Radicals Rising: France After the 'Charlie Hebdo' Murders

Charlie Hebdo
French soldiers patrol near the Louvre Museum in Paris as part of the highest level of "Vigipirate" security plan January 8, 2015 the day after a shooting at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo. Gonzalo Fuentes/REUTERS

Here in Paris, night has fallen and the national day of mourning has come to a close. The country is trying to recover from Wednesday's horrific attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, after gunmen stormed its offices, killing 12 and injuring others.

Early Thursday morning, still shaken, and trying to hustle my son to school, I heard that a 27-year-old policewoman was shot in south Paris. She died later in the afternoon. While her death has not been linked to the Charlie Hebdo shooting, French prosecutors are calling it a terrorist related incident. Now, there's an urgent manhunt on the street for the killers, and all day, the sound of sirens have blared across Paris, where nearly everyone feels raw and vulnerable. There hasn't been an attack like this here in decades. But what made the assault so chilling is that the killers were focused and well-trained. They had a plan, both to attack and to escape. It was calculated, and the victims were called out by name.

At noon on Thursday, the nation continued to mourn. There was a moment of silence and the bells rang out at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. They echoed throughout the city, and you could hear them across the Seine. After the last bell tolled, people—many standing beneath umbrellas—clapped and sang "La Marseillaise." Some held journalists' pencils in the air, while others carried signs that read, JE SUIS CHARLIE. ("I am Charlie"). François Hollande, the French president, who addressed the nation earlier, solemnly stood in the rain at police headquarters, his face hardened into a grimace. Tonight, some people returned to the Place de la Republique and the Charlie Hebdo offices. Others are still placing candles in their windows, a tribute to the victims and a sign of solidarity.

Paris is a sturdy place. It endured the Nazi occupation, and in my neighborhood, nearly every corner has plaque for someone who fought and died in the Resistance. In the 1990s, there were a series of terrorist attacks, and people learned to live with them. Nevertheless, people are shaken. As French the security forces searched for the suspected killers, Said and Chérif Kouachi, many people I know stayed at home on Thursday. The metros were empty. And tourists seemed to be the only ones getting their bags checked at the entrance of Le Bon Marché, the chic Left Bank department store—even though Wednesday was the first day of the massive January sales.

While France is still in shock, there is also a great sense of unity and resolve. Now more than ever, the ideas that drove the creation of the French Republic—liberty, fraternity and equality—are needed to repair the trauma created by the Charlie Hebdo assault. As former President Nicolas Sarkozy put it on Thursday, after setting aside his rivalry with Hollande to come to the Èlysèe Palace: "It was a declaration of war on civilization."

The extremists will likely twist that statement to reinforce their false narrative: That there is a war between Europe and the Muslim world. What makes this more terrifying is the prospect of a backlash by nativists on the far right. As France's security forces comb the country's north for the killers, everyone knows how easy it is to cross European borders. To travel from France to Belgium is like going from New York to Connecticut. The right uses this fact as an excuse to close the country off from immigration. But with Syria exploding and the refugee situation growing increasingly dire this winter, shuttering the borders would be cruel and reinforce the wrong message.

With more young Europeans leaving the continent for holy war abroad, we are undoubtedly vulnerable to further attacks. The wars in Iraq and Syria and the rise of the Islamic State, ISIS, have contributed to the surge, but we shouldn't forget the underlying roots of the problem. Even before the shooting, France was a fragile society in flux. The dollar is getting strong; the euro is not. Unemployment is high. Job prospects are grim. And there is an entire generation of disenfranchised French-born Muslim youth who feel they have no opportunities or future.

Life in the banlieues—the grim high rises that house many Muslim immigrants on the outskirts of French cities—is hopeless and hard. Unless you're extremely lucky or motivated, getting out is unlikely. Chérif Kouachi, the younger of the two brothers, is a prime example. Now 32, he was reportedly raised in foster homes, and later held menial jobs delivering pizza, among other things, before seeking solace in radical Islam. He also reportedly smoked pot and listened to rap—two activities, which on some level, offer a glimpse of normality, a sense that their paths did not have to lead to gunfire and bloodshed.

Nothing excuses the brutal crimes of the Charlie Hebdo shooters, who killed in cold blood. But as we seek justice for their terrible acts, we shouldn't forget where they came from. Unfortunately, my fear is that the Charlie Hebdo murders will do the opposite. That it will feed the extremists on both the left and the right. That it will activate the nationalists who see Islam as the root of all evil in this country, and it will radicalize Muslims still unsure of their place in French society. Already, there are early signs of the repercussions. Several mosques have been set on fire, and some Muslims claim they're being eyed suspiciously wherever they go. Marine Le Pen, the angel of the extreme right, grows more powerful and more frightening every day. As the manhunt for the suspected killers continues, somehow, France needs to also find a way to defeat radical Islam, to allow disenfranchised Muslims to feel at home in this country and mollify the fears among many here that their neighbors could someday become their assassins.