The number of anti-Semitic acts in France rocketed 74 per cent last year as the interior minister warned the phenomenon was “spreading like a poison”.
Christophe Castaner issued the warning from a Paris suburb where vandals had sawn down a tree planted in memory of Ilan Halimi, a young French Jew tortured to death in 2006 in a barbaric act that appalled France. The 13th anniversary of his death was due to be commemorated on Wednesday and a new prize in his honour unveiled by the prime minister on Tuesday evening.
Announcing that acts of anti-Semitism had increased from 311 in 2017 to 541 last year, Mr Castaner said the phenomenon was “spreading like a poison, like a venom. It's rotting minds, it's killing”.
"By attacking... Ilan Halimi's memory, it's the Republic that's being attacked," he added, vowing that the government would take action.
The vandalism follows a string of widely reported acts of anti-Semitism in recent months committed in France, home to the world's largest Jewish population outside Israel and America.
In the past few days, swastikas were scrawled on Paris postboxes containing portraits of late Holocaust survivor Simone Veil, a former justice minister and hugely admired figure who died in 2017. In a separate incident, the word Juden (German for Jews) was sprayed on in yellow paint on the window of a bagel bakery in the capital.
Frederic Potier, a government official in charge of fighting anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination based on sexual orientation, pointed the finger at far-right groups who have infiltrated “yellow vest” demonstrations in Paris and other big cities.
"Anti-Semitic tags up to nausea in the heart of Paris this weekend," he wrote in a message on Twitter with a picture of a Parisian wall with graffiti, which insinuated that French President Emmanuel Macron was a tool of a supposed Jewish plot.
"When the hatred of the Jews overlaps with the hatred of democracy, the vocabulary of the ‘fachosphere’ ends up on walls," wrote Mr Potier.
Tags antisémites jusqu'à la nausée en plein Paris ce WE. Quand la haine des Juifs se recoupe avec la haine de la Démocratie, le vocabulaire de la #fachosphere se retrouve sur les murs ! J'ai saisi le procureur de Paris et le Prefet de Police. @DILCRAH#Republique#democratiepic.twitter.com/DPqKVvY6X9— Frédéric Potier (@FPotier_Dilcrah) February 11, 2019
His message came a day after a study found that 44 per cent of self-professed “yellow vests” in France thought there was a “global Zionist plot” to rule the world - far higher than the general public.
Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said that the unfurling of a torrent of social media fury in relation to the “gilets jaunes” had encouraged racists online. While there were was no direct link with the movement, he remarked anti-Semitic acts often occurred “on the fringes of protests” where “far-Left and far-Right mingle”.
But Gilles Abecassis, co-founder of Bagelstein, the Paris shop vandalised last weekend, said he did not believe that anti-government demonstrators were responsible. "They wrote it in yellow but that could be for the Star of David," he said, adding that he had received thousands of messages of solidarity from around the world.
Political leaders from across the board have expressed alarm at the figures, including Marine Le Pen, whose father has been convicted several times for anti-Semitism. The leader of the far-Right National Rally denounced the “flare-up in anti-Semitic attacks and damage to Christian places of worship”.
In an editorial, Le Monde, whose walls were daubed with anti-Semitic graffiti this week, said frequent condemnations by the government and associations had become “inaudible to a growing part of the population”.
While the yellow vests revolt had “encouraged certain types of behaviour”, the problem was present well before the movement’s emergence in November, as the number of anti-Semitic acts had risen by 69 per cent in the first nine months of 2018. The newspaper said only painstaking work to study, identity and punish the "faceless" culprits would turn the tide.
French Jews have been the victim of a string of attacks in recent years in France.
In 2011, an Islamist gunman shot dead a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse and in 2015 an extremist claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group killed four people at a kosher supermarket in Paris. In 2017, Jewish pensioner Sarah Halimi was murdered in her own home in Paris in an attack reclassified as anti-Semitic last year.
Edouard Philippe, the prime minister warned in November that France, whose pro-Nazi regime deported Jews during the Second World War, was "very far from being finished with anti-Semitism".