Charlie Hebdo attacks: The massacre has brought out the best - and worst - of France

There are several poisonous, mutually sustaining extremes in French politics

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The Independent Online

Politicians of left and right joined arms to sing “La Marseillaise” on the steps of the National Assembly yesterday. Paris Metro trains paused in stations during a nationwide minute of silence. The bells of Notre Dame tolled. The Eiffel tower turned off its lights. Leaders of most French political parties will march silently through Paris on Sunday.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre has brought out the best of France. And the worst. But mostly the best.

President François Hollande, whose presidency has been in deep trouble from almost the beginning, will have been heartened by the dignity and defiance of the nation’s initial reaction. He has called for unity and calm. He may hope – politicians being politicians – that part of the country at least will unite in adversity behind his leadership.

It is too much to expect that the massacre will give the desperately unpopular Hollande a completely new beginning. The sombre, defiant post-Charlie Hebdo mood may offer him, however, an opportunity to convince a doubting nation that its stumbling president is capable of being presidential.

More than 100,000 people joined spontaneous demonstrations in Paris and 100 other towns and cities on Wednesday night – not to insult Muslims or call for police repression but to assert their belief in the French “republican values” of openness, freedom and decency.

Their watchwords were “Je suis Charlie” – the slogan placed on the website of the satirical magazine after Wednesday’s brutal attack. In other words, they were saying this was an assault on everyone, Muslim or Catholic, left or right, white, brown or black.


Fifteen imams placed wreaths of flowers yesterday outside the offices of the satirical magazine known, among other things, for lampooning radical Islam. They might have pointed out that least two Muslim French families had more personal reasons for grief.

A janitor killed in the attack on the offices and the policeman whose ruthless execution shocked the world were both of North African extraction.

On the other hand, there has been a baleful, minority reaction in the past 24 hours by another angry, violent and intolerant France. 

At Villefranche-sur-Saône, north of Lyon, a makeshift explosive device was detonated outside a kebab restaurant close to a mosque. A grenade was thrown at a mosque in Le Mans.

Two shots were fired at a Muslim prayer hall at Port-la-Nouvelle in Aude, southern France. In Caromb, near Avignon, shots were fired at a parked car belonging to a family of North African origin.

These were scattered incidents. No one was injured. They were a reminder, however, that there are several poisonous, mutually sustaining extremes in French politics – extremes of right and left as well as of radical Islam.

Hollande has a difficult path to plot in the coming days. He will not change course on France’s participation in the western-Arab air alliance against Isis. He will not order some kind of spurious crack-down in the multi-racial suburbs of French cities.

Once the initial, admirable national impulse to dignity and unity fades, he will face accusation from the Right of “weakness” because the brothers suspected of carrying out the massacre were not tracked by the security services.