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French police kill Algerian man trying to set fire to synagogue

ROUEN, France (AFP) — French police on Friday shot dead an Algerian man armed with a knife and an iron bar who tried to set fire to a synagogue in the northern city of Rouen, adding to concerns over antisemitic violence in the country.

The French Jewish community, the third largest in the world, has for months been on edge in the face of a growing number of attacks and desecrations of memorials.

Emergency services were alerted after a fire was detected at the synagogue, with the man spotted on its roof brandishing an iron bar and a kitchen knife, the prosecutor handling the case said.

Smoke was coming out of one window at the synagogue, Rouen prosecutor Frederic Teillet told reporters.

The attacker ran towards one police officer threatening him with a knife. The officer then “shot him five times, hitting him four times,” the prosecutor said. The man died at the scene.

The attack was an “antisemitic act against a place that is sacred to the republic,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told reporters in Rouen, adding he regretted the “unacceptable, despicable” violence against Jewish people in France.

The man was an Algerian whose application for a residency permit in France for health treatment had been rejected by the authorities, Darmanin said.

He had lodged an appeal against an expulsion order but this had been rejected and he was then wanted by the security forces for deportation, said Darmanin. But he had no record of radicalization, the minister said.

“If he had been arrested he would have been put into detention ahead of expulsion to his home country,” said Darmanin.

‘Body in the street’

The synagogue is in the historic center of Rouen, the main city of the northern region of Normandy that lies on the River Seine.

A resident, Elias Morisse, who lives opposite the synagogue, said he heard gunshots and explosions. 

“I decided to open the shutters of my apartment, and indeed I saw smoke coming from the synagogue, the police, the firefighters and in the street a body — that of the attacker who was shot,” he said.

Separate investigations into the fire at the synagogue and into the circumstances of the death of the man have been opened, prosecutors said.

France’s police inspectorate opens an investigation whenever an individual is killed by the police.

Teillet said the policeman had been detained for questioning but added that after seeing footage of the incident he believed the use of a weapon was in line with the law and that he would be released.

Darmanin praised the policeman’s conduct and said he would be decorated for his actions. “I am chief of the police and personally, like many French people, I am tired of criticism of the police. … He did his job.”

Increasing attacks

France has the largest Jewish community of any country after Israel and the United States, as well as Europe’s largest Muslim community.

There have been tensions in France since the Oct. 7 attack by Palestinian militant group Hamas on Israel, followed by Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip.

Red graffiti was painted onto France’s Holocaust Memorial this week, prompting anger, including from President Emmanuel Macron who condemned “odious antisemitism.”

“Attempting to burn a synagogue is an attempt to intimidate all Jews. Once again, there is an attempt to impose a climate of terror on the Jews of our country,” Yonathan Arfi, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France, wrote on X.

Since 2015, France has seen a spate of Islamist attacks that also hit Jewish targets. There have been isolated attacks in recent months and the country’s security alert remains at its highest level.

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal announced this month that 366 antisemitic incidents had been recorded in France in the first quarter of 2024, a 300% increase compared to the first three months of 2023.

“It is not only the Jewish community that is affected. It is the entire city of Rouen that is bruised and in shock,” Rouen Mayor Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol wrote on X, calling for a solidarity rally at the town hall in the evening.

“Tonight is the beginning of the Sabbath and it’s important to light the candles to show that we are not afraid,” Rouen’s chief Rabbi Chmouel Lubecki told reporters.

Source: CNS