French police kill man trying to set fire to synagogue

French soldiers patrol in front of a synagogue outside Paris as part of France’s national security alert system in 2015. [AFP]

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

Police responded at 6:45 am (0445 GMT) to reports of "fire near the synagogue", a police source said.

A source close to the case told AFP the man "was armed with a knife and an iron bar, he approached police, who fired. The individual died".

"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.

He said there were no victims other than the attacker.

The synagogue stands in the historic centre of the city, the capital of the northern region of Normandy that lies along the River Seine.

'Show we are not afraid' 

Two separate investigations have been opened, one into the fire at the synagogue and another into the circumstances of the death of the man killed by the police, Rouen prosecutors said.

Such an investigation by France's police inspectorate general is automatic whenever an individual is killed by the police.

The man threatened a police officer with a knife and the latter used his service weapon, said the Rouen prosecutor.

The dead man was not immediately identified, a police source said.

Asked by AFP, the National Anti-Terrorism Prosecutor's Office said that it is currently assessing whether it will take up the case.

"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 BFMTV.

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 in the wake of the October 7 attack by Palestinian militant group Hamas on Israel, followed by the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

Red hand graffiti was painted onto France's Holocaust Memorial earlier this week, prompting anger including from President Emmanuel Macron who condemned "odious anti-Semitism".

"Attempting to burn a synagogue is an attempt to intimidate all Jews. Once again, there is an attempt to impose a climate of terror on the Jews of our country. Combating anti-Semitism means defending the Republic," Yonathan Arfi, the president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France (CRIF) wrote on X.

France was hit from 2015 by 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.

At the beginning of May, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal announced that 366 anti-Semitic incidents had been recorded in France in the first quarter of 2024, an increase of 300 percent compared to the first three months of 2023.

To fight this increase, "not one act should go unpunished, not a single anti-Semite should have peace of mind", said Attal at the time, promising to "demonstrate exemplary firmness in each act".

Responding to the apparent attempted arson attack at the synagogue is the latest challenge for Macron and Attal at the end of hugely turbulent week in France.

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

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