THE 3.7m-strong anti-terrorist marches in France made for great TV, prompting French President François Hollande to boast, quite inappropriately, that “Paris is today the capital of the world”.
Much less attention was paid to more than a dozen anti-Muslim attacks that have taken place in France since last Wednesday’s Charlie Hebdo massacre. That’s too bad, because while it’s unclear how the rallies can prevent further terrorist attacks, it’s easy to see how the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant backlash could cause more of them.
The show of global leaders’ unity at the Paris march was transparently fake.
According to reports in the Israeli press, Hollande asked both Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas not to come.
Initially, both acquiesced; Netanyahu cited security concerns and Abbas, bad weather. Then, Israeli foreign and economy ministers said they would go, and Netanyahu abruptly changed his mind.
When his office informed Hollande’s that he’d be coming after all, the Israelis were pointedly told that Netanyahu wasn’t particularly welcome and that, if he did come, Abbas would be invited, too. In the end, both attended and marched with Hollande at the front of the column.
At an event in a synagogue after the march, Hollande exited just as Netanyahu rose to speak. That was probably for the best: The Israeli leader made the point that all Jews had the option of moving to Israel if they did not feel safe enough in the country where they were.
The clash of foreign and domestic political agendas after the terrorist attack is impossible to hide.
Hollande, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Netanyahu, and Abbas attended the rally because they are all against terrorism — who’s for it except the terrorists, after all?
There is, however, little if any common ground among them. Accusations of terrorism fly between Russia and Ukraine, Israel and the Palestinians on a regular basis, and if they can ever agree on anything, it’s just that their leaders should be seen on television supporting the anti-terror cause.
Top US officials’ conspicuous absence was not so much a display of insensitivity as understandable caution: Whom exactly would the US leaders be in solidarity with?
Then there was the matter of the extreme-right Front National.
Like everyone else, it is against terrorism. It’s also against immigration and not so friendly toward Muslims (and has a history of anti-Semitism, as well). But what if it wanted to march with everyone else?
On Friday, Hollande met with Front National leader Marine Le Pen and told her, among other things, that “all French people could take part in the demonstrations”. He couldn’t have said anything else, with freedom of expression at issue in the Charlie Hebdo case.
But Le Pen must have caught a whiff of insincerity, because she claimed exclusion by other political parties from the Paris rallies and instead marched in Beaucaire, in southern France, where the Front National holds the mayoralty. The rally looked exactly like others in France, with the same “Je suis Charlie” signs, and its attendees were counted toward the 3.7m total.
In short, one could imagine the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists having a lot of fun with all this as they sit on their cloud (or, as their religious critics would have it, in a cauldron of boiling oil).
Everyone who marched did so for their own understanding of what the Charlie Hebdo attack meant.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the perpetrators of the recent “warning” attacks against French Muslims also joined the crowd.
According to MAMA, a UK organisation monitoring anti-Muslim attacks, 15 such incidents have taken place in France since last Wednesday. Some have been quite graphic: Anti-Arab graffiti on mosques, bullets fired and training grenades tossed at prayer houses, a boar’s head and entrails left outside a prayer room with a note saying, “Next time it will be one of your heads.”
Xenophobes elsewhere in Europe will also take this chance to assert themselves. Last night, in Dresden, Germany, the anti-Islamic group Pegida held its biggest rally yet. Since the Charlie Hebdo shootings, Pegida’s Faceook page has added about 20,000 supporters.
German justice minister Heiko Maas called on Pegida to cancel the gathering, denouncing the group as “hypocrites” who have protested against the “lying press” and are suddenly full of sympathy for its fallen representatives. The Pegida page’s only response has been, “What can one say???”
Marches like Pegida’s are more ideologically consistent than those held in Paris on Sunday.
They are also, of course, much smaller. But as the Charlie Hebdo massacre showed, it takes only two people to shed blood and frame the agenda as war.