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Paris Terror Attacks: Will France Ever Be the Same Again?

Political analyst Jérôme Sainte-Marie fears the Charlie Hebdo murders will see racist and xenophobic attitudes go mainstream.

by Jérôme Sainte-Marie
09 January 2015, 1:20pm

President Francois Hollande, photo via Wiki Media.

Today, Paris is still reeling from the mass shootings at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday and the shooting in Montrouge Thursday morning. At the time of writing, the death toll is at least 15, including two as yet unidentified people killed today at a siege at a kosher supermarket in the city's 20th arrondissement. The shooter there – who has taken hostages – is thought to be the man from Montrouge. Meanwhile, the suspects from the Hebdo attack are also holding a hostage after being pursued and cornered by the authorities on an industrial estate northeast of Paris. Reports continue to drip through of attacks on mosques, presumably carried out by antagonists from France's right wing.

Here, political analyst Jérôme Sainte-Marie, president of PollingVox – a highly-respected research agency that helps encourage and inform public debate – explains why the events are likely to have disastrous consequences for French society and the country's already fragile government.

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"There has been a shift in the French public opinion over the last decade. While racism against North African or Arabic people has declined, this has been counter-balanced with growing concerns about Islam. People used to fear immigration because of unemployment – now they fear it because of religious matters.

Racist prejudices may have declined in France, but cultural clashes are more present than ever. As a consequence, an increasing number of French people are starting to think that Islam is not compatible with democracy, and that Muslim people aren't able to integrate into their society.

There was a major turning point in 2010, when former president Nicolas Sarkozy's discourse became much more hostile to immigration. This continued during the run-up to the 2012 elections – he referred many times to "halal meat", for instance – which had a very negative impact, as it legitimised anti-immigration and anti-Islamic positions in society.

Photo taken at the Charlie Hebdo crime scene yesterday, photos by Etienne Rouillon

Polls have shown that French people largely believe that the integration of foreigners into their society is not working well, and that less than 25 percent of the people in France have a positive image of Islam. 80 percent believe wearing the veil is a problem for society. A good example of growing tensions is the increasing amount of graffiti on religious sites or in cemeteries that have been reported in the last few years.

Yesterday's attacks can only exacerbate pessimism for the future of France. It might also crystallise certain attitudes, such as the idea that Islam, in its very essence, is different to any other religion. The concept of secularism – very dear to French society – might be used more and more as a weapon against Islam. As well as ostracising the Muslim minority, in the long term, this may encourage people to adopt a national outlook on things, rather than an international one.

Consequences will also be harsh for the French government. Our government is currently the most unpopular that France has ever known. Less than one in five citizens support President François Hollande, and the left wing has been losing all the partial elections for the last two years.

Recent polls by the French organisation IFOP have shown that, if France were to hold a general election now, opposition to the right wing would see votes leaking to the far right, leaving the left wing out entirely.

The recent attacks can only exacerbate public pessimism for the future of France.

This current, weakening influence of the executive power is unprecedented in France. It's largely due to the lack of an effective government response to people's main concern: unemployment. Policy has not yielded any tangible social or economic results and, once the raw mourning period relating to the attacks has dissipated, there will inevitably be strong critiques towards the government regarding security policies, which have previously been labelled as too permissive, and not supportive enough of the police.

The police have been a clear target in these attacks, which will put the Prime Minister and the Minister of Internal Affairs in an unsteady position. As public support plummets even further, an already weak government will become profoundly fragile.

The Front National – France's leading far-right party – will undoubtedly benefit from all this tumult, as it is currently the only party directly and publicly linking immigration to internal security problems. Its influence is currently reaching the same levels as the right-wing UMP party, and far outweighs that of the Socialists.

The direct effect of these attacks on French society remains hard to predict, but it will largely depend on how the government responds in the next few weeks. It is highly unlikely, however, that the outcome will be positive for Hollande or his party.

As told to Alice Tchernookova.

More coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attacks:

Internet Commenters: This Is Why I And Other Muslims Won't Apologise for the Charlie Hebdo Attacks

A Short History of the Controversies and Violence That Have Dogged Charlie Hebdo

In Photos: 'I Am Charlie' Vigil Held in Paris For Murdered 'Charlie Hebdo' Journalists