A year after Charlie Hebdo, Paris is a city on lockdown
New Year’s Eve in Paris is normally one of the most optimistic times of the year. The Champs-Elysées is packed with crowds; cafes and restaurants are full; fireworks screech across the night sky; and everyone is looking forward with hope and expectation.
Except none of this happened this year. Instead, January 1, 2016 opened with severe disillusionment, sadness and fear.
Large gatherings were not allowed, champagne and other alcoholic drinks were confiscated on major roads like the Champs, and there was also a strict ban on pyrotechnics. This was because they sound too much like the Kalashnikov discharges that, along with suicide bombs, were used to murder 147 people in cold blood over the course of 2015.
Horrific as it sounds, Paris is now a terrorist city. A state of emergency remains in place, and those in authority see no possibility whatsoever of a swift resolution to the crisis.
Soon after the November 13 attacks on the French capital, in which 130 died, president François Hollande said: “These acts of war have been decided and planned in Syria. They have been organised in Belgium and perpetrated on our soil with French accomplices.”
The president’s reference to “war” was very deliberate. He believes that France is at the centre of an all-out fight to the death with ISIL – the terror organisation which now controls vast swaths of Iraq and Syria and is also making significant inroads into countries from Afghanistan to Yemen.
All of the November attackers were affiliated with ISIL, while the two brothers who slaughtered many of the staff of Charlie Hebdo magazine in January last year claimed allegiance to Al Qaeda in Yemen. A third killer, who murdered police and Jewish shoppers, also propagated on behalf of ISIL, though he was more of a lone wolf freelance terrorist, who had not trained abroad.
“The common link between all these men is that they had Belgium or French passports and as such were allowed to travel anywhere they wanted in Europe,” a highly placed French security source told me.
“They took advantage of border controls that were in the main non-existent. Almost all the men were known to the security services, and most had backgrounds in crimes beyond terrorism. Some had spent time in prison. All were able to get hold of weapons, including Kalashnikovs and explosives, relatively easily. These are the kind of problems which need to be addressed.”
It is this notion of tiny but determined groups of so-called “home-grown” radicals that the security forces fear the most.
Despite the obvious clues that they present to the authorities, they are extremely hard to monitor. The government has flooded the streets of Paris and other cities with 10,500 troops, along with 5,000 extra police, but there are constant failures by the intelligence agencies.
This is particularly the case when so many of the killers are from just across the open border with Belgium. The rundown Brussels suburb of Molenbeek is where many of the worst offenders were born and brought up. Responding to allegations that it was now Europe’s foremost “terrorist den”, mayor Françoise Schepmans said: “What can I do about them? It’s not my role to track them all down”.
Ms Schepmans said it was instead the task of the police to find and arrest the terrorists, but they, in turn, say they are being let down by the security operatives. It is such buck-passing that causes immense difficulties. Beyond this, Belgium has become an unofficial market for the vast trade in guns flooding into western Europe from the old Eastern Bloc countries, and especially those in the Balkans. The cellars and garages around Molenbeek are thought to be full of every type of weapon and ammunition.
This has prompted Manuel Valls, France’s prime minister, to warn that France’s war on terror is likely to last indefinitely, because there is a “permanent” threat of more attacks. He has also made references to a divided France: he said everything needed to be done to resolve problems on impoverished housing estates, which contrast with the far more privileged areas of the country.
Raising the notion of a “territorial, social and ethnic apartheid”, Mr Valls said that a handful of French citizens would continue to be tempted by radical Islamism if social and economic conditions did not improve.
Such observations inevitably provoked criticism from right-wing demagogues including Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president who now leads the Republican Party, and Florian Philippot, of the more extreme National Front. Their agenda is to stigmatise the often immigrant, non-white communities who live on the estates. They do everything they can to portray them as antisocial undesirables.
The attacks have certainly made life much harder for France’s Muslim population, which is estimated at more than 5 million (the nature of the secular republic means there are no official statistics on such subjects). Islamophobic assaults by racist groups and individuals are on the increase. Meanwhile, police have conducted almost 3,000 raids under the state of emergency announced by Mr Hollande in November. Of these, just two led to further legal action.
Using extraordinary powers, officers frequently enter mosques and Muslim households and businesses without warrant, arresting hundreds of people on often-tenuous grounds. This has led to serious tensions.
Yasser Louati, a spokesman for the Collective Against Islamophobia, said: “Muslims in France feel like public enemy number one. There is growing fear, and legal complaints are being filed.”
In the meantime, politicians call for national unity while apparently continuing to favour one social group over another. It is a sense of inequality that is summed up by Charlie Hebdo itself.
Beyond the demonic and inexcusable crimes that were committed against the magazine, there is much evidence that it has been adopted as a convenient ally by a coalition of right-wing racists and highly aggressive secularists who share a hatred of Islam.
The publication is effectively state-sponsored, and also kept afloat by millions in charitable donations, rather than the popularity or quality of its drawings or satirical writing.
In fact, “free speech” and the “right to offend” are criminalised every day. So it was that pro-Palestine marches have been banned, and the comic Dieudonné M’bala M’bala was given a suspended prison sentence for his “bad taste” act.
The overwhelming feeling is of a hypocritical, inconsistent Paris establishment which embraces freedom and equality, but only if you are prejudiced against particular groups.
Meanwhile, Mr Hollande, a foreign-policy hawk, continues to bomb Muslim majority countries. His long-term goal is to wipe out ISIL, and he is commended for this by numerous people, including many Muslims, but the short-term reality is that civilian deaths and military stalemate are likely to make France’s terrorist crisis far, far worse.
Nabila Ramdani is a French-Algerian journalist and broadcaster who specialises in Islamic affairs and the Arab world
On Twitter: @NabilaRamdani
Updated: January 16, 2016 04:00 AM