Tens of thousands of demonstrators in Paris and cities across France took to the streets on Sunday to show their solidarity with the country’s Jews and to deplore antisemitic acts that have multiplied across the nation since Hamas’s attack on Israel on Oct. 7.
The marches were called by the leaders of both houses of the French Parliament, the Senate and the National Assembly, and unfolded under gray skies mostly without incident, with 3,000 police officers in Paris alone patrolling the route. The marches in France came a day after a huge pro-Palestinian protest in London that police said involved about 300,000 people.
Tensions have been rising in France and particularly in Paris, home to large Jewish and Muslim communities, in the wake of Hamas’s attack and during Israel’s subsequent military campaign in the Gaza Strip. In the last month, over 1,240 antisemitic acts have been reported in France — including the painting of more than 200 Stars of David on buildings around Paris. The police had made 539 arrests as of Nov. 10.
President Emmanuel Macron condemned “the unbearable resurgence of unbridled antisemitism” in France in an open letter published in Le Parisien newspaper on Saturday, and said there would be “no tolerance for the intolerable.”
He added: “A France where our Jewish citizens are afraid is not France.”
French presidents typically do not participate in such marches, and Mr. Macron said that while he would not be present, he would be there “in my heart and in my thoughts.”
Mr. Macron also called President Isaac Herzog of Israel on Sunday to clarify remarks he made to the BBC on Friday in which he said there was “no justification” for bombing civilians who were not tied to Hamas and called on Israel to stop the killing in Gaza.
Mr. Macron said “he does not and did not intend to accuse Israel of intentionally harming innocent civilians in the campaign against the terrorist organization Hamas,” the Élysée Palace said in a statement. Mr. Macron told Mr. Herzog that “he unequivocally supports Israel’s right and duty to self-defense, and expressed his support for Israel’s war against Hamas,” the statement said.
The president of the Senate, Gérard Larcher, and the National Assembly leader, Yaël Braun-Pivet, said the march was not intended to be a political statement about the war, over which political parties in France have clashed in recent weeks.
Instead, Ms. Braun-Pivet, who herself has been the target of antisemitic threats and is under police protection, said the march was an appeal for French citizens to show one another and the world “what France is today.”
The fact so many people participated in a march organized only six days ago showed that the French were “capable of assembling rapidly, reuniting around our values, our history, and what I’m sure will be our future,” she said.
Several former presidents joined the march in Paris, including François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, as well as five former French prime ministers. Cultural figures attending included the actresses Natalie Portman and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Kathleen Lemire, 70, joined a crowd of thousands in Paris, many waving French flags or handing our posters with photos of the hostages taken by Hamas. Ms. Lemire wore a yellow paper star pinned to her pink winter jacket, and a note that said “Never Forget, Never Forgive.” Her mother had hidden Jewish children during World War II, she said, and her father was an American marine who landed at Utah Beach during D-Day.
“My mother told me what she saw,” she said. “It was Oct. 7, but on a bigger scale. I feel this is just the beginning.”
Lisa Cohen, 31, just returned to Paris from a trip to Tel Aviv to support her friends and family there after the attack. “I felt better there,” she said walking in the crowd. Many of her non-Jewish friends had become distant she said, as they supported the Palestinian cause and could not find common ground.
“Some have been minimizing the antisemitic attacks, saying Islamophobia is worse and that Jews have had too much attention,” said Ms. Cohen, a project manager at a tech start-up.
Marc Badgett, 43, held up a sign in the shape of a giant white hand. Printed on it he had written “don’t touch my Jewish brother.” It was the first protest he had ever marched in — a rarity in France, where protest is a veritable rite of passage. He had never felt moved to before, he said.
“I have Jewish friends, and it’s important I stand with them,” Mr. Badgett said.
While the calls for Sunday’s marches were aimed at unity, they also fanned a political uproar.
Mr. Macron traveled to Israel last week to declare support for the country, while also working toward humanitarian support for Gaza.
But Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left France Unbowed party, dismissed Sunday’s marches on social media as a meeting for “friends of unconditional support for the massacre.” France Unbowed has refused to call Hamas a terrorist organization.
However, the new leader of the far-right National Rally, Jordan Bardella, announced that members of his party would be attending the march. He and Marine Le Pen, the former party leader, were greeted by angry shouts from a Jewish group called Collectif Golem, which denounced them as “fascists” and said they had no place in the crowd.
Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, whose father was a Holocaust survivor, was at the front of the march and said that the government was “telling our Jewish citizens that we are at their side, we are mobilized, and we will not let anything pass.”
The march on Sunday took place under heavy security along a one-and-a-half-mile route on Paris’s Left Bank to the Place Edmond Rostand, a square named after a French playwright who was an outspoken supporter of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer wrongly accused of spying at the turn of the 20th century.
Demonstrations in the cities of Strasbourg, Marseille and Lyon were joined by thousands. In Lyon, which has recorded 50 antisemitic acts in the last month, three times the total in all of 2022, Richard Zelmati, the regional president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France, denounced “the impotence of public authorities against the surge of hatred.”
France has been on high alert for terrorist attacks, with extra police officers and soldiers on the streets, armed with machine guns. A week after the Hamas assault, a man armed with knives killed a teacher and injured three other school employees at his former school in the northern city of Arras in what the police called an Islamist terror attack.
The government has also deployed 10,000 police officers and soldiers to guard synagogues and Jewish schools and centers around the country, mindful of attacks on such institutions during previous flare-ups between Israel and the Palestinians.
France has not seen huge pro-Palestinian marches on the same scale as in other countries, like in Britain on Saturday, in part because Mr. Macron’s government had sought to ban them following the Hamas attack, citing risks to public order. But France’s highest administrative court has ruled the bans to be mostly unconstitutional, except where marches might sow local tension, allowing some smaller pro-Palestinian demonstrations to move ahead.
France has also not seen huge confrontations between pro-Palestinian and Jewish students at universities, like in the United States. However, antisemitic acts have been reported on campuses across France, and Jewish students have reported a growing atmosphere of hostility.
“We’ve never seen numbers of antisemitic acts this high,” said Marc Knobel, a historian of antisemitism in France. “500,000 French people of Jewish faith are scared in their own country, and that’s absolutely terrifying.”