President Francois Hollande vowed Thursday to “eradicate” anti-Semitism and ensure the security of Jews as he and Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu paid homage to three children and a rabbi killed by an Islamist gunman in southwestern France.
“France will hunt down terrorism … by all possible means,” Hollande said during an emotional service at the Ohr Torah school in Toulouse, where the four were shot dead by Al-Qaeda inspired killer Mohamed Merah on March 19.
“My country will not be weak in fighting terrorism,” he said.
Pledging to “eradicate” anti-Semitism, Hollande promised all-out measures to ensure the security of Jews.
“Safeguarding their safety, their integrity and their dignity is a national cause…. It is not only the affair of Jews but of all French people.”
“Let us learn the lessons of this ordeal for humanity, for mankind,” he said, adding: “We shall never forget.”
Netanyahu, speaking in French and then in Hebrew, hailed Hollande’s “determined and clear message” to stamp out anti-Semitism.
“The Jewish people have the means to defend themselves against those who want to erase them from the map,” he warned.
“Nothing justifies the killing of children. Nothing justifies the killing of Jews,” he said, at the service attended by pupils and their parents, France’s chief rabbi Gilles Bernheim and Eva Sandler, whose Franco-Israeli husband Jonathan and their two children were among Merah’s victims.
He compared the killing to the crimes perpetuated by the Nazis.
“In 2012 in Toulouse, a killer who was driven by the same hate has killed three Jewish children…. If he had the possibility, he would have killed each Jewish child exactly like the Nazis.
“But the difference is that today, the Jewish people have a country, the Jewish people have an army and the means to defend themselves against those who want to erase us from the map,” he said.
The Israeli prime minister recalled that Merah had also slain three French paratroopers “both Muslims and Christians.”
“The barbaric hatred of these killers not only threatens Jews but also all civilisation,” he said.
Merah had shot dead the three soldiers in attacks in Toulouse and nearby Montauban before carrying out the slaughter at the Jewish school.
He was later killed in a police siege. His attacks had prompted France’s terror alert system to be raised to the highest level in the region.
School principal Yaacov Monsenego, who lost his eight-year-old daughter Miriam in the attack, broke down as he addressed the gathering.
“My life as a husband, as a father, as the principal of a school is turned upside down,” he said.
“The attack plunged us into darkness,” he said.
Sandler’s widow told the gathering it was “unthinkable in the 21st century that Jewish children can be killed.”
“The pain is always there,” she said. “They will continue to be missed and the emptiness will remain.”
Last week French police unveiled a damning report that exposed several holes in an investigation of the gunman before his shooting spree.
Hollande on Thursday admitted shortcomings but pledged that “the truth will be made known.”
“We owe it to the families (of victims) and the French people,” he said.
France is home to between 350,000 and 500,000 Jews, according to estimates. Since the creation of Israel in 1948, more than 90,000 French Jews have settled there.
After the ceremony, Netanyahu met members of Toulouse’s Jewish community. The city is home to an estimated 200,000 Jews.
On Wednesday, the two leaders discussed Middle East peace and Iran’s nuclear ambitions in their first face-to-face meeting, which one top Israeli official said “went off very well”.
Since taking office five months ago, Hollande has only spoken to Netanyahu by telephone but has met Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas twice.
The Israeli leader enjoyed close ties with Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy but there was a chill after Sarkozy reportedly called Netanyahu a “liar” during a private conversation with US President Barack Obama.
In Toulouse, on the eve of Netanyahu’s visit, about 100 left-wing activists waving Palestinian flags protested against Israeli policies.