Paris

Late last month, France’s intelligence services announced they had uncovered an extremist cell plotting an attack on national soil. The group, which calls itself the Operational Forces Action, had begun testing explosives and stockpiling weapons. Police found homemade grenades, a guide titled Homemade Napalm, 14 handguns, 22 rifles, and thousands of ammunition cartridges. Its 10 members were immediately charged with terrorist conspiracy; some were also charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives manufacturing.

French security forces have prevented scores of attacks since January 2015. But this one was different. The AFO—the organization’s French acronym—is a far-right vigilante group with the stated mission to fight the “Islamic peril,” arguing that authorities have been too lax in combating terrorism and preventing radicalization. Its members intended to execute veiled women and imams and poison the food at halal grocery stores.

Those chilling plans drew initial media attention, but the news quickly faded. The Interior Ministry announced it had been tracking the AFO since mid-April, and the group’s ringleader—a former police officer, Guy Sibra—was subsequently released with “judicial supervision.”

The AFO is an offshoot of Volunteers for France, or VPF, a legal organization with the same ideology but that claims to disavow violent tactics. The media have referred to the AFO as the “ultra-right,” to distinguish it from far-right political parties. That notably includes the recently renamed National Rally—the party formerly known as the National Front, which made unprecedented gains in the 2017 presidential elections.

National Rally leader Marine Le Pen immediately condemned the AFO’s plans, though Louis Aliot, a legislator from her party, seemed to understand where they were coming from. “If groups are forming to defend themselves,” he told the newspaper L’Opinion, “it is first and foremost because the state is being soft on radical Islam,” an explanation echoed by others on the far right.

The AFO’s Sibra, for his part, assisted with the National Front’s campaign efforts during the 2015 regional elections. One National Rally spokesperson denied any official links, but an administrative secretary, who had recruited Sibra at the time, called him “trustworthy,” “balanced,” and “proud of his land.”

Sibra left the VPF last year, calling its leadership “too soft,” and created the AFO. But while the VPF, as a legal entity, doesn’t promote physical violence, its rhetoric mirrors the AFO’s aggressive diatribes against an “internal enemy.” “We created this organization, because our French identity has been abandoned,” Antoine Martinez, the VPF’s co-president and a retired army pilot, told me, citing the “rapid Islamization” of France and Europe. The crisis, he said, is the product of decades of uncontrolled immigration and the “refusal of generations of Muslim immigrants to integrate,” notably marked by women who wear the headscarf and the presence of halal butchers and grocery stores.

“If you’ve seen Paris,” he went on, laughing, “you should know the rapid transformation that I’m talking about, and our political class isn’t doing anything to change it.” The answer, he insisted, shouldn’t be violence: “We operate in respect of the laws of the Republic.”

Martinez and his ilk rail against the open borders of the Schengen zone. He defends the notion that a “Great Replacement”—a term coined by French author Renaud Camus—is underway, imperiling Europe’s white identity. “For years some have been warning that Muslims are the fifth column,” he told me, echoing the phrase used by far-right figures in the UK and US that describes a threat from within.

With that in mind, Martinez takes issue not only with recent arrivals “of Islamic origin” but with the millions of French Muslims who make up an estimated 8 percent of the French population: “The first generation that came after colonization integrated without problem—there are some among them who are our friends, who wedded our way of life.”

That, he contends, has deteriorated with subsequent generations. “The proof,” he said, is that many of the perpetrators of the attacks that killed more than 250 people in 2015 and 2016 were French nationals, or, as he put it, “quote unquote French.”

According to Stéphane François, an expert on far-right groups at the National Center for Scientific Research, the fact that the AFO and VPF publicly diverge on the effectiveness of violence shouldn’t distract from their shared vision of society. “They both see the immigrant as a colonizer who must be sent back home.” Still, the VPF’s “goal is to incite violence,” he said. “The entire ideology is based on the notion that we are at war against a pernicious or silent Islamic occupation.”

While the French ultra-right has parallels in the United States and elsewhere in Europe, Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist of the far right at the Institute of Strategic and International Relations, emphasizes France’s unique historical relationship with the Muslim world, especially with its former colonies. The memory of the Algerian war, in particular, drives the enduring assertion that Muslims from North Africa are invading France. “All of the issues in France concerning Islam, this idea that we’re being, or will be, invaded, are all linked to our colonial past,” he explained.

The Algerian war lasted from 1954 to 1962 and was marked by horrific violence and torture on both sides, numerous assassination attempts on then-President Charles de Gaulle, and, after Algeria’s independence, the massive departure of hundreds of thousands of pieds noirs—Europeans, mostly French, who lived in French Algeria.

Much of that war played out in France. Algerian militants staged mass protests and launched terrorist attacks, and the French state responded with a heavy hand. In October 1961, for example, French riot police cracked down on pro-independence demonstrations. Over 100 died, according to some estimates, as police beat protesters and dragged others into the Seine river, which runs through Paris. That same year, 21 police officers were killed in clashes with National Liberation Front, or FLN, the movement that led the push for Algerian independence.

The memories of this violence frame the AFO’s approach, Camus said. Indeed, the group’s website is full of references to the Algerian war: “The enemy has the same origin, mentality, family upbringing and religion and the terrorists of the FLN,” the AFO site reads. Sibra is 65—“old enough to have grown up with reports of violence on the radio, to know what was going on,” Camus told me. Sibra was formerly a police officer in Marseille, “a city,” according to Camus, “where the memory of the war is omnipresent.” With that in mind, the AFO might see itself as a contemporary iteration of the Secret Army Organization, or OAS, a French far-right paramilitary formed to kill Algerian sympathizers. Recent terrorism committed by the Islamic State or its adherents, Camus argued, “has reactivated attitudes linked to the Algerian war, giving new reason to radicalize.”

The AFO and VPF were born in the aftermath of recent terrorism that reenergized decades of national debate over Islam’s visibility in the public sphere, notably with seemingly endless rancor about the hijab. France’s particular vision of secularism, or laïcité, has been a fixture of media coverage and political deliberations since the 1980s, particularly pertaining to integrating the Muslim minority.

Laïcité is the outcome of the French revolutionary revolt against the Catholic Church, which was enshrined in a 1905 law that separates religion from politics, guarantees freedom of conscience, and assures the equal footing before the law of different religions. Over time, the concept has been reinterpreted to confine religion to the private sphere; in 2004, Parliament passed a law banning religious symbols in public schools, in response to the increasing number of middle- and high-school students who came to school wearing a hijab. Since then, France has attempted to navigate what can seem—especially seen from the United States, with its own notion of religious freedom—like an obsession with the headscarf, which many here insist is a symbol of political Islam.

“France, unlike the United States, believes that one becomes French by losing their identity, by shedding their difference,” François explained to me. “And so the argument goes that the Muslim—and especially the Muslim woman—with her veil, with her practices, is not one of us.” That vision of national identity, he added, “has created a favorable climate that resonates with the ultra-right—that the French model of integration no longer works because Muslims increasingly refuse to integrate.”

Many Muslims see the dynamics François describes as an inevitable outcome of those decades of media coverage, exacerbated by the climate of suspicion and hysteria that has reigned since 2015. Although the spike in hate crimes against Muslims that followed the attacks on the staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo quickly leveled off, a national fixation with Islam endures. The resulting narrative often blurs the line between displaying an adherence to the religion and being a potential radical. A spate of recent controversies over women who cover their hair—from Maryam Pougetoux, a student-union representative who wore a hijab, to Mennel Ibtissim, a candidate on the singing competition The Voice who wears a turban—attest to the near consensus that any woman who wears the hijab is peddling an extremist ideology that makes her a threat to social cohesion.

Amid the outcry over Pougetoux’s hijab—the argument went that a religious Muslim can’t defend the progressive ideals of the national student union—Interior Minister Gérard Collomb likened her to the “youth who are attracted to the Islamic State.” Terrorism experts overwhelmingly consider that reading out of touch with the reality of radicalization; for many Muslims, it was another example of political pandering to a public increasingly hostile to Islam’s visibility.

“What person in his right mind can be minister of the interior and say that on TV?” Yasser Louati, a Muslim activist and cofounder of the Committee of Justice and Freedom for All, an international anti-racism organization, asked, incredulously. “It shouldn’t be shocking that the AFO, claiming to fight radical Islam, selects people who look like her as targets.”

Frustration with Muslims’ presumed radicalism or complicity with Islamist ideology is a recurrent theme in the scores of interviews I’ve conducted with Muslim teens and in the responses to over 500 questionnaires I’ve distributed to classrooms with large Muslim populations over the last 10 months. Karima, a high-school senior in Vitry-sur-Seine, a suburb south of Paris, described a “reflex to do everything possible to undermine the credibility of a woman who wears a headscarf.” She attributes that to “the media, which constantly revolves around Islam and the threat it poses, and that the public follows like sheep.” Inès, a high-school student in Drancy, in the northeast suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis lamented a “national fear in which people don’t see a religion but a violent ideology.” That “misunderstanding means that nobody can look beyond a woman’s headscarf, to see her ideas, or who she is, and so laïcité becomes a justification to erase her.” For her classmate Sherine, the link is automatic and established: “They assume that, because for personal reasons you decided to cover your hair, you have an absolutist vision of Islam, and so you’re a terrorist.”

The ultra-right—as well as the political far right—naturally advances those false generalizations. But the sentiment transcends partisan divides. Opposition to the hijab, for example, is prominent among the so-called republican left, which argues that the garb undermines gender equality, is an emblem of political Islam, and is a sign of differentiation that disrupts national unity. “Even seemingly progressive circles have embraced the urgency to ‘normalize’ the Muslim population,” François told me.

In a statement, the Republican Spring—a movement established in 2016 that embodies that segment of the left—condemned the AFO’s plans. But it also lashed out against those who argued that the drone of controversies over laïcité and Islam could have galvanized the ultra-right’s views. They say the logic is the inverse, adding that the polemics that have arisen “have nothing to do with Islam,” the religion, “but with Islamism,” the ideology that has inspired extremist groups. The Republican Spring’s detractors, however, maintain that during the outrage over Pougetoux, for example, the movement failed to differentiate between Islam and Islamism, characterizing a student-union president protesting government reforms to university admissions as a representative of hard-line political Islam. The reason was her hijab; her insistence that it had no political significance did little to budge the imposed label.

I asked Martinez, the co-president of the VPF, what he thought about those incidents, and whether he agreed with the outcry on the left. “We’ve been talking about laïcité nonstop for some 20 years now,” he told me. “And why give it so much attention? Because there’s an ideology—it’s not even a religion, it’s simply an ideology, that wants to impose sharia in France, and so that’s why everyone feels the need to talk about laïcité. The real subject isn’t laïcité—it’s Islam.”

For many Muslims, Sibra’s swift release was an example of the state’s indifference to their community, especially in contrast to the response to those suspected of collaborating with Islamist terror groups, like the Islamic State. The same day he was released, for instance, a man received a four-year prison sentence for having posted a picture of that group’s flag on his Facebook page. “It sends the message that if you are part of a white terrorist organization, you can get away with it,” Louati said.

Lila Charef, the co-director of the French Collective Against Islamophobia, was angry that “even after our security services showed Sibra’s intent to act, his stockpiled weapons, his plans to make bombs—that he was being monitored—they would let him go,” she said. “It’s extremely serious,” she added, stressing a link between the AFO’s plans to target women in hijabs and the national attitude toward them. “It confirms the alarm bells we’ve been sounding for years, that in France, a women in a hijab is considered such a danger.”

The AFO remains small, and both Camus and François warned against exaggerating its capabilities. But its website has been updated daily since its members were arrested—with regular tirades against Muslims, but also Jews—hinting that its scope might be greater than what meets the eye.

According to a 2016 survey, the majority of the French population estimates that the Muslim community is four times larger than it actually is; a 2018 survey shows that nearly half believe that Islam is “not compatible with the Republic.” The wartime rhetoric employed by the ultra-right, while sensationalized and vitriolic, echoes the national mood. “I hate to say it, but there’s a climate of acceptance,” François said, noting that halal butcher shops are regularly vandalized. But “nobody talks about it.” France’s experience with terrorism, he said dryly, “makes people think that Muslims are asking for it.”