French teens arrested for chemical explosion near teacher who reported anti-Semitism


Two French teenagers were arrested on suspicion of setting off an explosion near a teacher after she reported receiving anti-Semitic threats at school.

The teenagers, 16 and 19 years old, were arrested on Dec. 13 in Aix-en-Provence near Marseille in southern France for allegedly setting off a chemical explosion in the classroom of their plastic arts teacher, according to France Info, a public radio station. No one was hurt in the explosion.

The teacher, Chantal Viroulou, told the radio station that before the incident, “students from that class, two or three of them at least, called me and told me: 'Jew, we will break your face.'” Viroulou, who teaches at the Latecoere professional high school in the town of Istres, did not say whether she was Jewish.

An unnamed police source told Ouest France, a local daily, that Viroulou is not Jewish and that “the anti-Semitic connotation” is not being investigated. The source added that the explosion — which the two suspects allegedly caused by mixing hydrochloric acid with aluminium — “had nothing to do” with the threat.

Earlier this week, the news site Lyonmag reported that a teacher undergoing conversion was fired after she reported repeated anti-Semitic harassment by her pupils at Condorcet secondary school in Saint-Priest, a southern suburb of Lyon.

The International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, a French nonprofit, wrote on Dec. 13 to France's minister of education to ask him to launch a special action against “the development of anti-Semitic acts and behavior” in French schools.

French teen is beaten in anti-Semitic attack on train


A French Jewish teenager was the victim of a violent anti-Semitic attack on a train traveling between Toulouse and Lyon.

The victim, 17, reportedly is a student at Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, where an Islamist gunman shot and killed three students and a teacher in March.

He was accosted verbally before he was beaten by two assailants Wednesday night, the French news service AFP reported. Another passenger and train conductors reportedly came to his aid.

The teen was wearing what the French Interior Ministry called “a distinctive religious symbol,” according to AFP.

Railroad authorities reported the assailants to police but neither had been called in for questioning by Thursday morning.

The French Jewish umbrella group CRIF in a statement called the attack “another development in the worrying trend of anti-Semitism in our country.”

Suspects arrested in attack on French Jewish teens


Two suspects have been arrested in connection with an attack on three Jewish teens in Lyon in southeastern France.

The two suspects reportedly turned themselves in to police on Wednesday, the French news agency AFP reported.

The “main perpetrator” of the attack has not yet been apprehended, local police chief Albert Doutre said, according to AFP.

The attack, which occurred June 2, took place in Villeurbanne, located near Lyon.

The attackers, who reportedly numbered about 10, used a hammer and an iron bar, injuring two of the Jewish victims in the head, who were sent to the hospital. The attackers have been described as “of North-African origin,” according to reports.

In March, a rabbi and his two young sons and the daughter of the head of a Jewish school in Toulouse were killed by a Muslim gunman who stormed the school and shot them at point-blank range. Some French Jewish officials have drawn a link between the two attacks.

French Islamic militants planned to kidnap Jewish judge


Suspected Islamic militants arrested throughout France were planning terrorist attacks including kidnapping a Jewish judge.

The 13 members of the extremist group Forsane Alizza, or Knights of Pride, were among 19 suspected Islamic militants arrested last week in France. They are currently under investigation for alleged terrorist activities, Paris public prosecutor Francois Molins told reporters Tuesday. Preliminary charges are being filed against the 13, and nine will remain in police custody, he said.

The men reportedly planned to kidnap a Jewish judge in Lyon, in southeast France.

Molins said that there is no tie between this group and gunman Mohamed Merah, who killed children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulose on March 21, as well as three French military personnel the previous week. Merah told French police that he killed the Jewish students at the school in revenge for Palestinian children killed in Gaza, and had killed three French soldiers the previous week for serving in Afghanistan. He also claimed links to al-Qaida, as does Forsane Alizza.

The terrorists’ arrests were part of a French crackdown in the wake of Merah’s attack in Toulouse. France on Monday also expelled five radical Islamic ministers.

After Toulouse attack, French Jews are reconsidering Sarkozy


With the first round of France’s presidential election less than four weeks away, the attacks that left four Jews and three French soldiers dead are reshaping the race—but for now it’s not clear exactly how.

In the days leading up to the attacks, President Nicolas Sarkozy had managed to close most of the gap behind the leader in the polls, Socialist candidate Francoise Hollande, with a rightward turn that included calls by Sarkozy in favor of tougher immigration restrictions and against the labeling of halal meat.

Since the March 19 attack on the Jewish Otzar Hatorah school in Toulouse, Sarkozy has announced several measures to clamp down on right-wing and Islamic extremists. He ordered French security forces to seek out Muslim extremists, barred an influential Egyptian Sunni cleric from attending a conference in France next month and urged TV networks not to air footage of the Toulouse attack and the one on soldiers in nearby Montauban that had been delivered to the Al Jazeera bureau here.

While politicians across the political spectrum condemned the attacks, Sarkozy won praise from the Jewish community for suspending his campaign and flying to Toulouse immediately after the school shooting, calling it “obviously anti-Semitic” and saying that the “whole republic” was mobilized to face the tragedy.

But it’s not clear how long the focus will remain on security before shifting back to the main issue facing France: the economy.

“The political debate will probably refocus on the fundamental economic topics,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist who specializes in right-wing extremism. “Still, it is very important to French Jews to make the population understand that the Toulouse attack does not only concern their community but the whole country.”

French Jews, he said, “will most certainly vote for politicians with solid experience who are able to put in practice legal and credible measures to answer an Islamic threat.”

The latest national polls show Sarkozy and his center-right Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, trailing Hollande by a percentage point or two in the first round scheduled for April 22, but by a wider gap in a theoretical runoff scheduled for May 6.

Since the Toulouse attack, the National Front, France’s largest far-right party, has tried to take advantage of the changed climate. On Sunday, party leader Marine Le Pen promised to “bring radical Islam to its knees.” In her speech Le Pen, who has been polling at approximately 15 percent, also linked mass immigration with fundamentalism and denounced the risk of a “green fascism.”

Few observers believe that many Jews will opt for the National Front, even though Le Pen has sought to woo Jewish voters and distance herself and her party from the anti-Semitism of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front.

“In 2002, only 6 percent of French Jews voted for the National Front, while the election occurred only a few months after 9/11,” Camus said. “A substantial movement from the Jewish community toward Marine Le Pen is very unlikely.”

The Jewish community, whose 600,000 members represent less than 1 percent of the total French population, remains more supportive of Sarkozy’s party than the general public. But prior to the Toulouse shootings, a survey of the Jewish electorate showed that Sarkozy had lost support among Jews even though he remained more popular than any other single candidate.

According to a March 9 poll from the French polling institute IFOP, Sarkozy’s favorable ratings among Jews had fallen to 43 percent as of January from 62 percent in May 2007, when Sarkozy was elected president. The main reason, said Jerome Fourquet, who directed the survey for IFOP, was France’s economy.

“The trend is similar to the French general electorate’s disaffection with Sarkozy,” Fourquet said. “People are dissatisfied with the economic situation and their purchasing power.”

For many Jews, the economy is not the only source of discontent with the president. In early March, Sarkozy’s prime minister, Francois Fillon, made controversial statements about halal and kosher slaughter rituals, declaring that the “ancestral traditions” in Islam and Judaism were “outdated.”

The comment provoked a strong reaction from Jewish leaders.

“As religion and state are strictly separated in France, politicians should avoid giving their opinion on these topics,” said Richard Prasquier, president of the CRIF, the main French umbrella organization for Jewish institutions.

More widely, French moderates also have expressed concern about Sarkozy’s tilt to the right. A week before the Toulouse shootings, Sarkozy told an audience that France has “too many foreigners” and proposed cutting legal immigration in half.

Thirty years ago, most Jews leaned toward the Socialist Party. Francois Mitterrand, a Socialist who served as president of France from 1981 to 1995, was considered a friend of Israel—an image he developed after his 1982 address to the Knesset, where he emphasized the Jewish state’s right to security.

But the Jewish vote drifted toward the UMP during the second intifada, when many leftist organizations took a pro-Palestinian stance and violence against French Jews soared.

“Violence in the Middle East had a huge impact on this community,” Fourquet said. “During the wave of anti-Semitic attacks in France in the early 2000s, many Jews felt abandoned by the Socialists. This is when the center of gravity started shifting to the right for French Jews.”

Sarkozy was interior minister at the time—serving two stints from 2002 to 2007—and his tough rhetoric and the aggressive measures he championed were credited with helping tamp down the anti-Semitic violence.

French shooting suspect not jailed in Afghanistan, provincial governor says


An Afghan provincial governor on Wednesday denied statements by a senior prison official that French school shooting suspect Mohamed Merah was jailed for bombings in Afghanistan in 2007 and escaped months later.

Citing prison documents, Kandahar prison chief Ghulam Faruq had told Reuters that Afghan security forces detained Merah on December 19, 2007, and that he was sentenced to three years in jail for planting bombs in the southern province of Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace.

A senior Kandahar intelligence source confirmed Faruq’s account and said he had a file on a French Algerian of the same name, who was arrested in 2007 and broke out of prison in 2008.

But the Kandahar governor’s office said that account was “baseless”, citing judicial records. “Security forces in Kandahar have never detained a French citizen named Mohammad Merah,” the governor’s spokesman, Ahmad Jawed Faisal, said.

Merah’s lawyer in France, Christian Etelin, said his client was in prison in France from December 2007 until September 2009, serving an 18-month sentence for robbery with violence, and therefore could not have been in Afghanistan at the time of the Kandahar jailbreak.

Merah, a French citizen of Algerian origin, is suspected of killing seven people in the name of the al Qaeda militant network, including three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse in southwestern France.

Faruq had said that Merah escaped along with up to 1,000 prisoners, including 400 Taliban insurgents, during an attack on southern Afghanistan’s main Sarposa Prison in June 2008, when the Taliban blew apart the main gate with a big truck bomb.

French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said Merah had been to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and had carried out his killings in revenge for French military involvement abroad.

In Pakistan, an intelligence official who declined to be identified said Merah had never been arrested there. “We have no information about him,” the Pakistani official said.

Writing by Jack Kimball and Rob Taylor; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington and Paul Taylor in Paris; Editing by Michael Georgy and Mark Heinrich

French Jew attacked outside synagogue


A 21-year-old student was severely beaten near his synagogue in southern France after acknowledging to his attackers that he was Jewish.

After leaving a synagogue in the town of Villeurbanne, near Lyon, on April 7, the victim was confronted by two men in their early 20s who insulted him and asked him if he was Jewish. When the victim, whose name has not been released to the media, did not deny his religious affiliation, the two men attacked him in the head and upper body with a pellet gun and a club, according to police reports.

The victim spent the night in the hospital and was treated for head, stomach and arm wounds. He was released the following day. Police are searching for the attackers.

Marcel Amsellem, president of the CRIF Jewish umbrella group in the southeastern Rhone-Alpes region, said the Jewish community there was seriously concerned about the “horrifying act.”  The local mayor also condemned the incident.

Israel strikes Gaza, retaliating for barrage


Israeli combat planes pounded the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the worst barrage of rocket attacks on southern Israel in two years.

The French news agency AFP and Israel Radio reported repeated strikes on the strip late Monday night.

Israel Radio said that there were reports from Palestinian sources of 17 wounded. The army was not responding to the reports, the radio said.

Israel had responded earlier Monday to Saturday’s barrage with airstrikes on suspected bomb smuggling tunnels. The latest attack seemed more comprehensive and sustained, according to the reports.

The armed wing of Hamas, Izzadin Kassam Brigades, had claimed responsibility for most of the explosives sent Saturday from Gaza.

Before Israel’s attack, a spokesman for Hamas, the terrorist group that controls Gaza, had sought a return to a fragile truce.

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