France investigates possible Russian link to Stars of David graffiti

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France has criticised a pro-Russia website it accused of using online bots to highlight a set of incidents in which more than 200 Stars of David were spray painted on buildings in Paris.

Prosecutors are investigating a possible Russian connection to the graffiti that was initially widely reported in French media as being potentially an antisemitic act in response to the war between Israel and Hamas.

Police arrested a man and a woman, born in Moldova, who were seen painting a blue Star of David, a symbol of Israel and the Jewish faith, on a building in Paris.

Prosecutors said they found a conversation on their phones in Russian with a third person in which they were instructed to do so in exchange for a payment.

Investigators then identified a second pair of Moldovans who were painting similar Stars of David accompanied by a photographer, while also communicating with the same person.

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“It cannot be excluded that the painting of Stars of David in the Paris region was carried out at the express request of a person abroad,” prosecutors said on Tuesday.

On Thursday, the French foreign ministry said its teams specialising in rooting out disinformation online had discovered a network of some 1,095 bots on social media platform X, formerly Twitter, that published 2,589 posts about the Stars of David painted on buildings in Paris.

The ministry said a pro-Russia website called Reliable Recent News, also known as RRN, was responsible for the bots and amplifying the graffiti online, adding it had published photographs of the Stars of David 48 hours before news outlets.

“This new operation of Russian digital interference against France testifies to the persistence of an opportunistic and irresponsible strategy aimed at exploiting international crises to sow confusion and create tensions in the public debate in France and in Europe,” the said ministry in a statement.

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The ministry said in June it exposed a disinformation campaign involving RRN, adding this was part of a “doppelgänger operation” uncovered last year by EU DisinfoLab, a non governmental organisation.

That operation aimed to undermine European support for the Ukrainian war effort against Russia, according to a report by the ministry, including by making fake versions of stories from French news outlets such as Le Parisien and Le Figaro and amplifying them with bots on social media.

RRN did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The appearance of the Stars of David graffiti on Paris buildings last week jolted France, which has been on edge since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7.

The French government has logged an alarming rise in antisemitic incidents: 1,159 have been reported, more than double the total in 2022, and 400 arrests have been made.

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Flare-ups in the Middle East have frequently triggered a rise in antisemitism in France, which is home to the biggest Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe.

France has also been on high alert for terror attacks since a knife-wielding assailant killed a teacher shortly after the Hamas attack on Israel and claimed allegiance to the Islamic State.

President Emmanuel Macron has called for national unity. In a speech on Wednesday he promised to be ruthless in fighting antisemitism, saying “any attack on a Jew” was akin “to an attack on the republic”.

A national march against antisemitism has been called for Sunday, although Macron has not said if he will attend.

His far-right rival Marine Le Pen has pledged to be there and called on her voters to do the same as she seeks to expunge the memories of how the political party founded by her father was openly antisemitic.