Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

France marches against terror

Political leaders from Europe and beyond joined a march of more than one million people to honour the victims of last week’s attacks in France, writes David Tresilian in Paris

Al-Ahram Weekly

French President Francois Hollande was joined by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, along with dozens of other world leaders, in central Paris on Sunday for a march designed to express solidarity with the victims of last week’s attacks in France. Seventeen people were killed, along with the three men responsible for the deaths.

The march attracted some million and a half people and was the largest to take place in France in living memory. It came in the wake of a series of shootings in Paris last week that began when two armed men arrived at the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in the east of the capital.

The men shot 12 people dead, including the two policemen guarding the office. The dead members of staff included well-known names in the world of French satire, along with others attending an editorial meeting.

The men fled the scene, but were later identified as brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, French citizens of North African descent, who were tracked to a light-industrial estate in the Paris suburbs where they took refuge in a printing works. At around five pm last Friday, the two were shot dead by French security forces surrounding the building.

Meanwhile, another set of shootings took place, also in eastern Paris, when a gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, a French national of West African descent, took the customers and staff of a kosher supermarket hostage, apparently in an attempt to distract attention from the search for the Kouachi brothers or to help facilitate their escape.

Coulibaly, responsible for the deaths of four of the hostages, was shot dead by the French security forces surrounding the building. He had already shot a French policewoman dead in the Paris suburbs on Thursday.

There was immediate condemnation of the attacks, both in France and worldwide, and Sunday’s march was an opportunity for the country to come together to express its grief over those who had died and to defend freedom of expression.

It saw an impressive outpouring of national unity in the face of the violence, particularly since the shootings have drawn attention to the problem of religious and political extremism in France and the apparent failure of the authorities to deal with it.

In addition to thousands of banners reading “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie), a way of expressing solidarity with those who died at the magazine in the shootings, people on Sunday’s march carried a range of other banners, among them “Je suis Ahmed,” a reference to French policeman Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim of Algerian descent, who was shot and killed during last week’s attacks.

Other banners read “Je suis musulman” (I am Muslim) and “Jihadistes, arrêtez de caricature le Prophète” (jihadists, stop caricaturing the Prophet).

Charlie Hebdo was attacked because of its publication of cartoons satirising the Prophet Mohamed and the Muslim religion, while the kosher supermarket was apparently at least in part targeted in retaliation for Israeli actions against Palestinians. The supermarket incident came in the wake of a series of attacks on Jews in France in recent years.

In 2012, Mohamed Merah, also a young French-born Muslim of North African extraction, killed seven people in the southern French city of Toulouse, including three Jewish schoolchildren, before being killed by the security forces.

Last week’s attacks and earlier events have caused much soul-searching in France, both about the reasons for the radicalisation of some members of its young Muslim population, leading them to carry out extreme acts of violence, and what can be done to treat the problem at its roots and not simply by repression.

The problem has been exacerbated by the presumed or proven affiliation of young French terrorists with international Islamist terror movements, including Al-Qaida and Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, and their receiving training and weapons from such groups either in France or abroad.

According to reports in the French press, both the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly had links with international Islamist terrorist movements and had trained with them abroad, making them already known to the French authorities.

France’s Muslim population, chiefly of North African or West African origin and reflecting the ethnic composition of its former colonies, suffers disproportionately from exclusion and marginalisation. Young people of North African or African descent are more likely than their white peers to be unemployed or live in the often grim housing estates that ring many French cities.

Perceived social and economic exclusion has not been helped by a perception that France as a whole sees such young people as a problem, accusing them of lacking the will to integrate themselves into the wider society.

Satirical cartoons about the Muslim religion of the sort published by Charlie Hebdo, together with dismissive comments made about Islam or Muslims by certain French public figures, have added to an explosive mix of perceived prejudice or discrimination.

Following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo last week, Michel Houllebecq, a best-selling French author known for references in his novels to Islam, announced that he would no longer be promoting his latest novel, Soumission, since it could stoke up fears of the “Islamisation” of France.

Individuals spoken to by the Weekly on the margins of last Sunday’s demonstration, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, unanimously condemned the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket, but some expressed fears that they could lead to a growth in Islamophobia in France and even attacks on Muslims.

Some of them also criticised the publication of the cartoons by Charlie Hebdo and what they felt to be the double standards of the French authorities in dealing with what they felt were attacks against Islam.

There have already been reports in the French press of mosques and other institutions being attacked in France and women of Muslim appearance being verbally assaulted in the streets. Some of those spoken to by the Weekly said that the revulsion at the Charlie Hebdo attacks may have drawn attention away from the concern of some French Muslims that their religion is not defended by the state with what they regarded as the proper degree of firmness.

Over recent years the magazine has been taken to court for alleged Islamophobia after publishing cartoons and other materials satirising Islam and the Muslim religion. While the attacks are seen in France as an attack on freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, freedom of the press in France is still subject to limitations, as it is in most countries.

It is an offence in France to question the Holocaust or the Armenian Genocide, for example, and French privacy laws make it difficult to report on the private lives of public figures or politicians.

According to New York Times columnist David Brooks, writing in the newspaper last week, the cartoons and other materials that have appeared in Charlie Hebdo about the Muslim religion would almost certainly be banned in the United States under “hate speech” codes adopted by some universities and other institutions.

“Let’s face it, if they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds,” Brooks wrote. “Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.”

French and international commentators have expressed the hope that the revulsion against last week’s attacks and Sunday’s march in respect of those who died would help to calm the divisions that France has been suffering from. This may not, however, be the case.

Some writers on French social media have already drawn attention to the circumstances under which the three terrorists died, shot dead by the French police when opportunities for negotiation may not have been exhausted. The two men killed in the Paris suburbs, for example, were not holding hostages and had already been cornered by the police when they were killed on Friday.

Even as France came together at the weekend to express its horror and revulsion at the acts of three Islamist terrorists, in a moving display of unity and in defence of free expression, the radicalisation of some members of France’s young Muslim population may continue unless more meaningful efforts are made to treat the problems of perceived economic and social exclusion and marginalisation.

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