A Jewish woman scolded a group of French anti-government protesters for performing an anti-Semitic gesture on a train platform, after which the police opened an investigation into the incident and a French government minister vowed to catch the men who verbally abused her.
The incident happened on Saturday night and was witnessed by a reporter for the 20 Minutes media outlet who later described in a Twitter post how the woman had accosted the apparently drunk protesters and told them her father had sent to Auschwitz and that they should stop doing the so-called quenelle, a quasi-Nazi salute.
No other passengers stood up to the group.
In response, the men, who were wearing the yellow vests which have become the uniform of French anti-government protesters, shouted abuse at the woman and mocked her reference to the Nazi concentration camp where over a million Jews were murdered during World War II.
Thibaut Chevillard’s tweet went viral and sparked condemnations from politicians, lawmakers and members of the government, among them France’s Interior Minister Christophe Castaner.
On Sunday, the woman, who was identified only as “Agnes,” spoke with 20 Minutes about her experience, dismissing the comments as “drunk talk,” and saying she would not file a police report.
Nonetheless, police said they had opened an investigation into the incident and would review footage from security cameras on the platform. There were no cameras inside the train.
Recalling the moment when she confronted the yellow vests, Agnes said “I never thought that I was going to reason with them.”
Despite the heated nature of the incident, Agnes said she did not feel she was in danger.
“If I had felt in danger I would not have done it,” she said.
She also said she understood the other passengers for not intervening.
On Sunday, Castaner tweeted that the incident was “Vile and unbearable.”
“Everything will be done to identify these individuals,” he said. “They must answer for their abject acts. Covered with a yellow vest or hidden behind a nickname on Twitter, anti-Semitism must be fought with all our strength.”
Chevillard, the journalist who witnessed the altercation, said the three men were obviously drunk and had been shouting slogans against French President Emmanuel Macron. Then they performed the quenelle salute, a variant of the Nazi salute designed to express admiration for the murder of Jews without incurring the punishment reserved in the French penal code for the original gesture.
“An elderly lady with grey hair sitting behind me got up,” he wrote. “She went over to them and told them the gesture was anti-Semitic. She then said that she was Jewish, that her father was deported to Auschwitz and that they had to stop immediately.”
However, the three men laughed at her and continued to make the salute, Chevillard said.
One of them said “I too was in Auschwitz and I heard it doesn’t exist.”
“Another of the three then stood up and shouted at the woman that she should get out,” he continued after which the women returned to her seat.
“I was terribly shocked by the verbal abuse of these people,” Chevillard wrote, admitting that he had had an internal dilemma as to whether to intervene at the risk of starting a fight.
“But no one rose to defend this little old woman. I was ashamed of what I had just seen.”
He did take a moment to tell the woman that he thought the men’s behavior was “shameful.”
The “yellow vest” movement, which takes its name from the fluorescent safety vests French motorists must all have in their vehicles, emerged in mid-November as a protest against fuel tax increases. It soon morphed into an expression of rage about the high cost of living in France and a sense that Macron’s government is detached from the everyday struggles of workers.
Thousands of people participated in weekend demonstrations in Paris that saw demonstrators smashing and looting stores, clashing with police and setting up burning barricades in the streets. However, the number of participants in the protests has dwindled recently.
Agencies contributed to this report.