Blog Article

The Paris Attacks: a threat to French unity

By Deborah Asseraf:

Photo: Olivier Ortelpa (creative commons)

The demonstration in the Place de la Republique, Paris, on 11 January. Photo: Olivier Ortelpa (creative commons)

As France mourns 17 of its citizens following the recent Paris attacks, hard times are also synonymous with national union. On 11 January 56 world leaders marched in Paris along with 3.7 million people to show their commitment to universal values such as freedom of speech and human dignity. Unanimous condemnation of the terror acts that occurred between 7-9 January transcends political divisions and ideologies. However the commemorations are likely to be subject to political appropriation by a range of actors and parties. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the spontaneous reaction animating civil society will result in any coherent long-term agenda.

A new form of terror

On 7 January, two masked gunmen stormed the offices of satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo during an editorial meeting (11:30 am), killing 12 people. The paper is well known for its publication of the prophet Muhammad caricatures. In just a few minutes the assailants shot a maintenance worker, a police officer assigned as a bodyguard for the paper’s editor, seven journalists and caricaturists, a guest at the editorial meeting and a national police officer. Armed with AK-47 assault rifles, a shotgun and an RPG launcher, the gunmen managed to escape by car and killed a wounded police officer lying on the pavement. The Kouachi brothers, who carried out the attack, escaped towards the Val de Marne, in the North-East of Paris. Taking a printing house, they resisted a siege by the police for hours in the afternoon of 9 January.

On 8 January, Amedy Coulibaly shot and killed a municipal police officer in Montrouge, south of Paris. The next day Coulibaly seized a kosher grocery store in Porte de Vincennes, a very quiet area in North Paris. Two people were shot as the gunman entered the store and two others during the three-hour hostage crisis. The police launched an assault against the assailant at the end of the afternoon at approximately the same time as the assault carried out against the Kouachi brothers.

The attacks have not been officially claimed by any terror organisation, suggesting the emergence a new form of terrorism that opens opportunities to individuals who are willing to die for a cause with no need to officially belong to a local or global movement. This operating mode is reminiscent of the 15 December Sydney hostage crisis, which involved a single individual who claimed he had links with the Islamic State. As Australian authorities fear copycat attacks, it seems legitimate for France to worry as well in a context where the range of possible threats is widening.

Blurry motives and difficult responses

What happened last week has been described as France’s 9/11, suggesting that the country has reached a critical turning point that will usher in a new era of war against its evil enemy. Nonetheless, the so-called ‘enemy’ seems hardly definable or reachable. Indeed, shedding light on the motives of the attack is difficult if not impossible. Recordings of conversations between Coulibaly and his Jewish hostages emerged in the media after the store’s telephone was left off the hook. They show a confused assailant who justifies his action by referring to France’s foreign policy, highlighting the fact that Muslims are being killed all around the world. He gives the examples of Mali and Syria, where France is part of the coalition against the Islamic State. In a video that emerged on 11 January, two days after his death, Coulibaly is seen pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed chief of the caliphate, in very poor Arabic.

As the motives of the attacks are blurry, finding long-term coherent responses is extremely difficult. Implementing surveillance policies is one thing but it does not help with tackling the other issue of radicalisation. In this regard, French statutory law has recently been adapted to the jihadist threat with an anti-terrorist bill passed in November 2014. On the one hand it allows authorities to confiscate passports and IDs of volunteers for jihad willing to leave for Syria and Iraq. On the other, it also creates a new kind of criminal offence: ‘individual terrorist enterprise’, which targets self-radicalized terrorists-to-be.

The Paris killings will also feed in to political discourses that are likely to gradually undermine national unity. On 11 January, about 4 million people marched through the streets of Paris and other French cities under the banner of democracy and freedom against terror and ‘barbarity’. Rather than presaging a new political path, the support showed in unity rallies throughout France will only be transient. It goes without saying that ‘islamophobia’ is on the rise as mosques are now being targeted all across France. An aggravated context of discrimination won’t solve the problem but rather anchor some of its causes. Nevertheless, the security question and the fight against an internal enemy may shape French politics for a long time to come.

Jewish emigration to Israel

The reasons that brought the terrorists to Charlie Hebdo are clear: killing journalists and their subversive ideas. They also shot police officers for what they epitomise: the idea of order and law enforcement. By contrast, the last main assault at the Hypercacher of Porte de Vincennes was aimed at killing Jews. Indeed, the Jewish community appears as a constant in the terrorist equation. Only two years after the Toulouse killings at the Jewish school Ozar Hatorah by a French Muslim extremist, Jews feel abandoned by authorities.

In Paris Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid his respects to the victims of the kosher store at the Synagogue de la Victoire but also encouraged French Jews to make ‘aliyah’: which means ascend in Hebrew. According to Israeli leaders, French Jews are meant to emigrate to Israel as hostile Europe is not their home anymore. As a matter of fact, Jewish emigration has skyrocketed these past few years, reaching the peak of 6000 French Jews last year. As controversial as it sounds, the message got through. Because anti-semitism is on the rise, interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced the deployment of the army to support 4700 police agents to protect Jewish places of worship and schools. The government’s stance is aimed at reassuring French Jews, as shown in prime minister Manuel Valls’ speech at the Assemblée nationale.

France’s social fabric is loosening and its political context is deeply affected by recent events. Even though the union nationale is still being proclaimed, no solutions to the heightened tensions have yet been found. Not only do the French fear an internal enemy, but in the secular country of laïcité, religious communities are being set against each other. The prospect of appeasement seems distant.


Deborah Asseraf is a postgraduate student at Sciences Po, Paris, specializing in the field of public policy, and president of Sciences Po Public Affairs Master’s society. She is interested in international relations and politics.

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2 thoughts on “The Paris Attacks: a threat to French unity

  1. Pingback: Charlie Hebdo: defending more than one narrative | Strife

  2. Pingback: Made in prison: Copenhagen and the Paris attacks | Strife

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