensions between the nation's large Muslim and Jewish communities, the repeated appearance of swastikas suggests that the cemetery attacks were committed by neo-Nazis.

Police in Alsace were yesterday said to be concerned at a rise in the number of clandestine neo-Nazi conferences held in the region, with venues hired out months in advance under false pretexts.

Between 300 and 400 skinheads, many of them German, wearing T-shirts proclaiming "White Power," gathered in the village of Hipsheim, in Alsace, for a two-day conference at the beginning of this month, unfurling banners with swastikas on them in the village hall.

Officials are concerned that Alsace could become a haven for neo-Nazi gatherings, which are forbidden in Germany.

In the Czech Republic, some 80 tombstones were found toppled at a Jewish cemetery in the eastern town of Hranice, police said yesterday. The cemetery dates to the 17th century. Sigmund Freud's brother, Julius, was buried there in 1858.

Amelia Gentleman

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