France launched a hunt Sunday for arsonists who destroyed a Jewish center in Paris after daubing it with anti-Semitic graffiti and swastikas -- the latest in a wave of anti-Jewish acts that has unsettled the country.
Police officers outside the center
President Jacques Chirac in a statement strongly condemned "this indescribable act" and underlined "the absolute determination of the state to find the perpetrators of these unacceptable acts so they are judged and convicted as severely as possible."
The center, situated in central Paris, was gutted by the fire set around 3 a.m. on Sunday.
Police found swastikas daubed in red ink on two fridges inside and poorly spelled anti-Semitic slogans.
"Without Jews, we would be happy," one of the inscriptions read, according to police.
"The world would be pure if there were no more Jews," read another, the deputy president of the neighbouring synagogue, Serge Benhamou, told AFP news service.
"It was a place full of spirit and life for our community," said Claire Romi, a member of a Judeo-Spanish association that used the center. "To see it like this breaks my heart -- it's a whole piece of our history that has collapsed."
"A totally unacceptable criminal act"
Paris police chief Jean-Paul Proust, who visited the scene, vowed that officials would find those responsible and take them before the courts.
He said the arson attack was "a totally unacceptable criminal act.... If the firemen had not intervened, the lives of the people living in the building would have been in danger."
The Jewish center sits on the ground floor of five-storey building of which the upper floors are apartments. Firemen extinguished the blaze within an hour of being called out and there were no casualties.
The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, who also visited the scene, expressed his "shock and horror," adding that the "Nazi and anti-Semitic inscriptions daubed around the center are revolting."
French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin
Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin (photo) said that "France will be extremely severe with those who perpetrate anti-Semitism," noting they risked maximum prison sentences of up to 20 years.
"It's an insult to see swastikas at a time when we are celebrating the liberation (in World War II) of our country," he said.
Anti-Semitism surges in France
France has had its image abroad tarnished by anti-Semitic acts that have surged over the past four years, a phenomenon that has paralleled with the rise in violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
The country is home to Europe's biggest Jewish and Muslim communities, estimated at 650,000 and five million respectively, out of an overall population of 60 million.
The number of anti-Semitic acts committed in the first half of 2004 has soared, according to interior ministry statistics, with 135 acts of physical violence against Jews and 95 against north African and other ethnic groups.
Incidents this month included a swastika painted on the ground in front of the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, and swastikas and anti-Semitic messages painted on 60 Jewish graves in Lyon allegedly by a neo-Nazi Frenchman who turned himself into police.
Swastikas and other Nazi symbols are seen on headstones at a Jewish cemetery in Herrlisheim, eastern France, on April 30, 2004.
Two other Jewish cemeteries, a World War II monument to Jewish soldiers and a synagogue have also been targeted for anti-Semitic graffiti in separate attacks earlier this year.
There have been a few serious assaults. In October last year, a rabbi was knocked to the ground by assailants as he went to a synagogue; in July last year, students at a Jewish school in Paris were beaten with sticks and bars; and in April 2002, 14 Jewish footballers were set upon by a masked gang wielding bars and sticks.
Diplomatic tensions linked to the acts have colored relations between France and Israel.
A row that broke out in July this year when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon urged French Jews to move to Israel to escape what he called "the wildest anti-Semitism" in France only calmed when Sharon modified his call to say Jews should move to Israel "because it is their homeland, not to flee anti-Semitism."
Sharon also praised France's crackdown on anti-Semitism, saying he hoped it would set an example for other countries.