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Interview: What Next For France After Deadly Terror Attacks?

On January 11, France appeared united in grief as millions marched for solidarity in the wake of the deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine, but is it only a matter of time before cracks begin to appear in French society once more.

France is still reeling from the deadly attack against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and its aftermath. As the shock slowly subsides, many in France are asking themselves how the deadliest terrorist attack in decades will change their country. RFE/RL's Claire Bigg spoke to Sylvain Brouard, a researcher at the Center for Political Research at Science Po (CEVIPOF).

RFE/RL: The killings have sparked a series of attacks against Muslims and mosques throughout France. In your opinion, is this a short-term reaction to the events or are we likely to witness a major rise in Islamophobia in France?

Sylvain Brouard: It's a complex issue because Islamophobia was already present in France. Some people accused Charlie Hebdo of Islamophobia, by the way, which is highly debatable. What is clear is that Charlie Hebdo published stinging criticism of Islamists and Muslim fundamentalists rather than of Muslims or Islam itself.

There is also a general context in France in which migration policies are being disputed and questioned. The attack against Charlie Hebdo takes places in a context that is particularly unfavorable to a serene discussion of these issues. The CEVIPOF conducted a study which revealed that migration policies were the top priority for voters [and] the area where people most want to see changes. So it's very unlikely that the attack against Charlie Hebdo, the murder of police officers, and the killing of Jews in a kosher store will reverse this trend.

RFE/RL: One of the police officers killed, incidentally, was Muslim.

Brouard: Absolutely, although I would like to point out that this fact was noted but not really emphasized. In addition to this police officer, one of the copyeditors at Charlie Hebdo was from North Africa, had just received French citizenship, and was, if not a Muslim himself, from a Muslim family.

RFE/RL: In your opinion, can mounting anti-Muslim sentiment in France translate into electoral successes for the far-right National Front party? The party and its leader, Marine Le Pen, have been sidelined from the nationwide rallies to honor the victims and support national unity. Could the tragedy nonetheless boost the National Front's popularity?

Brouard: Marine Le Pen and the National Front were ostracized during the demonstration in Paris. The calls for national unity did not include her and her National Front although they extended to all other organizations, including the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, which is not exactly known for its liberal views. I think there were a number of clumsy moves which will allow the National Front to further position itself as a snubbed party."

If attitudes toughen on migration and secularism all of this can, of course, benefit the National Front. On the other hand, the attacks could also mobilize voters. The National Front's electoral successes are partly due to low voter turnouts, and the latest events could help repoliticize people. But it will depend largely on the public response, on what political parties, the president, and the government will propose in response to these events.

RFE/RL: The deadly hostage-taking in a kosher store that followed the attack on Charlie Hebdo has stoked fear among France's Jewish community, too. Many French Jews now say they are considering immigrating to Israel. Do you think France could see a Jewish exodus in coming years?

Brouard: Anti-Semitism in France is a hot-button topic. The Foundation for Political Innovation has published a study showing the high level of anti-Semitism among French citizens of Muslim faith. My colleague Vincent Tiberi and myself have since conducted research on French citizens of African, North African, and Turkish descent. We found that the level of anti-Semitism among these citizens, particularly Muslims, was undeniably higher than among the rest of the French population. It's obvious that Jews, due to the debate about the Israeli-Palestinian issue in France, are the victims of ostracism and even of violent attacks by a virulent anti-Semitic minority.

Sylvain Brouard
Sylvain Brouard

French citizens of Jewish faith clearly feel unsafe. What one must point out, and what can help understand the feelings of many French Jews, is that the killings by Mohamed Merah [in 2012] did not spark the mass rallies we are now seeing in the wake of the killings at Charlie Hebdo. Many feel that the killings of Jews don't weigh as much as political killings or the killing of cartoonists. Recent figures show a rise in the number of French Jews relocating to Israel, so fears that the trend will accelerate are well-founded.

RFE/RL: Would you say that, despite the nationwide rallies for national unity, the attacks have actually shed light on divisions within French society?

Brouard: They have definitely forced French society to face its responsibilities. The problem of Islamist terrorism carried out not by foreigners but by French citizens is now particularly visible. The question is: How will French society and the political elite respond in order to avoid lumping Muslims together with terrorists while addressing the concerns of many French citizens about migration and its consequences? How will they address the security fears of France's Jewish community and their feeling that they are targets, that they are not sufficiently protected? I think these attacks, more than revealing problems, call for answers. And I'm afraid these answers will not be easy to find.

RFE/RL: Many commentators describe the attacks as France's 9/11 and -- although the death toll is naturally not comparable -- believe there will be a "before" and an "after" the Charlie Hebdo killings in France. Do you think this is a valid comparison?

Brouard: The 9/11 attacks were the result of a large-scale plot with international ramifications. I think the situation is a little different in France. There were also international connections with al-Qaeda in Yemen and the Islamic State, but the attacks were planned and carried out in France by French citizens.

The targets, too, are different. In the United States they were mass killings targeting major political and economic institutions. In France, the target was a weekly that was marginal but also known for an outspokenness and an irreverence that was at the heart of the conflict between fundamentalism, secularism, and freedom of speech in French society. The attacks also targeted Jews. So these are quite different cases.

RFE/RL: Since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has ramped up the surveillance of individuals with a massive -- and controversial -- program of phone tapping and email interception. Do you think France will follow in Washington's footsteps in its effort to prevent further terrorist attacks?

Brouard: French people will not let the government tell them that nothing more can be done to protect freedoms and that preventing further terror attacks is impossible. So there will definitely be legislative measures that will effectively limit freedoms. The prime minister has already suggested isolating all Islamist fundamentalists in prison to avoid proselytism in jail. I assume police have been given enhanced powers to conduct interceptions and questionings in terrorism cases. The issue of the return of French Jihadists in France will be raised, too. There are already calls for preventive measures such as house arrests and surveillance.