France after the attacks: Unity, divisions, something in between?

Four million people in the streets and 42 percent of French saying they oppose the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.  These are basically just numbers, but if you look at France after the Paris attacks what you see: unity, divisions, something in between? And how much it it important for the future of the country? Read few comments.

Rainbow MurrayReader in Politics at Queen Mary, University of London

I think the unity is fragile, temporary and already starting to disintegrate, even if the will to stand united is enduring. Opinions are very mixed on questions of religion and culture. There is definitely widespread Islamophobia and discrimination against Muslims, which in part is manifested by the very strong position held by the Front National. The attacks are only likely to stoke those fears and tensions. At the same time, there is also awareness that most French muslims are themselves victims of Islamic fundamentalism – as typified by the widespread use of the hashtag #JeSuisAhmed (in honour of Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim police officer who was brutally shot in the head by the attackers).

Just as feelings on Muslims are mixed, so are feelings on freedom of speech. There are pretty much three camps here. The first liked Charlie Hebdo. The second come under the rubric “I don’t like what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it”. And the third think Charlie Hebdo was wrong to publish those cartoons (with a minority within this group thinking that Charlie “had it coming”). The first two groups have been queuing in the streets for hours to buy record-breaking quantities of Charlie Hebdo. The third group has been tweeting #JeNeSuisPasCharlie and arguing that freedom of speech does not extend to the right to insult religion.

These divisions are likely to widen over time, as the initial rallying together in shock goes back to the usual party politicking. I expect the FN to benefit.

James Shields, Professor of French Politics, Aston University

France is in a dilemma. It will have to implement more stringent security measures in order to prevent further terrorist atrocities and to reassure an anxious public that they can rely on the security services for protection. At the same time, however, the greatest Republican value defended in the collective response to the recent attacks in Paris was freedom – “la liberté” – and so any move to curtail the freedom of French citizens (such as the 2001 Patriot Act in the US) could be seen as betraying this key Republican principle and as a victory for the terrorists. It’s a very difficult balance for the French government, and other governments across Europe, now to strike between freedom and security.

The great show of solidarity that we saw in the Paris March for Unity on Sunday 11 January suggested that this was a defining moment which could bring real change in France. We might hope for this, but it’s very difficult to believe in it. The French are very good at rushing to the defence of the Republic when they feel it’s threatened; but when that feeling of imminent threat passes, all the old divisions – political, social, economic etc – open up again. Even as the march was being organised, political divisions were reasserting themselves as Marine Le Pen’s Front National complained of not being invited and boycotted the event. Soon, too, the opposition leader Nicolas Sarkozy was calling for a new national debate on immigration, despite the fact that all three perpetrators of the Paris attacks were born and raised in France, while Marine Le Pen called for much more draconian measures to combat Islamist fundamentalism. It seems certain that immigration, the place of Islam in France, French national identity and national security will combine as frontline issues in the campaign for the 2017 French presidential elections – and these are issues on which the political right is always more comfortable than the left.

As we emerge now from the shock of these events and politicians are called upon to provide answers, Hollande’s task becomes much more difficult. First, because he starts from a position of record personal unpopularity; second, because he has lost public trust that he is the man to solve France’s problems; and third, because his opponents on the right stand to gain substantially from the shift of focus in the political debate towards security. France, too, is in a weak position with persistently high unemployment at well over 3 million, a stagnant economy, widespread political disaffection, and deep social problems not least in the integration of its large North African Muslim communities. These are not times conducive to national harmony.

President’s Hollande’s weakness contrasts with consistently strong poll ratings for Marine Le Pen. Around a third of respondents in surveys say they agree with the FN’s ideas; the party for the first time won a national election last May, and Le Pen has established herself as the favourite to come top in the first round of the 2017 presidential election. The climate may be more favourable than ever now for Le Pen and the FN to increase support for their anti-immigration, anti-Islamist agenda.

Aurélien MondonLecturer in French politics, University of Bath

I am not sure the word division is the right one to qualify the situation in France. There are systemic discrimination and a sense of injustice that has led many to condemn the current workings of the Republic, but I do not think it is irremediable.

What is worrying however, and has to be taken very seriously, is the creation on the extremes of a sense, a perception of division. The terrorist attack led to an emotional response and, in the aftermath, many commentators have failed to grasp the impact of their conclusions. More than ever, it is crucial not to simply the matter and turn it into something it is not. As I discussed soon after the attack, this is not a clash of civilisation, and saying it is would play right in the hands of the terrorists, but also of the divisive far-right. It must be stressed constantly that this is not a battle of ideas and values between the Muslim community and the French community for two very obvious reasons. First, the Muslim community, like all other large community, is ‘imagined’, as famously described by Benedict Anderson. It is not cohesive or coherent and spans a huge variety of people which should by no means be associated with the terrorists. Second, this blurry, undefined Muslim community belongs to the French community, making it otherwise is not only factually wrong, but it is bound to lead to further inequality, stigmatisation and in very minoritarian cases radicalisation.


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