French police kill man trying to set fire to synagogue

French police kill man trying to set fire to synagogue
French police on Friday shot dead an armed man who was trying to set fire to a synagogue in the northern city of Rouen.
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France's Minister for Interior and Overseas Gerald Darmanin talks to the press outside a synagogue in the Normandy city of Rouen on May 17, 2024 [Getty]

French police on Friday shot dead a man armed with a knife and a crowbar who tried to set fire to a synagogue in the northern city of Rouen.

The French Jewish community, the third largest in the world, has for months been on edge in the face of a growing number of attacks and desecrations of memorials.

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

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

The attacker was subject to an order to be expelled from France but it had not been carried out because of an appeal, a source close to the case said.

"National police in Rouen neutralised early this morning an armed individual who clearly wanted to set fire to the city's synagogue," Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

"It is not only the Jewish community that is affected. It is the entire city of Rouen that is bruised and in shock," Rouen Mayor Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol wrote on X, calling for a solidarity rally at the town hall in the evening.

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"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.

'Body in the street'

The synagogue is in the historic centre of the city, the main city of the northern region of Normandy that lies on the River Seine.

A resident, Elias Morisse, who lives opposite the synagogue, told French news agency AFP he 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 told the news agency.

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 later.

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 October 7 attack by Palestinian 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".

Since 2015, France has seen a spate of Islamist attacks that also hit Jewish targets. There have been isolated attacks in recent months and France'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 compared to the first three months of 2023.

Responding to the apparent synagogue attack will become a new security challenge for Macron and Attal at the end of a turbulent week.

Police are hunting for a gang who freed a convict and killed two prison officers in an attack that also took place in Normandy.

Authorities are also grappling with the worst violence in decades in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia.