Rather than tightening laws and restricting freedoms in the name of fighting terror, French President Francois Hollande insists that unity is more important. France has experienced a series of terror attacks over the past few months, including the murder of two police officers and the attack in Nice on Bastille Day. Instead of abating, the terror spree continued on July 26 with an attack on a church in Normandy where an elderly priest was murdered. One of the attackers had reportedly been under house arrest and was being monitored for trying, unsuccessfully, to travel to Syria. He was awaiting a trial on terror charges before the brutal attack. France’s state of emergency, which was scheduled to conclude on July 26, was extended following the attack in Nice. This raises some concerns. First, vulnerable communities in France are at risk of being further stigmatized and alienated, because they are most at risk of being subjected to discriminatory or overly broad policing tactics. Second, a state of emergency that lacks a clear and definite end date infringes on fundamental freedoms. But on July 27, with the country on alert and tensions running high, President Hollande promoted a message of unity rather than religious enmity. He rejected calls from the opposition to harden anti-terrorism legislation and said that “restrict[ing] freedoms and deviating from constitutional rules, would have no effect on the fight against terrorism,” but would instead “weaken the cohesion of the nation.” Hollande also called on religious leaders in France to unite in this time of terror. Dalil Boubakeur, the Mufti of the Great Mosque of Paris, voiced grief at the Normandy attack and described it as a “blasphemous sacrilege, which goes against all the teachings of our religion.” Ahmert Orgras, vice president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, announced after meeting with President Hollande, “we were able to speak in particular of the singular responsibility of religions in this country in terms of self-control, resistance, unity.” The Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, said, “We must not let ourselves be pulled in to Daesh’s political games, which wants to set the children of the same family against each other.” During his remarks, the Cardinal was flanked by Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist leaders. President Hollande welcomed this statement and remarked, “What the terrorists want is to divide us, separate us, to tear us apart. We must avoid one-upmanship, arguments, conflation, suspicions. This war will be long. Our democracy is the target, and it will be our shield. Let us stand together. We will win this war.” These expressions of unity in the face of this latest tragedy are a positive intervention. Human Rights First has long recommended combating extremism in France by promoting tolerance and inclusiveness. In Breaking the Cycle of Violence: Countering Antisemitism and Extremism in France, a report published on the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks, Human Rights First examined the nature and extent of antisemitism and extremism in France and placed these themes within broader and interrelated phenomena, namely, the rise of the far-right party the National Front, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment, the spread of Islamist extremism and the increasing alienation of many Muslim communities in France. This week’s messages from the French government and religious leaders promoting solidarity are a positive step in the fight against extremism and violence in France.
By Zahava Moerdler