French PM Manuel Valls urges Jews to stay after tombs defaced

Newly arrived immigrants from France (from left) Jonathan Arbibe and Samuel Chemama and Alexandre Pequito study Hebrew at Ulpan Etzion, in Jerusalem on Jan 20, 2015. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Monday, Feb 16, 2015, urged France's Jews
Newly arrived immigrants from France (from left) Jonathan Arbibe and Samuel Chemama and Alexandre Pequito study Hebrew at Ulpan Etzion, in Jerusalem on Jan 20, 2015. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Monday, Feb 16, 2015, urged France's Jews to stay in the country, after hundreds of Jewish tombs were defaced and following calls by Israel's Premier for Europe's Jews to emigrate to Israel. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (AFP) - Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Monday urged France's Jews to stay in the country, after hundreds of Jewish tombs were defaced and following fresh calls by Israel's Premier for Europe's Jews to emigrate to Israel.

"My message to French Jews is the following: France is wounded with you and France does not want you to leave," Mr Valls said.

Following the Copenhagen shootings, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated a call he made after the Paris killings. “To the Jews of Europe and to the Jews of the world I say that Israel is waiting for you with open arms,” Netanyahu said.

“Extremist Islamic terrorism has struck Europe again... Jews have been murdered again on European soil only because they were Jews,” he said.  

Valls criticised Netanyahu’s comments.  “I regret Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks. Being in the middle of an election campaign doesn’t mean you authorise yourself to make just any type of statement. The place for French Jews is France.”

Israel is holding a general election on March 17. 

France's Interior Minister said on Sunday that several hundred tombs had been defaced at a Jewish cemetery in the northeast of the country, in what he called "a despicable act". "The country will not tolerate this new injury which goes against the values that all French people share," said Mr Bernard Cazeneuve of the incident in the town of Sarre-Union in the Alsace region.

"Every effort will be made to identify, question and bring to justice the person or persons responsible for this despicable act," he added.

Police had cordoned off the isolated cemetery late on Sunday as crime scene investigators were sent from Strasbourg to the site, an AFP correspondent reported.

"Around 300 tombs have been defaced," said a source close to the investigation, adding that there had been no reports of anything written on the tombstones.

The region's police and prosecutor came to the cemetery Sunday evening as well the chief rabbi of Strasbourg, Rene Gutman.

"It's an image of desolation," president of the Alsace region Philippe Richert told AFP, describing how Jewish steles, stone or wooden slabs often used for commemorative purposes, were knocked down and even some slabs at the gravesites had been lifted.

"One doesn't knock over heavy steles like that dating from the 19th century very easily. it was a deliberate act of destruction," he said.

French President Francois Hollande called the desecration an "odious and barbaric act" while Mr Valls, writing on Twitter, described it as "anti-Semitic and ignoble".