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France pledges hate crime office after Jewish cemetery desecrated

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Westhoffen (France) (AFP)

France is to open a national bureau to lead the fight against hate crimes after 107 graves were smeared with swastikas at a Jewish cemetery in the northeast of the country, the interior minister said on Wednesday.

The daubing of the Nazi insignia and other anti-Semitic graffiti on the graves at the cemetery in Westhoffen around 25 kilometres (15 miles) west of Strasbourg in the Alsace region was the latest racist attack to shock the country.

The office, which would be part of France's gendarmerie, will be charged with investigating this crime but also all anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-Christian acts, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said at the scene.

He said the office would be charged with coordinating with the judicial and police authorities to make sure the "perpetrators of these vile acts are brought to justice".

"The Republic itself has been desecrated," Castaner said after visiting the cemetery, which dates from the 16th century. "Hatred has struck, there is hatred on our national territory."

And he vowed: "We will do everything so that the people who have done this are convicted"

- 'We will stay' -

Large swastikas in black ink where daubed on the headstones of dozens of the graves.

The grand rabbi of Strasbourg, Harold Abraham Weill, added: "You will never wipe away our memory or our identity, neither with your paint or whatever you use."

"We are here and we will stay here for a long time," he said.

The Westhoffen cemetery hosts the sepulchres of the families of Karl Marx and Leon Blum, France's former socialist prime minister.

The Alsace region has suffered a rash of racist vandalism over the past year, most notably the desecration of 96 tombs at a cemetery in Quatzenheim in February, which sparked nationwide outrage.

The rising number of anti-Jewish offences reported to police -- up 74 percent in 2018 from the previous year -- has caused alarm in the country that is home to both the biggest Jewish and the biggest Muslim communities in Europe.

"Jews are and make France," President Emmanuel Macron wrote on Twitter Tuesday. "Those who attack them, even their graves, are not worthy of the idea we have of France."

"Anti-Semitism is a crime and we will fight it in Westhoffen as everywhere until our dead can sleep in peace," he added.

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