French, foreign leaders walk arm-in-arm as millions protest Paris attacks


World leaders including Muslim and Jewish statesmen linked arms to lead more than a million French citizens through Paris in an unprecedented march to pay tribute to victims of Islamist militant attacks.

Commentators said the last time crowds of this size filled the streets of the capital was at the Liberation of Paris from Nazi Germany in 1944.

President Francois Hollande and leaders from Germany, Italy, Turkey, Britain as well as Israel and the Palestinian territories moved off from the central Place de la Republique ahead of a sea of French and other flags.

Seventeen people, including journalists and police, were killed in three days of violence that began on Wednesday with a shooting attack on the political weekly Charlie Hebdo, known for its satirical attacks on Islam and other religions.

Giant letters attached to a statue in the square spelt out the word Pourquoi?” (Why?) and small groups sang the “La Marseillaise” national anthem.

“Paris is today the capital of the world. Our entire country will rise up and show its best side,” Hollande said.

At least 3.7 million people took part in silent marches throughout the country, the biggest public demonstration ever registered inFrance. A total of 1.2 million to 1.6 million marched in Paris and a further 2.5 million in other cities, the Interior Ministry said.

The marches mostly proceeded in a respectful silence, reflecting shock over the worst militant Islamist assault on a European city since 57 people were killed in an attack on London's transport system in 2005.

The attackers, two French-born brothers of Algerian origin, singled out the weekly for its publication of cartoons depicting and ridiculing the Prophet Mohammad. The bloodshed ended on Friday with a hostage-taking at a Jewish deli in which four hostages and the gunman were killed.

Some 2,200 police and soldiers patrolled Paris streets to protect marchers from would-be attackers, with police snipers on rooftops and plain-clothes detectives mingling with the crowd.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi were among 44 foreign leaders marching with Hollande.

Merkel walked to Hollande's left and at his right was President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita of Mali, a country where Franceintervened to fight Islamist rebels two years ago to the day.

In a rare public display of emotion by the leaders of two powers, Hollande embraced Merkel, her eyes shut and forehead resting on his cheek, on the steps of the Elysee before they headed off to march.

Renzi said the fight against terrorism will be won by a Europe that is political, not just economic.

“The most important is the Europe of values, of culture, of ideals and that is the reason we are here,” Renzi said.

Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu – who earlier in the day encouraged French Jews to emigrate to Israel – and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were also present and walked just a few steps from one another.

“In the same way that the civilized world stood today with Franceagainst terror, so it must stand with Israel against terror,” Netanyahu said at a ceremony in a Paris synagogue.

After world leaders left the march, Hollande stayed to greet survivors of the Charlie Hebdo attack and their families, while hundreds of thousands of people marched slowly and in near-total silence through Paris streets.

“We're not going to let a little gang of hoodlums run our lives,” said Fanny Appelbaum, 75, who said she lost two sisters and a brother in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz‎. “Today, we are all one.”

Zakaria Moumni, a 34-year-old Franco-Moroccan draped in the French flag, agreed: “I am here to show the terrorists they have not won – it is bringing people together of all religions.”

The attacks have raised difficult questions of free speech, religion and security, and exposed the vulnerability of states to urban attacks.

The head of France's 550,000-strong Jewish community, Roger Cukierman, said Hollande had promised that Jewish schools and synagogues would have extra protection, by the army if necessary, after the killings. He also called for limits on hate speech and more control on suspected jihadists.

Hours before the march, a video emerged featuring a man resembling the gunman killed in the kosher deli. He pledged allegiance to the Islamic State insurgent group and urged French Muslims to follow his example.

Two of the gunmen had declared allegiance to al Qaeda in Yemen and a third to the militant Islamic State. All three were killed during the police operations in what local commentators have called “France's 9/11”, a reference to the September 2001 attacks on U.S. targets by al Qaeda.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that at a meeting in Paris on Sunday European interior ministers had agreed to boost cooperation to thwart further militant attacks.

He called for the creation of a European database of airplane passenger names and said Europe should fight against abusive use of the Internet to spread hate speech.

While there has been widespread solidarity with the victims, there have been dissenting voices.

French social media have carried comments from those uneasy with the “Je suis Charlie” slogan interpreted as freedom of expression at all cost. Others suggest there was hypocrisy in world leaders whose countries have repressive media laws attending the march.

Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, whom analysts see receiving a boost in the polls due to the attacks, said her anti-immigrant party had been excluded from the Paris demonstration and would instead take part in regional marches.

Less than 1,000 people gathered in the National Front-ruled southern town of Beaucaire.

Hollande calls for easing blockade, demilitarizing Gaza


French President Francois Hollande called for the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip and the easing of Gaza’s blockade.

Hollande’s speech Thursday to the French diplomatic corps was the latest sign that the international community plans to press for demilitarization after the latest war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Reports emerged in the Lebanese media on Friday that the United States is pressing the United Nations Security Council to call for such steps.

The terms of this week’s cease-fire “must be strictly, precisely and rigorously implemented, because Gaza must not remain an armed base for Hamas, nor should it be an open prison for its residents” Hollande said. “We must advance toward a progressive lifting of the blockade and a demilitarization of the territory.”

He outlined French proposals that included international supervision of the destruction of tunnels from Gaza into Israel, reopening Gaza’s border crossings with Israel and Egypt, and giving Hamas’ rival, the Palestinian Authority, the means to rebuild Gaza.

Hamas officials have said they would resist any steps to demilitarize and that they plan to re-arm.

In Iran, the head of the Basij, the militia best known for brutally repressing protests after the 2009 election, widely seen as rigged, said this week that Iran would arm Palestinians in the West Bank.

France’s Hollande ripped Netanyahu, French satirical weekly reports


French President Francois Hollande said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “turned a memorial service in Toulouse into an election rally,” a French satirical newspaper reported.

The weekly Le Canard Enchaine published an unsigned article that said Hollande made the comment last week while flying to Beirut. The item was referring to a visit that Netanyahu made with Hollande to the Jewish school in Toulouse where Mohammed Merah, a radical French Islamist, killed three children and a rabbi in March.

The report was not corroborated in other French media outlets that had correspondents on Hollande's plane as part of his entourage on his state visit to Lebanon.

Canard had reported in its previous edition that ordinary Frenchmen were unhappy about Netanyahu’s visit.

The paper also reported that Hollande said that Netanyahu was “obsessed with Iran.” During his speech, the Israeli prime minister called Hollande a “friend” and thanked him for his “determination” in fighting anti-Semitism. 

Canard offers fake interviews regularly alongside investigative journalism features and leaked reports.

According to TF1, a French television network,  Hollande’s decision to join Netanyahu in Toulouse was made at the last minute and unplanned.

Thousands of French Jews check out aliyah


Some 5,000 French Jews participated in an aliyah fair in Paris.

The fair, organized and run by the Jewish Agency, took place Sunday as French voters went to the polls and elected Francois Hollande as their new president, beating incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, considered the favored choice in the Jewish community.

“I cannot recall having seen such a massive number of people interested in aliyah since the days when lines of people stretched out of the Israeli embassy in Moscow,” said Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who attended the fair. The annual fair usually attracts about 2,000 visitors, according to the Jewish Agency.

The French Jewish community is the largest in Europe, with some 500,000 members, according to the Jewish Agency.

The fair comes on the heels of an attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse in which a rabbi and his two young sons and the daughter of the head of the school were killed.

On a visit Monday to Toulouse, Sharansky said the Jewish Agency and the Israel Trauma Coalition will send counselors to the Ozar Hatorah school from Israel in the coming days, followed by a delegation of Israeli youth counselors. The professionals are charged with helping the students and their parents, as well as the teaching staff, return to their normal routine following the March attack.

“I came to Toulouse in order to strengthen the children and the community, but also to remind them that the Jewish Agency will strengthen their connection to Israel and assist those who are interested in making aliyah,” said Sharansky, though he added that aliyah should not be based solely on a tragedy like the one in Toulouse.

Jewish reaction mixed to Hollande victory in France


Jewish reaction was mixed to the election of the Socialist Party’s Francois Hollande as the president of France.

The European Jewish Congress congratulated Hollande, who was elected Sunday over Nicolas Sarkozy with 51.7 percent of the vote to 48.3 percent for the incumbent.

“Our recent meeting with Mr. Hollande was very constructive and touched on many areas of concern to the Jewish community,” EJC President Moshe Kantor said in a statement. “I believe we have a sympathetic ear in the new French leadership and we look forward to continuing this relationship with the new president.”

Richard Prasquier, president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewry, told reporters Monday in New York that he was concerned that Hollande’s election would lead to a rise in the anti-Israel left.

“We know that some of the parties who are supposed to be partners of the coalition in favor of Francois Hollande are not friends of Israel. The part they will play we will see,” he said, according to the Jewish Press.

More than 92 percent of French nationals who voted in Sunday’s election at the French Embassy in Tel Aviv cast their ballot for Sarkozy, the center-left candidate, according to reports.

Israeli President Shimon Peres congratulated Hollande on his victory.

“On behalf of the Israeli nation, it is a pleasure for me to send my sincere congratulations on your election to the post of President of France. I am confident that under your leadership, the French people will look to the future with hope, security and a spirit of unity.”

Hollande became the first Socialist president of France in nearly two decades. Sarkozy, of the Union for a Popular Movement party, was considered the favored choice among French Jews.

Sarkozy conceded shortly after the polls closed, wishing his successor luck in handling difficult times in France and in Europe.

Hollande beats Sarkozy to win French presidency


Francois Hollande became the first Socialist president of France in nearly two decades, defeating incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.

With half the votes counted nationwide, Hollande was leading Sarkozy, 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent. Sarkozy, the center-left candidate, was considered the favored candidate among French Jews.

Sarkozy, of the Union for a Popular Movement party, conceded shortly after the polls closed. He wished his successor luck in handling difficult times in France and in Europe.

“Francois Hollande is the president of the republic; he must be respected,” Sarkozy said.

Polls had showed Hollande finishing with about 52 percent of the vote to 48 percent for Sarkozy, the first French president to lose re-election in 30 years.

Hollande is France’s first Socialist president since Francois Mitterrand, who served from 1981 to 1995.

Sarkozy is the ninth European leader to be ousted since the start of the continent’s debt crisis, Bloomberg reported.