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News / Nation & World

French police fatally shoot a man suspected of setting fire to a synagogue

By JEFFREY SCHAEFFER and JOHN LEICESTER, JEFFREY SCHAEFFER and JOHN LEICESTER, Associated Press
Published: May 17, 2024, 8:36am
3 Photos
French policemen stand near the synagogue in Rouen, France, Friday, May 17, 2024. French police have shot and killed a man armed with a knife and a metal bar who is suspected of having set fire to a synagogue in the Normandy city of Rouen.
French policemen stand near the synagogue in Rouen, France, Friday, May 17, 2024. French police have shot and killed a man armed with a knife and a metal bar who is suspected of having set fire to a synagogue in the Normandy city of Rouen. (AP Photo/Oleg Cetinic) Photo Gallery

ROUEN, France (AP) — French police shot and killed a man armed with a knife and a metal bar who is suspected of having started a fire that charred and blackened the insides of a synagogue in the Normandy city of Rouen early Friday, an attack the interior minister said was “clearly” antisemitic and which infuriated Jewish leaders facing a surge in hate crimes since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.

The suspected arsonist was an Algerian national who wasn’t flagged as a suspected extremist, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said after inspecting the fire-damaged synagogue. He said the man had sought permission to stay in France for medical treatment and, after it was refused, had been placed on a police wanted list for possible return back to his country.

Darmanin praised the 25-year-old police officer for using his service weapon against the “particularly dangerous, particularly violent” assailant who rushed at him with a knife, declaring: “He was right to do so.”

The minister said the officer would be decorated for his “extremely courageous, extremely professional” behavior.

“This antisemitic act in Rouen affects all of us, deeply,” he said. France is “extremely determined to continue protecting all the Jews of France, wherever they are, who must practice their religion without fear.”

Antisemitic acts have surged in France in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war. France has the largest Jewish and Muslim populations in Western Europe.

The main French Jewish umbrella group described the synagogue blaze as “a scandalous message” and “a way of saying that Jews don’t belong in French society.” This week, a Paris memorial honoring people who distinguished themselves by helping to rescue Jews in France during the country’s Nazi occupation in World War II was also attacked, defaced with painted blood-red hands.

“It’s unbearable. It’s more and more serious every day. After the antisemitic graffiti we saw in the past few days, antisemitic slogans, antisemitic insults, we now have attempts at setting synagogues on fire,” said Yonathan Arfi, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France.

“Everyone is wondering whether they can live a peaceful life in France as a Jew,” he added, speaking in an Associated Press interview. “There’s a climate of fear because it feels like, anywhere in our country and at any time, an antisemitic attack can take place. It aims at intimidating French Jews and we won’t accept this intimidation. We refuse it, and we will continue to fight against this unbridled antisemitism.”

Firefighters were alerted early Friday morning to the blaze at the synagogue. Police officers discovered the man on the roof of the building, clutching the metal bar in one hand and the kitchen knife in the other, and smoke rising from the synagogue’s windows, Rouen prosecutor Frédéric Teillet said.

He said the man hurled abuse and threw the metal bar at the police before jumping off the roof and then running at one of the officers with his knife raised.

The officer fired five shots, hitting the man four times, fatally wounding him, the prosecutor said.

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Rouen Mayor Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol said that the man is thought to have climbed onto a trash container and thrown “a sort of Molotov cocktail” inside the synagogue, starting the fire and causing “significant damage.”

“When the Jewish community is attacked, it’s an attack on the national community, an attack on France, an attack on all French citizens,” he said. “It’s a fright for the whole nation.”

Photos taken inside the synagogue and seen by the AP showed that walls and the ceiling were charred and blackened.

“It’s a catastrophe,” said Natacha Ben Haim, head of Rouen’s Jewish community. “The assailant threw an incendiary object inside through a small dormer that he most certainly broke into. The fire started then, very quickly apparently, and the damage is considerable. We managed to save the Sefer Torah, but parts of the wall fell, from the ceiling, too.”

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said this month that the sharp spike in antisemitic acts in France that followed the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel has continued into this year.

Authorities registered 366 antisemitic acts in the first three months of 2024, a 300% increase over the same period last year, Attal said. More than 1,200 antisemitic acts were reported in the last three months of 2023 — which was three times more than in the whole of 2022, he said.

“We are witnessing an explosion of hatred,” he said.

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