Antisemitism appears to have reached its worst levels since the second world war, Emmanuel Macron told Jewish community leaders on Wednesday, a day after thousands of people took to the streets in France to denounce hate crimes.

The French government is to adopt the intergovernmental organisation International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism and propose a law to reduce hate speech from being circulated online, the French president said.

Speaking at the annual dinner of Jewish organisation Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (Crif), Macron said his country and other parts of Europe have seen “a resurgence of antisemitism that is probably unprecedented since [the second world war]” in recent years.

He said applying the working definition of antisemitism drawn up by the IHRA would help guide police forces, magistrates and teachers in their daily work.

Since the IHRA approved the wording in 2016, some critics of Israel have said it could be used to suppress Palestinian rights activists. The definition states antisemitism can take the form of “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour”.

Macron said he thought that view was correct.

“Anti-Zionism is one of the modern forms of antisemitism,” the French leader said. “Behind the negation of Israel’s existence, what is hiding is the hatred of Jews.”

Macron mentioned antisemitism based on “radical Islamism” as a rampant ideology in France’s multi-ethnic poor neighbourhoods.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his appreciation at France’s adoption of the international definition of antisemitism in a phone call with the French leader ahead of the speech, Netanyahu’s office said.

Macron also said his party would introduce legislation in parliament in May to force social media to withdraw hate speech posted online and use all available means to identify the authors “as quickly as possible”.

He especially denounced Twitter for taking days, sometimes weeks, to remove hate content and to help authorities so a judicial investigation can be led. At the same time, he praised Facebook’s decision last year to allow the presence of French regulators inside the company to improve practices combating online hate speech.

Macron’s speech came a day after thousands of people attended rallies across France to decry an uptick in antisemitic acts in recent months. On Tuesday morning, about 80 gravestones spray-painted with swastikas were discovered in a cemetery in a small village of eastern France.

French president Emmanuel Macron observed a moment of silence with parliament leaders on Tuesday at the Holocaust museum in Paris.

The Paris prosecutor’s office said on Wednesday that a man was arrested over a torrent of hate speech directed at Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut during a Saturday march by yellow vest protesters.

The man was taken into custody on Tuesday evening after a police inquiry was opened into a suspected public insult based on origin, ethnicity, nation, race or religion.

The French government last week reported a big rise in incidents of antisemitism last year: 541 registered incidents, up 74% from the 311 registered in 2017.

In other incidents this month, swastika graffiti was found on street portraits of Simone Veil, a survivor of Nazi death camps and a European parliament president who died in 2017, the word “Juden” was painted on the window of a bagel restaurant in Paris and two trees planted at a memorial honouring a young Jewish man tortured to death in 2006 were vandalised.

“That’s our failure,” Macron said. “The time has come to act.”

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