The Je Suis Charlie solidarity march in Paris following the attack on Charlie Hebdo in January 2015
By Helen Massy-Beresford
'Solidarity' was the watchword after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris this time last year. Nearly four million people took to the streets across France to denounce terrorism and pay homage to the victims, while the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag went around the world on social media.
At the time, however, politicians and pundits warned that the long-term effects of the attacks could be even greater division in a French society already locked in a debate over religion, national identity and the integration of its large Muslim community.
By November, terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 had shocked the world again, while those predictions, in the form of Le Front National's record performance in the first round of regional elections, have come true.
Marine Le Pen’s party may have been routed in the second round, but its record share in the first was a sign of growing tension.
Sudhir Hazareesingh, Tutorial Fellow in Politics at Balliol and author of How the French Think (Allen Lane, 2015) reflects: “Unfortunately the Front National has managed to capture, and almost shape the way the French think about a whole host of issues. Marine Le Pen will never become president but it’s very possible the way things are that she’ll be on the second round (for presidential elections) in 2017.”
Georges Pilard, research editor at the University of Oxford’s Voltaire Foundation, adds: “The latest massacres have shown that the situation in France is even worse than had previously been assumed in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. People have woken up to the fact that there are French citizens out there who hate the country of their birth and what it stands for so much that they are prepared to gun down large numbers of their fellow citizens to make their point. The seven-hour gun battle between terrorists and the police that ensued in Saint-Denis outside Paris was also an eye-opener for many, as the whole episode looked more like Beirut than like a city adjacent to a major European capital.”
“‘How did it come to this?’ is the question on people’s minds, and it needs to be answered truthfully and honestly, otherwise there is little hope of a more peaceful future,” Pilard adds.
In a country in which statistics about ethnicity do not exist, gathering that information may be one way to start an honest debate about immigration and integration, Hazareesingh says, even though in the hands of far right politicians those statistics could be dangerous. “The way forward would be to have ethnic statistics – you just have to say that with freedom there will be some excesses but the overwhelming effect would be positive. They would stop talking in these abstract, schematic ways. They would be able to know how many Muslims there are and be able to legally ask through them through polling and proper sociological enquiries what they feel and what they think, what their social practices are and how French they really are. All the things we kind of know intuitively could come out into the open.”
While unprecedented numbers of French citizens marched in solidarity in the wake of the January 2014 attacks to show solidarity, that unity was always going to be short-lived, Hazareesingh says: “For all the talk of a united France, I knew that the momentum wouldn’t last very long. I knew that the Front National would benefit (from the attacks) because nothing has been done to deal with the underlying issues that it prospers on.”
Jeremy Jennings (St Antony’s, 1975), Professor of Political Theory and Head of the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London agrees: “The demonstrations of solidarity were largely superficial and the sort of thing the French feel good about. The Front National has been on the rise now for about 30 years. Despite promises to the contrary, unemployment in France has risen by 700,000 since (President François) Hollande was elected. There has been virtually no economic growth in France during this period. Why would anyone vote for the socialists?”
The key French principle of secularity is also at the heart of the debate, Hazareesingh says.
“The whole idea of separating church and state was not intended to make people practise their religion in a particular kind of way, it was to make people free to practise religion in any way they wanted. It has moved to now being a doctrine in which you tell a particular group of people how they should live their lives. Now the Front National has picked that up and is running with it and there is no stronger defender now of laïcité (secularity) than the Front National.”
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