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French police shoot dead man armed with knife and iron bar attempting to set fire to synagogue

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


FRENCH POLICE HAVE 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.

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

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 “shot him five times, hitting him four times”, the prosecutor said. The man died at the scene.

The attack was an “anti-Semitic 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.

His appeal against an expulsion order had been rejected and he was wanted by the security forces for deportation, said Darmanin.

He was a “particularly dangerous, particularly violent” person but had no record of radicalisation, the minister added.

“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 centre of Rouen, the main city of the northern region of Normandy that lies on the River Seine.

One resident, Elias Morisse, who lives opposite the synagogue, said he had 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 7 October 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 anti-Semitism”.

“Attempting to burn a synagogue is an attempt to intimidate all Jews,” Yonathan Arfi, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France (CRIF), wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

“Once again, there is an attempt to impose a climate of terror on the Jews of our country.”

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 anti-Semitic incidents had been recorded in France in the first quarter of 2024, a 300-percent increase on the first three months of 2023.

“It is not only the Jewish community that is affected,” Rouen mayor Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol wrote on X. “It is the entire city of Rouen that is bruised and in shock.”

This evening, several hundred people gathered in Paris and in Rouen to denounce anti-Semitism.

“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. 

© AFP 2024