Paris (AFP) – Thousands of people took part in a silent march in Paris on Wednesday in memory of an 85-year-old Jewish woman, killed in a savage attack believed to be anti-Semitic.
The leaders of several political parties joined the march for Mireille Knoll, whose partly burned body was found in her Paris home at the weekend.
Knoll, who escaped the mass deportation of Jews from France during World War II by fleeing abroad, was stabbed 11 times in an assault that the perpetrators apparently tried to conceal by setting fire to her apartment.
She was found dead by firefighters.
A neighbour in his twenties and a homeless youth have been charged over the latest in a series of attacks that have horrified France’s 500,000-strong Jewish community, Europe’s largest.
President Emmanuel Macron attended her funeral earlier Wednesday in Paris.
Community leaders carrying white roses and lawmakers wearing their official sashes led the march from Place de la Nation to Kroll’s apartment building in the east of the capital.
One woman carrying a rose who gave her name as Annie said she had come to make a stand “for peace” and “against the savagery of barbaric people who are no longer human beings”.
An estimated 30,000 people took part in the march, according to the French Jewish representative body CRIF which organised the rally.
Interior Minister Gerard Collomb and Culture Minister Francoise Nyssen were part of a large government contingent.
“In France, grandmothers are killed for being Jewish,” read one of the placards held aloft by participants.
Another sign listed Knoll alongside policeman Arnaud Beltrame and the three other victims of last week’s jihadist attack in southwest France, suggesting she too was targeted by radical Islamists.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who had been told she was not welcome by CRIF, was loudly booed on arrival.
“I have a right to be here,” a defiant Le Pen told reporters, insisting that her National Front party — co-founded by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, a convicted Holocaust denier — had been fighting anti-Semitism “for years” under her watch.
Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon was also booed and heckled after he too defied a call to stay away.
Both politicians left shortly afterwards.
“I made it very clear, I explained that the high number of anti-Semites on both the extreme left and the extreme right made these parties unacceptable,” CRIF leader Francis Kalifat told RTL radio earlier.
– ‘Galloping anti-Semitism’ –
Speaking to BFM television from the scene, rabbi and writer Delphine Horvilleur, said that many in the Jewish community had felt a lack of empathy until now among the wider French population about the threat they faced.
“Today there was a need to feel that we are all together,” she said.
A vigil was also held in Jerusalem, where around 80 people, mostly French immigrants, gathered at Paris Square to light candles in Knoll’s memory.
The organiser of the vigil, Sabrina Moise, said that while she “loves France” she felt it was “no longer safe for Jews because of galloping anti-Semitism.”
Other gatherings took part across France including at Strasbourg, Lyon, Nantes, Bordeaux and Toulouse with the largest in Marseilles attracting around 800 people.
Investigators are working on the theory that Knoll, a frail figure who “didn’t believe in evil in people” according to her granddaughter, was targeted because she was a Jew.
The arrested neighbour, whom she treated “like a son” according to her family, had served time in prison for sexually assaulting a minor.
Sources close to the inquiry said he and his suspected accomplice had given conflicting accounts under questioning, each accusing the other of carrying out the attack.
Knoll managed to escape the notorious 1942 roundup of more than 13,000 Jews in Paris by fleeing with her mother to Portugal when she was nine.
After the war she returned to the French capital and married a Holocaust survivor, who died in the early 2000s.
“What the Nazis were unable to do, criminals, thugs have done with the same hatred,” Haim Korsia, the chief rabbi of Paris, told AFP.
Her death comes a year after an Orthodox Jewish woman in her sixties was thrown out of the window of her Paris flat by a neighbour shouting “Allahu Akhbar”.
A judge confirmed just last month that the April 2017 murder of Sarah Halimi was motivated by anti-Semitism, a delay that drew the ire of several Jewish groups.
Halimi’s murder reignited the debate over a new strain of anti-Semitism among radicalised Muslim youths in predominantly immigrant high-rise neighbourhoods.
In 2012, Islamist gunman Mohamed Merah shot dead three children and a teacher at a Jewish school in the southwestern city of Toulouse.
Three years later, an associate of the two brothers who massacred a group of cartoonists at satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo killed four people in a hostage-taking at a Jewish supermarket in Paris.
Officials at Paris’s main mosque insisted Knoll’s killing had nothing to do with Islam, saying it was “denounced and condemned by all the Muslims of France”.