The French capital braced Wednesday for a fresh protest against the Israeli offensive in Gaza after similar rallies ended in violence and looting, raising concerns in the Jewish community about anti-Semitism.
The government, whose ban on several weekend rallies failed spectacularly after they went ahead anyway and descended into chaos, decided to authorise Wednesday’s protest in Paris after discussions with organisers who gave “security guarantees”, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said.
The protests at the weekend in Paris and in the suburb town of Sarcelles were marred by clashes between demonstrators and the police that sent locals scurrying as tear gas permeated the air, and scores were arrested.
Protesters in a previous Paris demonstration had attempted to storm synagogues and in Sarcelles, several Jewish businesses were looted, prompting Roger Cukierman, the head of the country’s main CRIF Jewish grouping, to voice fears of “pogroms.”
On Tuesday, four men were sentenced to between three and six months in prison for their role in the Sarcelles violence, and three others were given between three and five months suspended jail sentences for their involvement in the Paris unrest.
The main organiser of Wednesday’s protest, the National Collective for Just and Durable Peace between Israelis and Palestinians, hailed the decision to let the demonstration go ahead.
“It’s a victory for democracy and freedom of expression,” said Taoufiq Tahani, president of the France-Palestine Solidarity Association, which is part of the collective that called the rally.
Other demonstrations will be held Wednesday in the cities of Lyon, Toulouse, Lille and Reims. They have been called by far-left groups, pro-Palestinian organisations and some unions.
Another demonstration is due to be held in Paris on Saturday, and it is as yet unclear whether authorities will decide to ban it over fears of unrest.
The Israeli-Palestinian offensive has stirred up huge passions in France — home to the largest Muslim and Jewish communities in western Europe with around five million Muslims and half a million Jews.
Valls, who was a tough-talking interior minister until his promotion this year in a cabinet reshuffle, has blamed extremist groups for the violence last week.
He told the Le Parisien daily certain unspecified “networks and extremist groups are trying to capitalise on this (Israeli offensive) by riding on sentiments of anti-Semitism and hatred” and using it “to foment disorder”.
“I will not give up on the unity of the country in favour of those who want to divide it. There are no Israelis or Palestinians in France, there are only French citizens.”
Responding to Cukierman’s comments over the risk of pogroms, Valls said there was “very big concern” among Jews in France, particularly after high-profile anti-Semitic attacks such as the May shooting in Brussels’ Jewish Museum.
“But I call on everyone to properly measure the meaning of words,” he said.
French political parties have broadly hailed the decision to allow Wednesday’s demonstration to proceed.
Apart from the police, four bodies that are part of the rally — the influential CGT union and three leftist parties — have also decided to deploy people to ensure there is no violence.