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Mideast violence divides France

Former Rabbi Raphael Perez, right, at the site of a synagogue fire in Strasbourg  

PARIS, France -- An estimated 150,000 people have marched in Paris to denounce a wave of recent attacks on Jewish schools, cemeteries and synagogues in France.

An estimated 1,500 police and scores of anti-riot vehicles were deployed as marchers headed toward the historic Place de la Republique.

Waving Israeli flags and draped in the blue and white colours of the national banner, marchers gathered at the Place de la Republique chanting in French and Hebrew and carrying signs that read "Yesterday New York, today Jerusalem, tomorrow Paris."

Hours before the march took place, attackers threw petrol bombs at police guarding a French synagogue in Marseilles.

France facing anti-Semitic attacks 
Pro-Palestinian marches across France 
CNN's Brian Palmer reports on a pro-Palestinian gathering and a counterprotest from Israel supporters in Manhattan (April 6)

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Three men hurled Molotov cocktails at three officers guarding the Merlan Synagogue, police said on Sunday.

No one was injured and no property was damaged. The assailants got away.

The violence in the Middles East has stirred strong emotions in France, which has large Arab and Jewish communities.

On Saturday many French cities were the scene of pro-Palestinian marches. (Full story)

Pro-Israel protesters were also marching on Sunday in Marseille and Lyon, where police said numbers totalled 4,000 and 8,000 respectively, as well as in Bordeaux, Strasbourg and Toulouse.

Dozens of French Jewish and anti-racism groups organised the demonstration in Paris.

France's 600,000-strong Jewish community -- the largest in western Europe -- has been the target of hundreds of anti-Semitic attacks since new violence broke out in the Middle East in 2000.

"The goal is to battle against anti-Semitism in France and terrorism in the Middle East, and to support Israel," Roger Cukierman, president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Groups, known as CRIF, told the Associated Press.

On Saturday up to 18,000 pro-Palestinian activists marched through Paris while similar pro-Palestinian marches were held in Grenoble, Pau, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Nice, Orleans, and Rennes.

The demonstrators called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank and urged the European Union to halt commercial and military cooperation with Israel.

In a statement, organisers also said the march was intended to denounce racist violence against both Jews and Arabs in France and call for "a just and lasting peace" between Palestinians and Israelis.

"We are here to condemn the Palestinian occupation of the territories, but also to condemn the recent racist attack in France, against both Jews and Arabs," Jean-Claude Vessillier, a spokesman for MRAP, one of France's leading anti-racism groups, told the Associated Press.

"It is very important to us that both Jews and Arabs participate in this demonstration," he said.

Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said: "If we want to talk about peace in the Middle East, we have to show first that we are capable of living peacefully together at home.

"We cannot accept that horrible passions and antagonism are imported to France."

France's Jewish population has suffered a spate of recent anti-Semitic attacks recently.

In the latest incident -- just hours before Saturday's marches -- arsonists threw petrol bombs into a Jewish sports club in southern France, damaging furniture and sports equipment.

Police said the door to the Maccabi club, in Toulouse, was forced open and petrol-filled bottles thrown inside. No one was injured.

On Friday an unexploded home-made bomb was found in a Jewish cemetery in eastern France that had already been a target of arsonists earlier in the week.

In southern France, three men admitted throwing petrol bombs and setting ablaze a building containing a synagogue in the city of Montpellier earlier this week.

In Paris, police have questioned five suspects accused of throwing petrol bombs at a synagogue on Wednesday.

The government has condemned the anti-Semitic violence and increased police surveillance of Jewish religious sites.

President Jacques Chirac said France "will not accept that external conflicts pit French against French on our soil."


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