The footage that is emerging from today’s terror attack in Paris—some of the most graphic now being circulated over social media—shows a gun battle on a Parisian street that conjures the impression of a warzone. We see masked men, dressed entirely in black, carrying assault rifles and then executing a police officer as he lies injured on the ground. In all twelve have been killed, two police and ten journalists of the small satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo which some years ago published a cartoon of Muhammad. Naturally, then, there are those who are already approaching this event as a question about freedom of the press. Back in 2011 when the offices of Charlie Hebdo were firebombed, it was primarily an issue of free speech. But now, given the nature of this attack, and the fact that it comes alongside a spate of other Islamist attacks in France, if matters go much further then these risk being the early rumblings of a French intifada.
Some have speculated that those who carried out today’s attack were in some way affiliated with (or inspired by) ISIS. The last piece tweeted out by the magazine was a cartoon of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. An eyewitness, however, has reported that the men claimed to be from al-Qaeda. Either way, this attack has now put much of Paris on lockdown and France has gone into its highest state of alert while those who carried out the attack remain at large. The fear is that they will be seeking to go down in a gunfight with the police, or worse still in some kind of explosion as jihadists have been known to do in other attacks.
Even before today’s incident France was already on edge given a series of attacks in the run-up to Christmas. In both Dijon and Nantes Islamic radicals had driven vehicles into shoppers at Christmas markets, while in Tours police were attacked by a man brandishing a knife. Similarly, Islamic radicals and others from France’s large Muslim population have also targeted the Jewish community as anti-Semitism in France has skyrocketed. Synagogues and Jewish businesses have been attacked in recent months, with riots in Paris this summer seeing Jews being forced to barricade themselves into a synagogue. And in addition to the 2012 shooting at the Jewish school in Toulouse, it was a French jihadist who carried out the attack on the Brussels Jewish museum last May.
This move from attacks on the Jews to attacks on others, not least those representing liberal Western values such as Charlie Hebdo, is hardly surprising. But France has for some time now been grappling with the problem of Islamic radicalism and the unassimilated and disaffected parts of its Muslim population. In the fall of 2005 Parisian housing projects and other French cities were subjected to several days and nights of intense rioting by immigrants, something that began to be referred to as “the French Intifada.”
However, Europeans also have to be wary about the backlash against Islamic radicalism that is mounting from the far-right. In France the only somewhat moderated National Front is making significant gains at the ballot box. Meanwhile, in Germany a new anti-Islamist mass movement is emerging, with 18,000 marching in Dresden earlier this week. Yet there are serious concerns about the extent to which this movement may already be associated with violent fascistic and neo-Nazi tendencies. An open confrontation between such groups and Islamists could lead to an intifada scenario on the streets of Europe.
After today’s attack in Paris we are once again left wondering what kind of strategy Western leaders really have for confronting any of this. In the past the debate about mass immigration and about how to assimilate immigrants was all but shut down among shrieks about racism. Similarly, more recent discussions about how to deal with Islamic extremism have quickly descended into such accusations. Indeed, for so many Western leaders, the main takeaway from such attacks seems to be to keep emphasizing that Islam is a religion of peace, while the left-wing media scolds the public for supposedly causing Islamic extremism through its latent Islamophobia.
In August a poll suggested that 16 percent of French citizens have sympathies for ISIS and it is thought that well over 800 French nationals are currently overseas fighting for that group. But France also has to worry about the extremists who stay at home. For as today’s attack has shown, heightened security can only do so much, and for now it appears there are no serious proposals for what is to be done about those French Muslims who seem increasingly hostile to the surrounding society.