Gavin Mortimer

France has become a religious battleground

France has become a religious battleground
Text settings

The new year has not started well for France. On the last day of 2015 - the most traumatic year for the French in decades because of the twin attacks in Paris - president Francois Hollande warned the nation in his traditional New Year's Eve address: 'France is not done with terrorism... these tragic events will remain for ever etched in our memories, they shall never disappear. But despite the tragedy, France has not given in. Despite the tears, the country has remained upright.'

Hollande's warning was borne out within 24 hours. On the first day of 2016 a lone motorist - inspired by Islamic State - drove at a group of soldiers guarding a Mosque in Valence. There were no fatalities, though the driver was shot and wounded, but six days later another Isis supporter was shot dead as he charged a police station in the north of Paris brandishing a knife and wearing what turned out to be a fake suicide vest.

Then in Marseille on Monday a 15-year-old Turkish-Kurd boy wounded a Jewish teacher in a machete attack in broad daylight, boasting to the police that he had acted in the name of Isis. It was the third such attack in three months in the Mediterranean city and the teacher spoke later of the 'hate in the eyes' of his assailant as he rained down blows. On Tuesday Jews were advised by Zvi Ammar, head of Marseille's Israelite Consistory, to 'remove the kippah during this troubled time until better soon as we are identified as Jewish we can be assaulted and even risk death.'

The reaction to the trio of attacks has followed a now familiar pattern. Politicians visit the scene, praise the security forces and call on people to remain vigilant, and united. But worryingly for Hollande and his government there are signs that the nation's solidarity is splintering.

The story that dominated the French media over the Christmas period was of the civil disorder in Corsica. It began on 24 December when a fire crew were attacked by a mob when they were lured to a predominantly Muslim housing estate in a suburb of Ajaccio, the island's capital. On Christmas Day a crowd of several hundred Corsicans descended on the estate chanting 'Arabs Get Out!' Some of the protestors broke into a Muslim prayer hall and burned copies of the Koran. The violence panicked the French government. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve flew to Corsica and called for calm while Prime Minister Manuel Valls condemned both attacks, declaring: 'These unworthy acts bruise the Republic.' In the same week footage emerged on social media of a group of citizens confronting a group of migrants in Calais with a man heard saying he was going to 'fetch my gun'.

These two incidents at the opposite end of the country are deeply troubling for France. At the start of December, Valls warned of a 'civil war' in response to the strong showing of the right-wing Front National in regional elections. The FN were kept out of power in those elections because of the Socialist Party's second round tactic - its supporters blocked right-wing candidates by voting for Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right party, Les Republicains. Nonetheless a record 6.8m people voted for Marine Le Pen's party in that second round. They now feel emboldened but also embittered at the manner in which the political class contrived to keep their party from winning any of France's thirteen regions.

It's a potent brew, and though talk of a 'civil war' is, for the moment, just political scare-mongering, the atmosphere in France has darkened in the last few weeks. On Sunday the country's politicians gathered in Paris to commemorate the first anniversary of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish supermarket. The turnout was disappointing, and when the Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, unveiled a plaque in Paris’s Place de la République, she was asked if she was surprised by the sparse crowds. 'Parisians are not really morning people,' she quipped.

Her weak joke didn't elicit much of a laugh for French humour is in short supply. Just hours before the commemoration a church in Fontainebleau was targeted by arsonists, the latest in an increasing number of attacks against Christian places of worship. According to Liberation, there were 591 acts of arson or vandalism against religious buildings in France in 2014, of which 467 (79 percent) were Christian.

Synagogues have largely escaped attack. This is partly because in recent years security has been increased, following the attack in 2012 on a Jewish school in Toulouse by Mohamed Merah. However, this hasn't deterred Jews leaving France in record numbers. In 2014 around 7,000 Jews emigrated to Israel, a 130 percent increase on the previous year, while an estimated 9,000 are believed to have left last year (the official figures are yet to be released). Many are fleeing France because of anti-Semitism; 851 incidents were recorded in 2014, up from 423 the previous year. But 2015 looks like it will set a new record for anti-Semitic acts in France with official statistics revealing that between January and May 2015 there was a staggering 84 percent increase on the same period the previous year. The 2014 report didn't detail the religion of the perpetrators but in most of the incidents cited, Jews were attacked because of the situation in Palestine. The same report also noted that there were 133 anti-Muslim acts recorded in France in 2014.

On Sunday evening Nicolas Sarkozy received the Rabbi Moshe Rosen prize from the Conference of European Rabbis at a ceremony in London. The president of the Conference, Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldsmith, praised the former president of France for his support over the years, but also noted the increasing number of French Jews who have moved to England because of fears for their safety back home. 'France right now is the main battleground between hope and fear for the future of Europe,' said Goldsmith, 'especially for the Jewish community.'

The Chief Rabbi is right. France has become a battleground and the country can expect further casualties in 2016. As an unnamed French senior counter-terrorism official suggested last week 'Unfortunately, I think 2015 was nothing. We are moving towards a European 9/11: simultaneous attacks on the same day in several countries, several places. A very coordinated thing. We know the terrorists are working on this.'

Gavin Mortimer is the author of ‘The Men Who Made the SAS: a History of the Long Range Desert Group in WW2’.