LONDON — The sophisticated, military-style strike Wednesday on a French newspaper known for satirizing Islam staggered a continent already seething with anti-immigrant sentiments in some quarters, feeding far-right nationalist parties such as France’s National Front.
“This is a dangerous moment for European societies,” said Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. “With increasing radicalization among supporters of jihadist organizations and the white working class increasingly feeling disenfranchised and uncoupled from elites, things are coming to a head.”
Olivier Roy, a French scholar of Islam and radicalism, called the Paris attacks, the most deadly terrorist attack on French soil since the Algerian war, “a quantitative and therefore qualitative turning point,” noting the target and the number of victims. “This was a maximum-impact attack; they did this to shock the public, and in that sense they succeeded,” he said.
Anti-immigrant attitudes have been on the rise in recent years in Europe, propelled in part by a moribund economy and high unemployment, and increasing immigration and more porous borders.
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The growing resentments have lifted the fortunes of established parties such as the U.K. Independence Party in Britain and the National Front, and lesser-known groups, such as the Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the West, which assembled 18,000 marchers in Dresden, Germany, on Monday.
In Sweden, where there have been three recent attacks on mosques, the anti-immigrant, anti-Islamist Sweden Democrats party has been getting about 15 percent support in recent opinion polls.
Paris was traumatized by the attack, with widespread fears of another. “We feel less and less safe,” said Didier Cantat, 34, standing outside the police barriers at the scene. “If it happened today it will happen again, maybe even worse.”
Cantat spoke for many when he said the attacks could fuel greater anti-immigrant sentiment. “We are told Islam is for God, for peace,” he said. “But when you see this other Islam, with the jihadists, I don’t see peace, I see hatred.”
The newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, in its raucous, vulgar and sometimes commercially driven effort to offend seemingly every segment of society, became a symbol of an aggressive French secularism that saw its truest enemy in the rise of conservative Islam in France, which is estimated to have the largest Muslim population in Europe.
The attack left some Muslims fearing a backlash. “Some people when they think terrorism, think Muslims,” said Arnaud N’Goma, 26, as he took a cigarette break outside the bank where he works.
Samir Elatrassi, 27, concurred, saying: “Islamophobia is going to increase more and more. When some people see these kinds of terrorists, they conflate them with other Muslims. And it’s the extreme right that’s going to benefit from this.”
Nowhere in Europe are the tensions greater than in constitutionally secular France, with as many as 6 million Muslims, a painful colonial history in Algeria, Syria and North Africa, and a militarily bold foreign policy. That history has been aggravated by a period of governmental and economic weakness, when France seems incapable of serious structural, social and economic reform.
The mood of failure and paralysis is widespread in France. The Charlie Hebdo attack came on the publication day of a new novel, “Submission,” by Michel Houellebecq, which describes the victory of Islam in France and the gradual collaboration of the society with its new rulers from within.
Houellebecq, like the famous caricaturists and editors who were killed at Charlie Hebdo, has been a symbol of French artistic liberty and license, and his publishers, Flammarion, were reported to be concerned that he and they could be another target.
The atmosphere has been heightened by the rise of the National Front and its leader, Marine Le Pen, who runs ahead of the Socialist Party in the polls, campaigning on the threat Islam poses to French values and nationhood.
“This attack is double honey for the National Front,” said Camille Grand, director of the French Foundation for Strategic Research. “Le Pen says everywhere that Islam is a massive threat, and that France should not support attacks in Iraq and instead defend the homeland and not create threats by going abroad, so they can naturally take advantage of it.”
Grand noted that at least 2,000 young French citizens have traveled to fight with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. “So how do we manage our Muslim population?” he asked. “This kind of attack is very difficult to detect or prevent,” and the state must not overreact, which is what the radicals want.
François Heisbourg, a defense analyst and special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research, said that the professional military acumen of the attack reminded him of the commandos who invaded Mumbai, India, in July 2011. “This is much closer to a military operation than anything we’ve experienced in France, and that may limit the political impact,” he said.
“These were not corner-shop guys from the suburbs,” he added.