On the 13th of July, thousands of protesters marched from Paris' Barbès district to Bastille Square to express their support to the Palestinian people and to denounce the Israeli attacks on Gaza. Clashes with the police erupted towards the end of the day, after a group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators made its way to two neighbouring synagogues to fight with members of the Jewish Defense League – an organisation of far-right religious-political militants.
The French authorities decided to ban a new rally in support of Gaza that had been planned for this past weekend in Barbès – a traditionally working-class area in the north of Paris. Despite the ban, the organisers – which included the far-left party NPA and the organisations Europalestine and Indigènes de la République – insisted on parading under the July sun. Among the crowd was South African politician Ronnie Kasrils, who is known for his strong criticisms of the Israeli government.
At around 2PM, hundreds of demonstrators started to gather on the avenue, which had been lined with riot police trucks. At first, people calmly chanted slogans such as "Palestine will live, Palestine will overcome," "Zionists, fascists, you're terrorists!" and "Israel murderer, [President] Hollande accomplice," but the mood began to heat up once some Israeli flags were burned on the roof of a nearby building. Organisers had asked the demonstrators not to bring anything other that Palestinian and French flags, but many still exhibited Algerian, Turkish or pro-Muslim Brotherhood symbols. As the march was about to set off, the use of the slogan "Allahu akbar" became more and more frequent and a young man started waving the ISIS flag. At the same time, to the dismay of some non-asshole demonstrators, a team of journalists from the French channel, Télé channel was forced to leave as several individuals were threatening them with violence.
"Israel controls the media," said a teenage demonstrator. "Newspapers lie to their public about what is happening in Palestine. We are all gathering here to show our support to the Palestinians and to oppose the crimes and the lies of the Zionists. Nobody will stop us and certainly not Hollande, who seems desperate to silence us," she maintained.
When the procession reached the Chateau Rouge district around 4PM, the thousands of demonstrators were faced with a large number of police. It was then that things started to degenerate: Projectiles were thrown, to which the police responded with flash grenades, stun grenades and a lot of tear gas. To counter the effects of the gas, the protesters rubbed milk and saline in their eyes. While many fled the scene or tried to calm things down, others threw rocks at the police and were soon joined by groups of rioters whose main concern seemed to be fighting the "Zionist police". Some of them decided it would be a great idea to mug and assault some journalists, including Gaspard Glanz – a cameraman for VICE News.
The agitators built barricades with burning dustbins and smashed pavements in order to make projectiles. The Lariboisière Hospital was attacked, two trucks of the state-owned public transport operator RATP were reversed and torched down in the middle of the boulevard and several storefronts were destroyed. The skirmish lasted nearly three hours, ravaged the whole neighbourhood and caused dozens of injuries – among the injured were 17 policemen. The authorities announced they arrested 44 rioters on counts of violence and aggravated damage.
As the day drew to a close, the police ran out of ammunition. They tried to regain control by calling the units based in the suburbs of Paris, for backup. According to a young protester who was taking photographs of the clashes, the situation worsened because the policemen, "are on the side of the Jews who own all the stores in the area."
At about 7PM, passing the Barbès metro station I saw two friends taking pictures of each other while miming the "quenelle" gesture – which is seen by many as anti-Semitic – in front of a couple of exhausted policemen. One of the officers turned to his colleague and said that it'd been a long time since he had last seen such violent riots in Paris.
On Sunday afternoon, another pro-Palestinian rally was organised in the city of Sarcelles – a suburb that is home to a large Sephardic Jewish community. Just like the rally in Paris the day before, this had also been banned and it also turned violent.
Clashes with the police erupted outside of the town's synagogue, cars as well as a police station in the neighbouring town were burned down and several shops and a pharmacy were attacked. Helicopters were still flying over the area at nightfall, even as things began to get quieter.
François Hollande declared, "the Republic's ability is to co-exist harmoniously […] and not to get side-tracked by conflicts which are too far away to be imported," but more and more French Jews – who have been automatically categorised as Israelis by rioters in the last few days – are beginning to question their future in the country.
In an interview with the pro-Israeli website lemondejuif.info, Roger Cukierman, president of the official French affiliate of the World Jewish Congress, said that "this kind of new anti-Semitism could lead to the departure of all Jews." This might sound like an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that these violent protests will stick in the memory of both the French Jewish community and genuine, anti-racist Pro-Palestinian activists.