Paris, France – On Boulevard Richard Lenoir, a few metres from the former office of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper, a small crowd gathers around the spot where French policeman Ahmed Merabet was killed by attackers as he tried to stop them from fleeing the scene of their mass murder.
Standing there, shivering, Sophie cries silently as she looks at the pile of notes, flags and flowers on the ground.
“I can’t stop crying,” said the 50-year-old school librarian, who did not want to give her last name because she lives near where the attackers did and is “scared”.
“I find it very difficult what’s happening. It’s shocking, it’s sad, it’s unbelievable that you can kill people like that. We’re in France, a free country, we want to live in peace. I’m very afraid of racism. I think it’s going to be very tense for several weeks, several months, several years, between the populations.”
A week after the attacks that killed 17 in Paris, tensions are rising in France from schools to the streets, and fears of racism and sectarianism are growing.
As the country tries to grasp the events and understand the root cause of the attacks, one political party is ready to seize the moment to position itself as the unique solution to the French ordeal: Marine Le Pen’s far-right party, the Front National, which has long challenged France’s immigration policies.
|Police officers carry coffins draped in the French flag of three colleagues killed in the attacks [AFP]
“I think the French have understood today that Marine Le Pen is the most legitimate person to talk about the issue, since the Front National has been alerting about the Islamist danger for years,” said Julien Rochedy, a member of the party’s central committee.
“She is the only one who has no responsibility in what happened: if we had listened to her before, maybe we could have avoided this kind of situation.”
The Front National – which scored 25 percent, its highest ever percentage of the vote in the European parliamentary elections last May, as well as a number of wins in municipal elections in March – expects important gains in popularity figures in the coming weeks.
The party’s head of new membership, Sandrine Leroy, is already boasting “at least 3,000 new memberships” on some days since the attack. “We saw a huge peak on the day of the attack, the day of Charlie Hebdo, January 7, and another peak on January 9,” she said. “Usually it’s more like 100 or 150 per day.”
It’s impossible to independently verify these claims, but the Front National does appear set to win over new voters and secure higher poll ratings. The party has taken advantage of the killings to push its agenda and ask for tougher measures: the return of the death penalty, the suspension of the visa-free Schengen zone in Europe, and stripping dual nationals of their French citizenship if they commit crimes.
Le Pen has been careful not to link the Muslim community directly to the attacks.
“It’s up to them to show that you can be French and Muslim and still respect secular rules,” Le Pen told Al Jazeera’s Jacky Rowland this week. “For that we have to oppose all demands that aim to shatter secularism: demands for different clothes, demands for special food, demands for prayer rooms, demands that create special rules that would allow Muslims to behave differently.“
Other National Front members are less cautious when discussing the attacks in relation to Islam.
“We are the victims of Islamist barbarism. Let’s not be afraid of words, let’s call a spade a spade,” said Fabien Engelmann, the Front National mayor of Hayange, a city in northeastern France. “We have a problem with this massive immigration that unfortunatley arrives every day.”
When reminded that attackers Cherif Kouachi, his brother Said Kouachi, and their friend Amedy Coulibaly were all born and raised in France, Engelmann replied, “They are French on paper, they are not French in their heart.”
According to the latest poll conducted by the IFOP agency between January 6-8 – before and after the attacks – Le Pen’s popularity rating was 31 percent, down 1 percent compared to December.
Analysts say it’s too soon to evaluate the party’s potential gains.
“It’s a unique event of such magnitude that it‘s very difficult to identify its implications,” said Frédéric Micheau, deputy director of IFOP polling agency. “There has been a very strong moment of national unity, so for now traditional political life has not resumed.”
|The latest issue of Charlie Hebdo with the headline: ‘All is Forgiven’ [AP]
For the Front National, last week’s attacks are certainly a turning point and a possible springboard. But Le Pen and her father have also made a few blunders.
The former leader of the party, Jean Marie Le Pen, refused to associate with the slogan “I am Charlie”, which expresses solidarity with the newspaper Charlie Hebdo – whose cartoonists were the main targets.
“I’m not Charlie,” Jean Marie Le Pen said.
As for his daughter Marine Le Pen, she didn’t join the Paris rally on Sunday, saying she and her supporters had been excluded. Le Pen chose to walk in one of “her” cities in the southern town of Beaucaire.
“She positions herself as the voice of clarity and sanity, saying she understood better and before all others what was going on,” said Dominique Moisi, senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations, a Paris think-tank.
“At the same time, she has been relatively marginalised since the big demonstration last Sunday when all the French marched in the streets, not against extremism and Islam, but for the values of France and the Republic.”
The attacks in France mark “a turning point” and “a game-changer”, added Moisi.
“But at this point it’s very difficult to know in which direction the pendulum will swing – are the events a plus or a minus for Marine Le Pen?” he said.
Since the Charlie Hebdo attack, dozens of new pages have popped on Facebook calling for the French to rise up against the “invasion” of Islam. Among them the page of Lucide Breizh, created at 1am on January 9 with the proclamed goal of “fighting together against the islamisation of Europe”. So far the page has only 330 “Likes”.