PARIS, France — Demonstrators taking part in a yellow vest protest in Paris shouted anti-Semitic insults at a leading French Jewish intellectual Saturday, drawing an outcry days after the movement was blamed for a spike in anti-Jewish incidents.
The abuse, directed at philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, 69, came as tens of thousands of protesters marched across France, marking three months since the movement began.
French President Emmanuel Macron condemned the incident and called it “the absolute negation of what we are and what makes us a great nation.”
“We will not tolerate it,” he said on Twitter.
The president’s was among a chorus of tweets, with Interior Minister Christophe Castaner denouncing “the surge of pure hate,” while government spokesman Benjamin Griveau tweeted that “the ugly beast lurks in the anonymity of the crowd.”
Video footage from a freelance journalist showed police taking action to protect Finkielkraut, a pro-Israel, left-wing philosopher who is among France’s most widely-respected thinkers.
The insults included words like “Zionist!” and “Go back to Tel Aviv!” and “We are France!” Finkielkraut once showed sympathy for the movement but criticized it in a recent interview with Le Figaro daily. Some yellow vest protesters have expressed racist or anti-Semitic views online and on the sidelines of protests.
“I felt an absolute hate,” Finkielkraut told the Sunday paper Le Journal du Dimanche. He expressed relief that police intervened, while adding that not all of the demonstrators had been hostile.
A best-selling author, Finkielkraut in 2016 entered the pantheon of French academia when he was admitted into the Academie Francaise, which is a council of 40 greats elected for life.
Paris last weekend saw a rash of anti-Semitic vandalism, including swastikas drawn on pictures of Holocaust survivor Simone Veil and the word “Juden” spray painted on a Jewish-owned bagel shop.
Vandals also desecrated a memorial to a Jewish man who was tortured to death by an anti-Semitic gang in Paris in 2006.
A tree planted at the site where 23-year-old Ilan Halimi’s body was found had been chopped down, and a second tree was partly sawed through.
Macron’s spokesman said last week that the president called the incidents “a new turn of events linked to the [yellow vest] movement.”
Government officials have suggested the anti-Semitic acts could be blamed in part on far-left and far-right activists who have infiltrated the weekly protests. But they offered no direct evidence of a link, and the rise in anti-Semitic acts predates the movement, which began in November.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner revealed Monday that the number of anti-Jewish incidents reported to police surged 74 percent last year, to 541 from 311 in 2017.
The protests began three months ago in response to a fuel tax increase, and has spawned copy cat movements around the world, even as the French demonstrations have seemingly lost steam.
On Saturday, 41,500 people turned out across the country, according to the interior ministry, well down on the 282,000 peak during the protests’ early weeks.
A ministry statement said 5,000 people protested in Paris but march organizers put the numbers far higher.
“We are 15,000, that means the movement is increasing,” Jerome Rodrigues, one of the movement’s better known figures, told AFP at the Paris march.
During the course of the protests, people marched down the Champs-Elysees and crossed the river Seine to Paris’s up-market Left Bank district, shouting anti-police slogans.
Marion, a nurse marching in Paris, told AFP that Macron’s “great national debate” — a series of town hall meetings launched in January to try to address the grievances of the yellow vest movement — was nothing but a distraction.
“We don’t believe in it, we won’t take part in it,” she said.
But a poll of 1,001 people published by Elabe on Wednesday suggested for the first time that most people (56 percent) would like the protests to end, even if a majority (58 percent) still support what the movement stands for.
There were clashes and arrests in several cities and police in Paris detained 15 of 26 arrested, but the violence appeared down from last weekend.
Rodrigues, along with three other people, is suing the police after being struck in the eye by a projectile he says was fired from a police Defensive Ball Launcher.
On Thursday, deputies in the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the disproportionate use of force against protesters, after a debate about the use of the controversial weapon by French police.
The same day, a group of UN experts condemned what they said was the disproportionate use of force by police in response to violent demonstrators.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.