From Charlie Hebdo to Samuel Paty, did France reach a turning point?

Article by Laura Governi | Illustration by Matilde Morri

In the last five years, France was struck by several terrorist attacks. Political scientists and journalists believe that the terrorists’ aim was to create a state of chaos, undermining French culture, secularism and lifestyle. Those attacks did not manage to wreak France, nor to divide public opinion, up until the murder of Samuel Paty.

Is something changing in the French social structure? Will president Macron manage to contain the divisions within the country and maintain social cohesion?

Five years of terror

On 7 January 2015, masked gunmen attacked the offices of French weekly satirical publication Charlie Hebdo in Paris, killing 12 people. The magazine, mostly known for its biting sarcasm and for a series of cartoons about Islam and Prophet Mohamed had been attacked and threatened before, but the authors had chosen not to take a step back, defending press freedom with strength and determination. Indeed, the editors believed that changing their magazine’s line would equal to undermining secularism, an extremely important part of French culture and one of the milestones of the Republic.

Since the attack on Charlie Hebdo, terrorists claiming to operate in the name of the Islamic State repeated their rituals of violence in a crescendo of horror, culminating in the tragic night of 13 November 2015. That night, a series of coordinated attacks ravaged Paris. The first explosion occurred near the Stade de France, where President François Hollande was attending the friendly match between France and Germany. A few minutes later, the first shootings started in the 10th Arrondissement, taking the lives of dozens of people who had sought refuge in cafes and restaurants. At last, the attackers arrived at the Bataclan theatre, where mass shootings and hostage-taking occurred. The tragic night resulted in 130 deaths and many more wounded.

Despite resorting to the highest vigilance measures foreseen by its security alert system, the attacks in France did not stop at the Bataclan. Terrorist violence resulted in many more deaths, and a new terrifying peak was reached on 14 July 2016, when, during the celebrations for the Bastille Day in Nice, a truck was deliberately driven into the crowds, killing 87 people.

These waves of terror shocked the world and shook France and Europe from the inside. The reaction was prompt, but quite different from what the terrorists probably expected. In fact, the Muslim communities immediately condemned the attacks, standing side by side with the secular exponents. Their actions unintentionally spread solidarity and unity among citizens, instead of sowing division and hatred. Tragedy proved that the multicultural and heterogeneous French society is capable of staying united and protect its universal values: Freedom, Equality and Fraternity.

The straw that broke the camel’s back

On 16 October 2020, fundamentalism struck directly at the heart of French institutions: education.

Fomented by a video seen online, 18-year-old Abdoullakh Anzorov planned and executed the murder of French middle-school teacher Samuel Paty, guilty – according to him – of desecrating Prophet Mohamed. During a civic education class, Paty had showed cartoons featuring the prophet naked, prompting a girl in attendance to report the fact to her father. Upset by the gesture, the man then decided to share the information on social media, including by posting a video with self-proclaimed sheikh Abdelhakim Sefrioui condemning the teacher. The video turned a man into a murderer, and a teacher into a victim.After the killing of Samuel Paty, the government reacted more strongly than ever before. Interior minister Gerald Darmanin announced sweeping operations against radical Islam inside the country.

This attack happened at a very tense moment for the French Islamic community, who was feeling stigmatized and ostracised by the law against Islamic separatism announced in August by President Macron. The goal of this law is to prevent the creation of a “deep society” based on the Sharia within French society, by introducing measures to prevent radicalization.The huge majority of French Muslims who live according to republican rules are worried that these measures will become a mean of discrimination. At the same time, Arab and Islamic countries warn that the French government is creating the environment where extremism can proliferate.

The antidote to violence

This dramatic list of episodes led people and experts to ask themselves a simple question: “Why do terrorists target France more than the other European countries?”

According to the French Academic and Political Scientist Gilles Kepel, multiple reasons expose France to the Islamist threat. Among these vulnerabilities are a relatively high number of radicalized Muslim youth and the significant amount of people who are considered a danger by the police (about 20.000). Many of those individuals left to reach Syria and join the Jihad, many were arrested, many died, but hundreds simply disappeared. At the same time, there are also political reasons, such as French support for an active engagement in Syria.

Since Charlie Hebdo, France has tried to remedy to its vulnerabilities by addressing the menacing issues of radicalization and fundamentalism. After the murder of Paty, French policy seems to have reached a turning point. According to Samuel Paty, the antidote against ignorance, hate and violence is education. One of the Teachers’ trade union, however, pointed out that “school is a bastion, but it will not manage on its own to fix a society undermined by inequalities and discriminations. It will be necessary to provide the school with the appropriate means”.

While anti-radicalization laws and police controls might help improve the situation in the short term, the French education system needs significant support to create a united society based on cohesion and inclusion that could solve the problem in the long term. While all these thoughts and speculations are happening, though, we have to consider that France, as the rest of the world, is fighting against the Covid pandemic, which is terribly affecting the education system and the culture sector.

Will French policy manage to be this far-sighted, while also coping with the piercing pandemic of Covid-19?

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