France attack: Public opinion has been inflamed

The nation was just beginning to recover its breath after the Charlie Hebdo killings

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The terror attack on a chemical factory near Lyon might have been devised deliberately to inflame France.

First, there was the “macabre theatre” of a severed head tied to a factory fence in an ordinary French suburb. It was as if Isis was saying that its gloating videos of beheadings were no longer something that happened far away.

Secondly, the attack appeared to be an enactment of the worst nightmares conjured up by the Islam-baiting far right in France. There is a “fifth column” of traitors and enemies in or midst, the far right says. Any of the apparently harmless Muslims that you know and meet every day could be your executioner waiting for his or her moment to strike.

Near Lyon, investigators believe, Yassin Salhi, a father of three and a van driver, murdered and beheaded his 45-year-old boss. He then drove the company van into a pile of gas canisters.

The attack was small compared to the numbers killed by the terrorist acts in Tunisia and Kuwait. (French authorities say that they do not believe that the three attacks were linked.) Beheading apart, the explosion, which injured two people, seems trivial compared to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in Paris which killed 17 people almost six months ago. And yet its effect on community relations in France could be even more devastating.

France was just beginning to recover its breath after the January killings. Here is a new act of terrorism, in an ordinary provincial suburb. Here was an apparently hard-working father of three who beheaded his boss and tried to blow up a factory.

There is no reason to be believe that the far right is correct to claim that there is a large fifth column of French Muslims who want to destroy France. But even politicians of the left were talking of a France at “war”. Inflaming French opinion was almost certainly exactly what the planners of the attack had in mind.