My wife Elisabeth, like most of the French, has been overwhelmed by yesterday’s bloody attack on Charlie-Hebdo, the French satiric weekly. Two terrorists gunned down ten journalists, as well as one policeman and an unarmed guard. “I feel it’s the end of an era in France,” says Elisabeth. “And it’s out fault. We’ve accepted many things that we shouldn’t have. We’ve let people come here who don’t respect us. They’ve taken our kindness for weakness.”
After watching the non-stop bulletins during the evening, she was up at 3 A.M. to follow the news. The government had declared a terrorist alert at the highest level. The two armed killers were still at large.
“Liberty Assassinated” screams today’s front page of the conservative paper “Le Figaro.”
“War” clarions its editorial. “It’s a war, a real war, carried out not by soldiers but by shadowy assassins, methodical, organized killers whose quite savagery chills the blood.”
France’s estimated 5 million Muslims—the largest Muslim population in Europe-- represent about 10% of the French. In recent years, they’ve been increasingly viewed as an encroaching danger, who would ultimately transform France into a Sharia state. A new novel, featured on Charlie-Hebdo’s latest cover, described just such a radical Muslim takeover in 2022.
Many –including myself—scoff at such fears. But there has been talk from dark corners of lurking civil war.
The bloody scenario played out yesterday in Paris plays right into that nightmare.
Last night a grim-looking French President François Hollande went on television to reassure the country. He and his ministers are attempting to demonstrate they’re really on top of things. They’ve heightened the terrorist alert, called in more police and military. The terrorists won’t get away Hollande declared. He emphasized the need for the country to stay united--- “rassemblement” was the keyword.
He made no reference whatsoever to religion--“radical Islam.” Or “jihad”. Just terrorism.
On the other hand, the leader of the far right Front National. Marine Le Pen, a long-time foe of immigration and advocate of “French values,” minces no words.
She did not want to lump French Muslims who are attached to France and its values together with “those who think they can kill in the name of Islam.” But that distinction, she said, should not be an excuse for not taking action. “The time of denial, of hypocrisy, is no longer possible--the enemy is radical Islam.”
Her party had already been leading Hollande’s Socialists in recent polls. Yesterday’s butchery can only add to her popularity.
Indeed, today’s editorial in “Le Figaro” echoes Le Pen, as well as my wife and, I suspect, a huge number of French: “For too long, in the name of perverted humanism, and a distorted anti-racism, we have acted complacently towards our worst enemy. These ‘lost children of jihad’, these fanatics unleashed on the Internet, but also these various pressure groups, attired in their native garb, keeping to their ethnic groups, who conspire openly against our country and our security. Against those ones we must strike. Without weakness, nor half measures. When the war is here, we have to win it.”
Many mainstream Muslim religious leaders in France have also spoken out condemning the Charlie-Hebdo attack.
Around 9 this morning a long-time Saudi friend also called. “This was an act of absolute madness,” he said. “Those people are crazy. I hope that the other countries of the world will finally put pressure on the government in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to change the crazy education system in our country. What ISIS says is no different than what is taught in our Saudi Schools--and practiced in our judicial system. It’s the same thing.
“The government says they have modernized, but they’re still working from the same basic ideals, promoting the same Wahabi outlooks. They’ve supposedly been trying to weed the fanatics out, to become more moderate. But it’s just a façade. When it is useful for them in their foreign policy to make use of the radicals, like in Syria, they do it. To change things is going to take generations.”
By chance, we had planned this morning after the attack to take the Eurostar from Paris to London. As we drive through the wet, gray streets, the taxi driver is listening to a call-in show on Europe 1. A Muslim caller, named Mohammed, originally from Morocco, but now French, is in tears. “What has happened has nothing to do with Islam,” he says. “This is not my religion. All the French must unite against this.’
A French man, married to a Moroccan woman calls to say how he was obliged to pick up his 8 year old daughter from school this morning after she was stoned by several classmates. A Jewish woman calls in to express the hope that this will not lead to generalized attacks against the Muslim population..
We arrive at the Gare du Nord. The usual entryway is closed. We pull our bags around to the front and have just entered the crowded station when we hear shouts, and a line of police and military move forward ordering everyone to immediately leave the huge station. A suspicious suitcase has been found. Hundreds of passengers are herded back out into the rain. Fifteen minutes later, the threat apparently disposed of, we’re admitted back into the station. As we haul our bags towards the elevator, my wife strikes up a conversation with a French man of Iranian origin. “We have to clean up this country,” he says grimly.
Five olive skinned Roma women, garbed in long colorful skirts and kerchiefs, enter the station. Small groups of Roma, often including children, regularly loiter around the Gare de Nord, their presence, notoriously linked to purse snatchings and pick pockets . I can feel many of the people around me bristle. Some glare. They’re one of the principle targets of the anti-immigrant sentiment that has been bourgeoning in France and across Europe over the last few years —a sentiment that everyone now fears, will be inflamed by the bloody killings at Charlie Hebdo.
The authorities now know the names of the two killers. They are brothers, Said (34) and Cherif Kouachi (32), born in France of parents from North Africa. Cherif, it turns out had already been arrested in 2005 and served time for participating in a ring that was recruiting young French Muslims to go to Iraq to fight the Americans. In fact, according to press reports during his trial he had claimed that what drove him to take up jihad were the pictures of U.S. troops brutalizing Muslim prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
According to Patrick Pelloux,, a regular contributor to Charlie-Hebdo, the surviving journalists are determined to continue publishing the weekly. They’ve been offered facilities at another French paper.
It’s so terribly ironic said Pelloux, that fanatics who produce horrific videos of themselves beheading their prisoners, cannot look at a few simple humorous drawings.
When our train arrived at St. Pancras Station in London there were more more armed police around than is normally the case. And on the evening news shows, the talk was all about Paris, Charlie-Hebdo, and whether the same thing could happen here.