Flags at half-mast and a moving minute's silence across France – and in many other countries too – on Thursday showed the depth of emotion, grief and shock felt after Wednesday's bloody massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. From Left to Right, politicians queued up to heed President François Hollande’s repeated calls for the nation to “unite” after the killings that left 12 people dead.
On Sunday, meanwhile, representatives from across the Left, including the Socialist Party, the Greens and the French Communist Party, will take part in Sunday's 'Republican march' in Paris, as will former president and head of the main right-wing opposition UMP party Nicolas Sarkozy, who was personally invited by prime minister Manuel Valls, and members of the centrist UDI. The march had been scheduled for Saturday but so many different associations wanted to take part that it was decided to put it back 24 hours. The one dissonant note came from Marine Le Pen, president of the far-right Front National, who said that as of Thursday afternoon she has not been invited, and who suggested that talk of a “national union” was perhaps little more than “pathetic” manoeuvring against her party and its voters.
Sarkozy meanwhile, had, along with other political leaders, been invited for talks with President Hollande at the Elysée. “Civilised people must unite to respond to barbarism,” said the former president after a 45-minute discussion with his successor, almost adopting the tone of the neo-conservatives in the United States after the 9/11 tragedy. Sarkozy added that he was “deeply moved” by the “spontaneous demonstrations of unity” across France, in reference to the gatherings that took place across many towns and cities in France on Wednesday evening.
The French Parliament, too, witnessed a rare display of togetherness when the National Assembly's president Claude Bartolone and the presidents of its various political groups, from the hard-left Front de Gauche to the UMP, launched a joint appeal for “national union around the memory of the people cowardly murdered, journalists and police officers, for solidarity towards the people wounded and towards all the families of the victims, and an affirmation of the values and principles that are the basis of our Republic”. From his stronghold in Pau in south-west France the leader of the centrist Modem party, François Bayrou, stated: “Today we have just one duty, to close ranks and take part in national union.”
However, Sarkozy himself hinted at a resumption of more normal politics soon, after the period of mourning, when he spoke about the need for “strong measures against terrorism”. A national secretary of the UMP, David-Xavier Weiss, went further when he said it was “sad to see the UMP leadership sink into the verbiage and the trap of 'national unity'”.
On Wednesday evening, during a special broadcast by Mediapart devoted to the Charlie Hebdo attack, Christine Lazerges, president of the national consultative committee on human rights the Commission nationale consultative des droits de l'homme (CNCDH), had already warned against any move to “diminish our fundamental freedoms to fight against terrorism”. The honorary president of the human rights league the Ligue des droits de l'homme (LDH), Jean-Pierre Dubois, added: “It would be the biggest error one could make.” He said he feared new laws along the lines of the Patriot Act passed in the United States after the 9/11 attacks.
It was, meanwhile, on the hard-right and far-right that the first real breaches in national unity occurred. Meyer Habib, an MP for the centrist UDI party but often seen as representing the views of the Israeli right, said: “We are in a fight against jihadism, against this darkness. We have to open our eyes.”
Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, president of his own right-wing party Debout La République ('Arise the Republic'), said: “We have to look at things truthfully, France is at war.” This was not just a war in Mali or Iraq, but an “internal war” too, he said. “There should be no taboos in our analysis. Let's address the real questions: controlling our borders, the means required by our police and intelligence services, the functioning of our justice system, the leadership and financing of the Muslim faith in France and the nature of our state schools.”
As for the far-right National Front, its president Marine Le Pen was angry on Thursday that she had still not been invited to Sunday's march. “No one has invited the FN,” said Marine Le Pen in Le Monde. “Things are now clear and the masks have dropped. The national union is a pathetic political manoeuvre.” The FN leader said the party had no desire to be part of a national union which was a form of “blackmail” where you can go “on condition that you keep quiet”. She added: “This is all a way to try and keep away the only political movement which has absolutely no responsibility for the current situation, as well as its millions of voters. All the other parties are scared to death. They think of their own little elections and their terms in office.” Le Pen made it clear she would not attend the march if she was not invited, describing that as “the old trap”.
Marine Le Pen had been cautious in her early comments on the atrocity, stating that the “nation is united in condemning this odious act” and that “the nation is united in saying that we are all French, whatever our origins”. But she was also quick to describe the attack as one carried out by “fundamentalist Islamists”. And she also played on people's fears when she stated that a war had “been declared” on France and spoke of a “murderous ideology that is causing thousands of deaths in the world”. Marine Le Pen said it was the aim of the terrorist to spread fear and that the fear “must be overcome”. Then she said she wanted to “be able to speak freely about Islamic fundamentalism” and said that people “should not be silent, and should start by daring to say what has happened: it is a terrorist attack committed in the name of radical Islamism”. Marine Le Pen also recalled her party's support for a referendum on the restoration of the death penalty in France.
Her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, former FN president and the party's honorary life president, did not feel in any way constrained by the calls for unity. Though he drew a distinction between “Muslim compatriots attached to our country and its values” and those who “believed they could kill in the name of Islam”, he told Le Figaro that his party had been “warning of all this” for some time. “It was to be expected. This attack is probably the beginning of the start. It's an episode in the war waged on us by Islamism.” Then in a blunt attack on the mainstream parties he said: “The blindness and the deafness of our leaders for years are in part responsible for this attack.”
Asked about the call for national unity Jean-Marie Le Pen said: “I'd first of all like to know what the limits are of this national unity. Will it include the Front National this time? Or just go from the anarchists to the UMP?” He added: “I don't want to support impotent and incoherent government action faced with a problem that is obviously very closely linked with the massive immigration our country has been subjected to for 40 years.”
- The French version of this story can be found here.
English version by Michael Streeter