Charlie Hebdo  
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. Charlie Hebdo

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.”Charlie Hebdo

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.”Charlie Hebdo

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?”Charlie Hebdo

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.”

Images © Shutterstock

Comments

By Tom Ricketts
on

Nothing more than a poorly-written and biased hit piece on the FN. The only reason that they were "routed" in the second round is that the Socialists "tacticially" withdrew candidates and handed victory to the centre-right.

By Phil Gordon
on

The appearance of Mahmoud Abbas, an avowed anti-Semitic terrorist, in the front line of the march is a demonstration of the hypocrisy of these types of demonstrations.

By RH Findlay (SEH...
on

Now that the French government is about to pass legislation that maintains their state of emergency indefinitely, and other western governments have passed draconian legislation curtailing our hard-won civil liberties, I have begun to wonder why my father's generation bothered to fight World War 2.

Statistically, more people have been killed by lightning in the USA and Europe in the last 10 years than thave been killed by terrorists. I trust that lightning will be made illegal and, hopefully, incarcerated indefinitely in an offshore prison somewhere in the Caribbean.

It's odd how now one thinks more than once before posting such an email.

By Michael Carpenter
on

Again, I beg to differ with Mr Hazareesingh about the idea of secularity. As a British-French bi-national, I appreciate the freedom of thinking for myself and not accepting any doctrine based solely on religion. In fact, the FN are pandering to traditionalist opinion in France that is against gay mariage and abortion, so they cannot be regarded as supporting the separation of state from the authority of the church.

The British would perhaps have avoided much bloodshed in Northern Ireland if the Church had been taken out of the political equation, and children brought up without the bigotry and hatred associated with religious schism. The French bear a unique reponsibility of bringing secularism into world culture, and this great contribution to individual liberty should be acknowledged and protected

By Marcus Johnson
on

I am not sure that we should regard the Le Pen vote as more than a protest against a confused and wrong headed government which has failed to get to grips with many problems. What I think is more interesting is the question of why France is such a target, why is it that the terrorists seem to prefer hitting France?

My answer is that it is France's fault. The words "the pen is mightier than the sword" might have been written by an English playwright but Edward Bulwer-Lytton put them into the mouth of a Frenchman, Cardinal Richelieu, and no country exceeds France in its admiration for literate logical argument. The 13 November 2015 attacks coming after the Charlie Hebdo outrages in January 2015. These attacks brought total horror to almost everyone on this side of the Channel but the horror was perhaps mixed with a sense of bewilderment that, yet again, it was France on the receiving end of the attacks.

The wrong answers offered to this question in recent weeks were perhaps predictably similar to those offered a year ago . Then there were those who blamed the attacks on the artists or the publisher - and this time they blamed the French for intervening in Syria. Then there were those that said the French were undisciplined or lax in their security services and process - that a few more police checks, border guards or secret policemen would have worked, and these claims were repeated this time round. Although there is some (tiny) element of truth in the theories which blame the victims for terrorist crimes, they miss the big truth and fail to explain why France itself is the problem, not the individual behaviour of artists or the failures of organisation.

The real answer is that France is identified as the spiritual home of western liberalism and is proud of it. The reason France is a problem to ISIL, indeed to extremists everywhere, is summed up in three words and a picture almost everyone can imagine.

The three words are to be seen everywhere in France, so often that we tend sometimes to forget why they are there or what they mean. Liberté, égalité, fraternité are the words - and the picture we hold in our minds is the Statue of Liberty which France placed at the entrance to New York and which has, for generations, symbolised the principles of free thought, free speech and freedom from tyranny by holding a beacon of light up to the entire world.

In the early years of this century I rather enjoyed a couple of years as MD of Credit Agricole's London investment management company and I remember extremely well the respect in which, without exception, every one of my French colleagues held the practice of logic and thought, and of rational argument. The honour and respect given to Cartesian logic and, to English eyes, the excessive freedom allowed to present policy alternatives was a living example of how deeply liberty, equality and fraternity are embedded in the French character.

All dictators hate liberalism. When Hitler invaded and France collapsed militarily please remember he was prepared to leave the puppet Vichy regime an army twice the size of ours today, he was happy to leave France an overseas Empire. What he removed was the invitation to resistance embodied in Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. ( Travail Famille, Patrie replaced them.)

Each of these words on its own is anathema to ISIL and to any dictator anywhere the underlying philosophy of universal respect for others' opinions, freedom to express them in any way and allowing others to pursue a life style of their own choosing is a daily threat to their existence. After the Vichy regime took power one of its first acts was to introduce "felony of opinion" as a criminal offence to try and prevent such seditious ideas being expressed. The fact that Ali Al-Badri has chosen to call himself Caliph means he claims to be the leader of the Muslim world, a position long held by the Turkish emperors, but he does not exactly practice the tolerance of his predecessors. The caliphate of the Ottomans was always happy to allow liberty to practice religion, the Sultan's subjects were treated equally, and within the Empire all nationalities fraternised but the new caliph has no place in his perverted view of the World for any of these ideas.

Liberty is clearly not on offer to any of his subjects, nor indeed is any life respected or any religion permitted apart from his version of Islam which most Muslims probably reject as being about as faithful to the Prophet's teaching as Mormonism is to the New Testament. The freedom to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not on the agenda; death and destruction have replaced all other items. The United States has liberty enshrined in its constitution, we in the UK believe we are uniquely privileged and that Magna Carta encapsulates the limitation of despotic powers (even if drawn up between French-speaking nobles and their Norman King) but it is France where the theory all originated and where the Revolution inspired the champions of Liberty throughout Europe.

Similarly, equality is not exactly the favourite concept for a state where the purchase and sale of women in slave markets is encouraged and where death is the punishment for any deviation from ordained dogma. It is ironic that when ISIL wishes to use a collective name for those from the West opposed to it, they use the word "Crusader" because if one could reasonably compare ISIL with any previous Levantine army who acted with total barbarism in the name of religion, who wantonly killed and destroyed all who stood in their way and attacked their co-religionists more than their supposed adversaries, it would be those crusaders. Indeed, it is not stretching history too far to say that in allowing tolerance of religion, in observing civilised standards of behaviour in victory, the West is rather more similar to Saladin than the barbarians who came to rape and plunder under the banner of the Cross. And it is in the Paris Commune that equality of all human beings, not just men, was first demanded in modern times, although metropolitan France took a long time to grant universal suffrage under De Gaulle in 1944.

And as for the word Fraternity, all one can really say is that the concept of brotherhood of mankind is so far from the desire of the new Caliphate that it is only worth exploring because it is the rejection of this concept which justifies the "jihad" which ISIL interprets as a holy duty to kill every man who does not follow their doctrine. Curiously, much as they honour Moses and respect the Ten Commandments, the absolute prohibition on killing in Number VI seems to have got lost in the translation. Not for the first time.

What can France do? The French people have a real problem - as long as they insist on holding fast to their ideas, as long as they keep the revolutionary slogan in front of the rest of the World, they will provoke attack. There is nothing more provocative to a dictator of any sort than a neighbour who clearly states there is a better alternative. The ideas that humans can be free and equal and should tolerate one another's views will always be attacked by extremists of any flavour. These attacks will always find supporters who cite prudence, decency or respect as justification for censorship, for locking up dissidents and for banning the free expression of views.

France has often put the rest of Europe to shame in her commitment to respect for other peoples, she has set an example of the separation of state and church to all and even in the days of Vichy there was a steady flow of uncowed proud citizens away from the Etat Français and towards London and the Free French. Every stamp, every town hall and every coin is publicly asserting the principles which ISIL abhors. As long as France continues to openly declare that it is on the side of freedom, that it supports equality and that it will practice tolerance, it will be a target. And if it ever stops proclaiming and practicing these principles we will all be the losers.

By Julian Roach
on

Oh, dear. Marcus Johnson shares the state-sponsored French delusion that 'Liberty' was a French invention: 'it is France where the theory all originated and where the Revolution inspired the champions of Liberty throughout Europe.' It is worth remembering that: 'Rights of Man' is the title of a work, written in England, by a chap from Thetford who came within a collar's length of being guillotined by La Revolution; that he had been expressing these ideas for several decades, not least in fomenting the enterprise of establishing democracy in the United States (achieved, ironically enough, with the crucial help of King Louis); that these ideas were far from being unprecedented novelties of his own and that they had long been in much wider circulation and development in the English language than the French.
If it is pointed out that American notions of liberty failed to embrace and liberate at least one significant part of the population, then it must also be pointed out that Napoleon lost more troops in his campaign to RE-establish slavery in Saint Domingue - destroying Toussaint's achievement and, finally imprisoning and murdering him - than he lost in the whole of the Peninsula campaigns. As for the notion of fraternity, it has long been Christian orthodoxy, with as much or as little practical meaning. It even gets a famous Shakespearian run out, of sorts, in Henry's Agincourt speech where the note is, one must say, rather easier to catch than it is in an anthem that sings of the 'sang impur' that will slop about in 'nos sillons'. Some Fraternity. The success of the Revolution in bringing about Equality is yet to be judged, but it seems to have been slow work compared to the success of the unrevolutionary Scandinavian countries who occupy all the top places in The World Economic Forum's index of countries by gender equality, as good an indicator as any. The French (16th) are ahead of the UK (26th) but is it a triumph of La Revolution to lag behind all of her north European neighbours, not to mention the Philippines, Rwanda and Ireland?
The idea that the French 'invented' Liberty, cherished as it is by the French is, sadly, something of a canard.

By Michael Hirst
on

As far as I am aware Mahmoud Abbas is not a supporter of IS, it is inaccurate to describe him as 'an avowed anti-semitic terrorist'. All credit to him for his courage in being there.

By James Bretherton
on

An excellent comment by Marcus Johnson. With Anglo-French grandchildren I take a keen interest in French affairs, and strongly agree with the way Marcus puts it.

By RH Findlay (SEH...
on

As France is now curtailing its citizens' "Liberte, Fraternite and Equalite" drastically, I am reassured by the above that once ISIL hears about it, they will cease to hate France for its freedoms and the French will no longer fear their attacks. The French Government is to be commended for its Gallic logic in the interests of public safety.

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