The Challenge to Think Soundly about the Consequences of a Tragedy
January 9, 2015
Following the outpouring of emotion created by the terrorist attack against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and anti-Semitic murders at a kosher grocery, it will be critical for French leaders to define and steer the terms of the public debate in ways that allow French and European societies to constructively address the enormous challenges at stake: safety and security concerns and social, economic, normative and political issues. It is imperative that the extremists not be allowed to impose their agenda of violence and cultural war in order to avoid fueling divisions.
In the aftermath of the most significant terrorist attack in France for decades, hundreds of thousands of people stood spontaneously together, in France and beyond, to demonstrate their commitment to the principles of freedom of expression and their determination to stand united. These immediate reactions are moving and comforting. It demonstrates and acknowledges that this attack was not simply against a news magazine but an assault against their identity, their love for a spirit of irreverence and cynicism, and on freedom itself. This is why so many are identifying themselves with Charlie: we are all Charlie.
As for what comes next, emotions are unfortunately of little help to deal with the difficult issues ahead of us when the time of national mourning is over and the shock of this week’s events wears off. Details continue to emerge about the attackers. Time and thorough investigation will help bring answers to the questions surrounding about the assassins’ motivations, their preparations and connections with terrorist networks, in France or abroad. It is likely that acts of retaliation such as those perpetrated against several mosques in France following the attack will also affect public opinion and shape public debate.
Conducting an objective analysis about these events will be a challenge. Experts and analysts have drawn comparisons with past terrorist attacks, such as the 9/11 attacks, but those are neither right nor particularly helpful in guiding future policy choices by Paris. Are these events linked to France’s current involvement in counterterrorist operations in Sahel and in Iraq? Questions may be raised about Paris's foreign and security policy choices but these attacks will most likely reinforce France's determination to continue to combat terrorism and jihadist extremism, at home and abroad. Solidarity with our partners, among them the United States, will be more important than ever.
Perhaps more importantly, it will be the ill-advised temptation to link yesterday’s attacks with the ongoing and sensitive debates about France’s (Europe’s) national identity, or the issue of French (European) Muslims’ integration that will pose the most difficult challenge of all.
French national unity will matter greatly, and this is where France and Europe will need to engage in a societal dialogue to seek long-term solutions rather than giving into populist impulse such as arguments made by far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen on the restoration of the death penalty or demanding swift changes to immigration and security rules.
On Sunday, January 11th, a solidarity demonstration will be held in Paris which is likely to be one of the largest peaceful demonstrations in recent French history. Sunday’s solidarity march seeks to strengthen unity at this critical juncture and make it clear that the French society rejects extremism, racism and anti-Semitism. As a response to Mrs Le Pen complaint that the National Front had not been invited and to prevent early political cracks in France’s unity, President Hollande recalled that all citizens who are willing to demonstrate unity and support should attend.
We don't know what the future political consequences of this crisis will be in France. It is clear that the political situation will be closely monitored by other European countries where extremist political movements are gaining ground, such as in Germany and the UK. These political forces could be tempted, as the far-right Front National in France, to use the Paris attacks to fuel their own hostile propaganda against Muslims and immigration.
Several European leaders have announced their participation in Sunday’s solidarity demonstration which clearly demonstrates the impact of these recent extend well beyond French borders. For a shocked and grief-stricken France (as well as the international community), it is critical to take a deep political breath, avoid easy shortcuts and think soundly.
Simond de Galbert is a visiting fellow in the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.