Hollande: Jews have 'their place in Europe and especially France'

An investigator looking at defaced tombstones at the Jewish cemetery of Sarre-Union, northeastern France, on Feb 16, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
An investigator looking at defaced tombstones at the Jewish cemetery of Sarre-Union, northeastern France, on Feb 16, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - French President Francois Hollande said on Monday that Jews were welcome in Europe and France, in an apparent retort to Israel's prime minister who urged Jews to move to Israel after attacks on a synagogue in Copenhagen.

Jews "have their place in Europe and in particular in France", Hollande said, in reference also to the vandalising of several hundred tombs at a Jewish cemetery in the east of the country over the weekend.

Authorities said Sunday that 300 Jewish tombs had been defaced in the village of Montry, northeast France late Sunday, although nothing was reported written on them.

Local officials described how Jewish steles (stone or wooden slabs often used for commemorative purposes) had been knocked down and some slabs at the gravesites had even been lifted.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls also said: "France is wounded with you and France does not want you to leave."

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged European Jews to move to Israel, repeating a similar call after Islamist attacks in Paris last month.

"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.

"Israel is your home. We are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe," Netanyahu said in a statement.

Valls hit back on Monday, saying he "regretted" Netanyahu's remarks and noting the Israeli prime minister was "in the middle of an election campaign".

A former foreign minister, 92-year-old Roland Dumas, then sparked uproar by saying that Valls was "probably" under the influence of his wife, who is Jewish.

Valls also urged national "unity" in the face of what he called "Islamo-fascism", a choice of words that has raised eyebrows in France.

France is home to Europe's largest Jewish population and also largest Muslim population, although it is difficult to give precise figures as secular France does not collect data based on religion.

The country was rocked by a triple attack in January: on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, a young policewoman and a Jewish supermarket.

Last month, the country's main Jewish group said the number of anti-Semitic acts doubled in France during 2014, with acts involving physical violence leading the increase.

Some 851 anti-Semitic acts were registered in 2014, compared with 423 the previous year, with acts of physical violence jumping to 241 from 105, the CRIF said.