Marseille attack sparks French debate over wearing Jewish skullcap

Hollande says 'intolerable' for French Jews to have to hide skullcaps

Paris (AFP) - Calls for French Jews to leave their skullcaps at home in the wake of a jihadist attack on a kippa-wearing teacher sparked an emotional debate Wednesday pitting security concerns against a desire to uphold Jewish identity.

Parents in the southern city of Marseille, where Monday's attack "in the name of Allah" added to a string of anti-Semitic incidents in recent months, have begun urging their sons to wear a baseball cap instead.

On Wednesday, French President Francois Hollande said it was "intolerable" for French Jews to have to hide away out of fear of attack.

"It is intolerable that in our country citizens should feel so upset and under assault because of their religious choice that they would conclude that they have to hide," Hollande said.

The city's top Jewish leader, Zvi Ammar, had on Tuesday called on Jewish men and boys to stop wearing the kippa "until better days", saying: "Unfortunately for us, we are targeted. As soon as we are identified as Jewish we can be assaulted and even risk death."

Chillingly, Monday's teenaged assailant, a self-radicalised ethnic Kurd from Turkey, reportedly told police he was "ashamed" that he did not manage to kill his 35-year-old victim when he attacked him with a machete.

The 15-year-old was charged Wednesday with "attempted terrorist murder" and taken into preventive custody.

Government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said earlier that anti-Semitism "unfortunately has gone on for too long and has taken new forms today."

Several ministers and other politicians spoke out on the issue, with Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem saying of the idea of shunning kippas: "It's certainly not the advice I would give, personally."

- 'Giving up is giving in' -

The Marseille Jewish leader's call "clearly was well-intentioned, but it's not the sort of message to send, certainly not now," Vallaud-Belkacem told French radio.

On Tuesday, top national Jewish leaders also rejected the call to stop wearing the kippa, decrying a "defeatist attitude".

"We should not give an inch," said chief rabbi Haim Korsia, while acknowledging that Ammar's call came from an "understandable emotion".

Joel Mergui, president of France's Israelite Central Consistory, said: "If we have to give up wearing any distinctive sign of our identity, it clearly would raise the question of our future in France."

Brice Hortefeux of the opposition, centre-right Republicans party agreed with the chief rabbi that "giving up (the kippa) is giving in". But he said it was impossible "not to modify your behaviour in the face of these unspeakable acts."

Anti-Semitic acts in France have soared in recent years, increasing by 84 percent in the period between January 2015 and May 2015 compared with a year earlier, according to official statistics.

- 'A pit in my stomach' -

Since the November 13 gun and bombing attacks in Paris that claimed 130 lives, fears of fresh jihadist attacks cross all religious and ethnic lines in France.

An opinion survey last week found that seven in 10 French people are in favour of extending the state of emergency imposed after those attacks to beyond February 21.

Monday's assault came just four days after an attempted jihadist attack on a police station in Paris, which coincided with the first anniversary of the shootings at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

That attack a year ago kicked off three days of jihadist violence in Paris that left 17 dead, including four gunned down in a Jewish supermarket.

Marseille is particularly on edge following assaults there on Jews in October and November.

"When I drop my children off at school, I have a pit in my stomach," a 43-year-old Jewish mother said in Marseille, adding that she had asked her 14-year-old son to take off his kippa.

But in Paris, Bruno Attal, a Jewish resident of an eastern suburb, said: "Why should we take off our kippas? We might as well not go out at all. Have Parisians stopped going to cafes after the November 13 attacks? It's a false problem. It won't change anything in terms of the community's security."

Marseille, a city of more than 850,000 people, has France's second largest Jewish community with some 70,000 residents.

France's overall Jewish community is estimated at between 500,000 and 600,000 people, the largest in Europe and one of the largest in the world.