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‘Our best army is our national unity’, French President François Hollande told his people in the wake of the massacre at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris, the bloodiest terrorist attack in France in half a century. The people responded accordingly: at least 100,000 participated in spontaneous demonstrations across France, many waving pens in the air, an act of support for freedom of expression and defiance against terrorists.
The French Political Scene
The French political class also drew together: Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president who recently resumed his leadership of the centre-right UMP Gaullist movement visited the Élysée Palace to show his support for President Hollande. Jacques Chirac and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, two other former presidents, also called upon President Hollande. And tomorrow (Friday) it will be the turn of the French party leaders to be received by the president and be photographed with him on the steps of the Élysée. In short, the political unity displayed in France on this occasion is perfect, and genuine.
But it won’t last long. The danger is that the murders in Paris will provide a boost for a new trend in European politics: the suggestion that the continent’s Muslims are either unwilling or incapable of assimilating, and that there is something fundamentally ‘alien’ or ‘violent’ about the Islamic faith which renders integration impossible. It is a political trend which must be fought at all costs.
Ms Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front, surprised observers by the restrained manner of her initial response to the bloodshed. In a three-minute video she posted on her party’s website, she made a clear distinction between the ‘odious attackers’ who cause violence ‘in the name of radical Islam’, a ‘deadly ideology which is responsible for thousands of victims around the world’, and ‘our Muslim compatriots who are attached to our nation and its values’. For a politician who once spoke about a Muslim ‘occupation’ of France, these were soft and measured words indeed. Only that they were not; the video clip was Ms Le Pen’s initial attempt to appear ‘presidential’, and they were swiftly followed by her usual populist tricks. The National Front leader is now calling for a referendum on the restoration of the death penalty in France, abolished in 1981. She also used her Twitter account to claim that ‘Islamists’ have ‘declared a war on France’.
More significantly, Mr Florian Philippot, the National Front’s deputy leader, has already linked the current crimes in Paris to the ‘massive immigration’ which France is allegedly ‘suffering’ from; ‘The French are awaiting solutions’, he intoned gravely, before adding that the events have ‘validated’ the solutions which the National Front has ‘offered’ on this issue.
The tragedy in France and the anti-Islamic narratives that it creates could not have come at a worse time, for they coincide with the rise of the Pegida anti-Muslim and anti-immigration movement in Germany. The name is an acronym in German, standing for ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West’, and its founder is a certain Lutz Bachman, a hitherto obscure 41 year-old who runs a graphic design business in Dresden.
Initially, this merely seemed to be a fringe movement of no consequence. Yet just before Christmas, Pegida staged an anti-immigration rally which attracted no less than 17,000 participants. And on Monday this week, it did even better, with around 20,000 anti-immigrant demonstrators marching under the Pegida banner across Germany.
What started as a fringe movement has now been transformed into a force which challenges the foundations of modern Germany’s widely-admired tolerance of immigrants and ethnic minorities. Curiously, Pegida is strongest not in the western industrial heartland of Germany where up to 17 percent of the population are of immigrant stock and most of Germany’s 4.2 million Muslims live, but in the poorer eastern parts of the country which used to belong to East Germany, where immigrants are virtually non-existent: in Dresden, for instance, Muslims account for 0.1 percent of the population.
This has led Chancellor Angela Merkel, who herself comes from the east, to the conclusion that the anti-Muslim protests are perpetrated by football hooligans, skinheads and other marginalised individuals living in the decaying housing estates which still blot the landscape of what used to be communist East Germany. Dr Merkel dismissed them all as people who have ‘prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts’. Castigating Pegida as a bunch of misfits could turn out to be a catastrophic error, however, for Pegida taps into a broader sense of anxiety that many Germans feel about immigrants, and Muslim immigrants in particular.
Quite a few Germans are troubled by the sight of young Muslim citizens who volunteer to kill in the Middle East, by the rising number of attacks on Jewish targets in Germany, most of which are perpetrated by offspring of immigrants, and by the attitudes of some Muslim community leaders towards women. A poll carried out by German news magazine Stern earlier this week has found that one in eight Germans would join an anti-Islam march if Pegida organised one near their home.
Dr Merkel’s government did not help matters when it officially proclaimed in 2012 that ‘multi-culturalism’ had ‘failed’ in Germany but then did not suggest an alternative model of racial and social integration, or when it declared that Germany is ’not an immigration country’, but then allowed the massive loophole of asylum-seekers – mostly young Muslim men from war-torn Middle East – to become the primary source of immigration.
Last year alone, Germany took in 200,000 asylum-seekers, 60 percent more than the year before. Unsurprisingly, Pegida’s demand that most of these asylum seekers should be sent packing is proving popular, and so is the demand that Muslims should integrate into the supposedly “Judeo-Christian ethos” of German society. ‘If I want to emigrate to America, I’d be obliged to learn English and introduce myself to the culture’, says Mr Lutz Bachman, Pegida’s founder; ‘That’s what we want from immigrants here’, he adds.
A Latent Danger
For the moment, electoral numbers are stacked against Pegida: although the movement staged its biggest rally on Monday, a total of 30,000 Germans participated in counter-demonstrations, advocating tolerance towards minorities. The same applies to France: although the National Front has done well in the latest European Parliament elections, it is unlikely to do as well in national parliamentary elections and, although in some opinion polls Ms Le Pen leads in the race for the presidency, she has no chance of entering the Élysée through the front door under France’s two-rounds ballot system.
Still, the events in Paris will provide a boost to both the National Front in France and Pegida in Germany, partly because they seem to confirm their claims that Islam is incompatible with European values, but also because they tend to shift the debate towards new restrictions on immigration, and the imposition of new obligations on immigrants already settled in Europe. The real danger is that more mainstream leaders such as Nicolas Sarkozy in France, or the Alternative for Germany, a party founded to oppose the Euro single currency but one which is neither against Europe nor against “foreigners”, may be attracted to the idea of resorting to populist, anti-Islamic statements. That temptation must be resisted at all costs; the real fight is to ensure that mainstream politicians remain firmly in the mainstream on this matter.
Perhaps leaders in France and Germany should recall one of Charlie Hebdo’s covers, which once showed a Muslim kissing a cartoonist with the caption ‘L’amour: Plus fort que la haine’, or in English, ‘Love: Stronger than Hate’.