“Terror is first of all the terror of the next attack,” writes Arjun Appadurai in Fear of Small Numbers. “It opens the possibility that anyone may be a soldier in disguise, a sleeper among us, waiting to strike at the heart of our social slumber.”
As France returns to a new normal following the horrific assassinations in and around Paris, the fear of the next attack is likely to intensify the frightening rightward and xenophobic trend in the nation’s politics.
Such is the inevitable fallout from terrorism. When a clique of self-indulgent individuals act violently on behalf of those with whom they have no organic political connection, they don’t win broad support or convert the doubtful; they make those they ostensibly champion more vulnerable. Even when their professed goals are legitimate, the methods they use to try to achieve them set the cause back, polarizing people in fear. That fear not only provides the pretext for brutal and disproportionate retaliation from the state, but actively builds public support for that retaliation in the political culture. The extremes naturally reinforce each other, each nourishing the other’s neurosis. The margins harden; the center folds.
Where France is concerned, this process has long been under way. Even before the attacks against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, a kosher supermarket and two other individuals, the country’s electoral drift to the right was clear. In elections to the European Parliament in May, the extreme-right-wing Front National emerged as the nation’s largest party. In every subsequent poll since then, the party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, has been the first or second choice for the presidency, which will be contested in 2017. Brazenly Islamophobic, racist and xenophobic, the National Front has tried hard to shrug off its reputation for anti-Semitism. (Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father and the party’s founder, once dismissed World War II gas chambers as “‘a detail’ of history.”)
So for all the talk about the attacks pitting barbarism against liberty, barbarism was already deeply ingrained in the French electorate, where, as in much of Europe, the margins have effectively become the mainstream. And while this cannot be denied as an electoral fact—the Front National has for some time been one of France’s three main parties—it has been resisted as a political reality. The other two parties ostracize the FN even as they ape its rhetoric and pilfer its policies. President François Hollande refused to invite it to participate in the huge march of “unity” in Paris the Sunday after the attacks, revealing the challenges of building a broad-based response that does not scapegoat Muslims. How do you rally a country together against both terror and bigotry when a quarter of its citizens vote for a bigot and roughly 8 percent (the approximate percentage of French Muslims) feel they have to prove that they are not terrorists? “Unity” with whom, on what basis, and to what end?
In practice, however, the Front National simply capitalized on its exclusion, claiming victimhood and using it as evidence that the FN stands apart from an insular and ineffective political establishment. This is unlikely to do the party much harm, because that establishment has consistently failed to protect the living standards of working- and middle-class people in France. “This whole thing is a way of pushing aside the only political movement that has no responsibility in the present situation, along with its millions of voters,” Marine Le Pen told Le Monde. “All the other parties are deathly afraid. They’re thinking of their little elections and their little mandates. Their old reflexes that have frozen political life for twenty years and that dug the chasm between those who govern and the people.”
Indeed, the anxieties that the FN embodies transcend race and religion; they extend to neoliberal globalization, underpinned by what academic Paul Gilroy has termed “post-colonial melancholia”: a former world power nostalgic for its privileged place on the global stage, and with convenient amnesia about the atrocities it committed to get there. It’s a concern shared by French cultural elites, even if they don’t openly identify with the Front National. Charlie Hebdo’s cover story the week it was attacked featured Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, Submission, about a Muslim becoming president of France in 2022 (the horror!). Le Pen called it “a fiction that could one day become a reality.” Another bestseller since autumn has been a 500-page essay, The French Suicide, by Éric Zemmour, which insists that immigration, feminism and the 1968 student uprisings have paved the way for disaster in France.
So when two young men of Algerian descent walk into Charlie’s offices in Paris, ask for cartoonists by name and then start executing them—and their accomplice shoots a policewoman, a jogger and four people in a Jewish supermarket—they do not create a climate of fear and suspicion; they exemplify and embody it in the most graphic and brutal of ways.
“We’ve been predicting this for a long time,” said Jean-Marie Le Pen not long after the shootings. “It was to be expected. This attack is probably the beginning of the beginning. It’s an episode in the war that is being waged against us by Islamism. The blindness and deafness of our leaders, for years, is in part responsible for these kinds of attacks.” Meanwhile, his daughter Marine called for a return to the death penalty and for sealing the borders—the first salvo in a broadside of policies that will do nothing for poor white people while making life hell for immigrants, people of color and Muslims, and thus nourish the grievances that nurture terrorists.
So it is that fundamentalism of religion finds its ideological kin in the fundamentalism of nation and race. Coming full circle, like a noose, squeezing the humanity from a fragile body politic.