Macron said that France needed to draw “new red lines” against intolerance as he announced plans for a bill to combat online hate speech and called for the dissolution of three extremist right-wing groups.
The French president said he would also urge his education minister to look at how Jewish children are “too often” forced to leave public schools for private Jewish schools due to racism and harassment.
France will additionally take steps to define “anti-Zionism as a modern-day form of anti-Semitism”, Macron told the French Jewish groups gathered on Wednesday. The definition is in line with that advocated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, Macron said.
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” the Alliance definition says, adding that “rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism” are directed toward Jewish individuals as well as “their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities”.
However, the Alliance also notes that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as [anti-Semitic]”.
The question of terminology has sparked a lively debate in France since a group of lawmakers from a parliamentary committee against anti-Semitism on Monday said they wanted to criminalise anti-Zionism.
The bill in question has raised thorny issues, with many insisting there is a distinction between being anti-Jewish and being against either the state of Israel or the policies of the Jewish state.
Anti-Semitism is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “hostility to or prejudice against Jews”. Under French law, it is considered a crime like other forms of discrimination, including racism and xenophobia.
Zionism, meanwhile, refers to a political movement founded by Austro-Hungarian writer Theodore Herzl in the late 19th century proposing the creation of a Jewish state on what is now Israeli soil. Herzl was convinced that it was impossible for Jews to assimilate in the countries where they lived as a diaspora as long as anti-Semitism existed.
France has seen an alarming rise in anti-Semitic acts in recent weeks, including an ugly scene over the weekend in which vulgar anti-Semitic slurs were hurled at prominent French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut.
Days later, nearly 100 graves were desecrated with swastikas at a Jewish cemetery in eastern France, prompting Macron to vow a crackdown on hate crimes. Macron also visited the cemetery in Quatzenheim in the Alsace region near Germany on Tuesday.
Thousands of people turned out for rallies against anti-Semitism in Paris and other cities Tuesday night, with organisers estimating 20,000 turned out at a demonstration at Place de la République in Paris.
France has a long and uncomfortable history with anti-Semitism, which has been traditionally associated with the far right but has now also spread to parts of the far left. It is also on the rise among staunch pro-Palestinian activists and extremists from within some Muslim communities.