A version of this article appeared in The Palatinate
Shock all around. Thousands flocked to the main squares of cities, displaying signs declaring je suis Charlie and holding pencils in the air.
The recent murders are the most deadly and by far the most shocking in a series of French Islamist attacks over the past few years. The same magazine was firebombed in 2011. In 2012 Mohammed Merah, from the suburbs of Toulouse, went on a shooting spree in his home city murdering seven people, including three children. He targeted a Jewish school. In May 2013 a solider was stabbed. In May last year a French jihadist murdered four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels, Belgium. Just before Christmas there were two attacks, reportedly motivated by fundamental Islamism, in two days: on the 20th December a Muslim convert tried to stab a policeman in Tours; on the 21st another man injured 11 pedestrians by driving into them.
Last year French Muslims left in large numbers to fight for ISIS, including an estimated 100 to 150 teenage girls. In a survey last August an incredible 27 percent of those between 18 and 24 (of all French youth, not just Muslims) viewed the barbaric group positively, compared with four and three percent respectively in the UK and Germany.
Islamic fundamentalism is a global problem (whose victims are predominantly non-Western Muslims). But more than other Western countries, France has a problem with angry deranged young men from immigrant families turning to fanatical Islam.
France’s largest group of immigrants are from North Africa and France is home to several million Muslims. These immigrants have historically been socially excluded, often living in housing estates on the edge of big cities where there are few employment opportunities. These banlieues have historically been the site of riots, and crime and distrust of the forces of law and order has been widespread.
The French authorities traditionally left the job of managing and providing for the religious needs of Muslims to competing foreign governments and international Islamic organisations. This outside influence has meant much religious instruction has been provided by foreign imams trained outside France. Only in the 80s and 90s did authorities decide that ignoring Islam was counterproductive to integration and risked radicalisation.
They resolved to promote a form of Islam which is distinctly French, respecting French laws and values such as gender equality and separation of State and religion, and which could be properly represented at government level by a central body (as it is with Catholicism, Judaism and Protestantism). This culminated in the creation of the Conseil français du culte musulman (CFCM). Yet many think not enough has been done. Élisabeth Schemla in her 2013 book Islam, l’épreuve française, (the French test) argues that Islam as it is practised by far too many in France remains reactionary, sexist and dangerous.
One of France’s particular obsessions with its identity, which can be traced back to the Revolution, is the fear of communautarisme, the idea that French society splits off into separate parts. Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité must strictly apply to all. This approach eschews multiculturalism and has been the supposed justification for bans on headscarves in schools and bans on the full-face veil. These sorts of laws are the subject of tortured, protracted debate about the competing rights of the individual and the state. But recent events mean many doubt that the French ideals exist in the reality. Otherwise how can such atrocities happen in a country with such a strong sense of its collective identity?
The shootings are likely only to further stretch tensions between different sections of the French public. It is hard to avoid linking the visible rise of violent fundamentalist Islamists and the rise in the support of the racist white far-right. Marine Le Pen is top of the polls and will no doubt feel vindicated by scaremongering that France is undergoing ‘islamification’. Both Islamic fundamentalists and white racists want to promote an image of Islam as fundamentally incompatible with the French Republic, and group all Muslims as a distinct block. Those who inadvertently pander to Islamist ideas in the name of multiculturalism, sensitivity, respect and tolerance are guilty of the same homogenisation, as they abandon those of a Muslim culture oppressed by the faith and reinforce the reactionary and illiberal parts of Islam.
Faced with hatred from far-right whites and far-right Muslims, it is no surprise that some suggest Jews are queuing up to leave the country, in the wake of anti-Semitism (and unemployment). In 2013 France suffered more violent anti-Semitic attacks than any other country in the world and 40% of racist crimes were against Jews – who make up only 1% of the population.
As for solutions, we will hear plenty of them in the coming days. Benard Henri Levy, one of France’s best known writers, says the France Fifth Republic faces its “Churchillian moment”, where it must both confront French Islamism without simply dismissing it as a reaction to exclusion, and also reject the Front National’s poisonous agenda.
But for now, France grieves.