PARIS: Several thousands Wednesday held a fresh protest in Paris against the Israeli offensive in Gaza amid tight security days after similar rallies descended into violence and looting. Police said the rally gathered about 14,500 people, while organizers put the figure at 25,000. The government, which had banned the prior protests seeking to restrain what it called anti-Semitic radicals, authorized the march after its organizers gave “security guarantees,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls said. More than 1,000 undercover and uniformed officers were deployed along the march route, which ended in the upscale Invalides area where several government ministries are located.
The marchers, many of whom held Palestinian flags or stickers saying “Boycott Israel,” shouted slogans such as “Israel killer” and “Long live Palestine, long live the resistance!.” Samira Cheblal, a marcher, said she had come with a simple message: “Stop the massacre of children and civilians.”
In addition to the Paris event, staged by a coalition of pro-Palestinian and left-wing groups, demonstrations were also held in the cities of Lyon, Toulouse, Lille and Reims. As the Paris marchers dispersed after the protest, a few threw bottles at the police, who did not respond.
President Francois Hollande issued a reminder to protesters that the “responsibility of the state, the government and the president is to ensure that order is respected.”Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve had warned that anyone caught shouting “Death to the Jews!” or burning an Israeli flag during the marches would be arrested.
But Cazeneuve had also denounced the Jewish Defense League — deemed a “right-wing terrorist group” by the FBI — whose members clashed with pro-Palestinian supporters in an earlier Paris demonstration.
Banned rallies took place anyway at the weekend in Paris and its suburb town of Sarcelles, and ended in clashes, with police firing tear gas and arresting scores of protesters.
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 organizer 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 Assocation that is part of the collective that called the rally.Another pro-Palestinian demonstration in Paris is planned for Saturday, and authorities have not yet said whether it will be allowed to proceed.
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 capitalize on this (Israeli offensive) by riding on sentiments of anti-Semitism and hatred” and using it “to foment disorder.”
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.
French political parties have broadly hailed the decision to authorize Wednesday’s march.
Four groups helping to organize the rally — the influential CGT union and three leftist parties — are also deploying people during the rally to ensure there is no violence.