François Hollande, France’s president, rightly called it “an act of exceptional barbarity …against freedom of expression”. But the murder on Wednesday of 12 people at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, will not surprise anyone familiar with the rising tensions among France’s 5m or more Muslim citizens and the poisonous legacy of French colonialism in north Africa.
For now, the perpetrators are unidentified. We need to keep in mind that the worst terrorist outrage in Europe of recent years, the murder of 77 people in Norway in 2011, was committed not by Islamist militants but by a far-right fanatic, Anders Behring Breivik.
Like other politically motivated attacks, from 9/11 to the killing last May of four people at the Jewish museum in Brussels, the atrocity at Charlie Hebdo was despicable and indefensible. Among the first to condemn it was the French Council of the Muslim Faith, which termed it “a barbaric act against democracy and freedom of the press”.
Charlie Hebdo is a bastion of the French tradition of hard-hitting satire. It has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling Muslims. Two years ago the magazine published a 65-page strip cartoon book portraying the Prophet’s life. And this week it gave special coverage to Soumission (“Submission”), a new novel by Michel Houellebecq, the idiosyncratic author, which depicts France in the grip of an Islamic regime led by a Muslim president.
This is not in the slightest to condone the murderers, who must be caught and punished, or to suggest that freedom of expression should not extend to satirical portrayals of religion. It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims.
Emotions are understandably high in France, where the next question is what impact Wednesday’s murders will have on the political climate, and in particular the fortunes of Marine Le Pen and her far-right National Front. Anti-Islamism is part of the electoral attraction of a party that topped the polls in May in France’s European Parliament elections.
Ms Le Pen has taken care to distance her party from the anti-Semitism that stained it and limited its appeal under her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. But she has left anti-Islamism in place and even reinforced it.
In 2010 Ms Le Pen compared Muslims praying in the streets to the 1940-44 Nazi occupation of France. Less than 18 months later she collected 17.9 per cent of the vote in France’s presidential election. She has a good chance of increasing her share of the vote enough to win the first round — though not the second, decisive round — of the 2017 election.
Anti-Islamism and a hard line on immigration will shore up Ms Le Pen’s core vote, but they will not unlock the doors of the Elysée Palace. Surveys show that a majority of French people rejects racism and dislikes extremism.
The English author Andrew Hussey, who lives in Paris, published a book last year called The French Intifada, in which he described France as “the world capital of liberty, equality and fraternity . . . under attack from the angry and dispossessed heirs to the French colonial project”.
The murders in Paris throw down a challenge to French politicians and citizens to stand up for the republic’s core values and defeat political violence without succumbing to the siren songs of the far right.
This article is an expanded and updated version of an earlier blog posted on January 7
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