Four million people marched across France yesterday in the wake of the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket that left 17 people dead. The Unity march was, according to some, the biggest demonstration since the Liberation of Paris in August 1944.
Impressive – yes, a defining moment – almost certainly, problematic – most definitely.
The reason people joined the protests were many and varied. One thing everyone agrees on was that the main slogan on the demonstration was “Je suis Charlie”.
The slogan is loaded and clearly encapsulates a broad spectrum of political opinions, ranging from those on the right who want to defend the French Republic and “Western values”, to the left and anti-racists who marched in solidarity with those murdered and who oppose Islamophobia.
For the record this was not a mass protest of reaction. It is a complex movement that took to the streets on Sunday, one with different political objectives, but and it is a big but, mobilisations on the streets are not always positive – they can be used as a mobilising force by the state and dark forces.
One glaring problem was the sight of 44 world leaders marching at the front of the demonstration. And a bigger line up of war criminals, hypocrites and opponents of free speech and multi-culturalism it would be hard to find.
David Cameron told the press:
We are here to demonstrate that we all stand for the values of democracy, freedom, freedom of expression and tolerance.
This vocal opponent of multi-culturalism and supporter of the war on terror has no right to lecture people on tolerance and freedom and neither has the ex-President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy. He was also at the front of the protest and is another opponent of multi-culturalism. He introduced the ban on Muslims wearing the veil and during the Arab Spring he supported the reactionary regimes of Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
If that wasn’t bad enough Benjamin Netanyahu popped up, trying to rehabilitate Israel. This man is responsible for the murderous assault on Gaza that left over 2,100 Palestinians dead. IDF troops killed 17 journalists during the war; this has prompted calls for war crimes charges to be brought against the state of Israel
The Saudi Arabian Ambassador even made an appearance, yes the ambassador of the country that sentenced liberal blogger and activist, Raif Badwai to a thousand lashes for ‘insulting Islam’ only last Friday.
France and other European states will attempt to use the recent murders to strengthen their political agendas and to justify further attacks on democratic rights, Muslims and military interventions.
Cameron has already made it clear that he wants to introduce greater spying powers for the state. As I write this the French government is looking at ways of further curbing the wearing of the veil in nurseries.
This strategy of continued imperialist intervention and repression of Muslim’s will only increase the levels of bitterness felt and will in-turn create further terrorist reaction.
The radical left in France went on the Paris demonstration but gave no support the cabal of Europe’s leaders who led the march.
A second problem is that Europe’s fascist and racist populist parties are attempting to capitalise on the tragedy and fan the flames of hatred. They are trying to push the political agenda even further to the right.
The fascist Front National was not invited onto the Unity demonstration by the French government, instead party leader Marine Le Pen led a 1,000 strong demonstration in the FN-controlled southern town of Beaucaire.
Marine Le Pen is really trying to whip up the situation. She stated on Sunday:
We must be in a position to respond to the war that has been declared by Islamist fundamentalism. She added I regret that word has not been uttered by [Hollande] nor other politicians. The first thing when one is fighting a war is to be able to know what we’re fighting. We’re fighting an ideology, Islamist fundamentalism. Not to say it is a proof of weakness.
The Front National is also calling for the restoration of the death penalty and further immigration controls.
Here in Britain, UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage used the tragedy in Paris to denounce multiculturalism. In an interview with Channel 4 News he said there was a very strong argument to see the attacks as a result of “a fifth column” who lived in Paris and London.
Likewise Geert Wilders, the leader of the racist PVV in the Netherlands too repeated the argument that Europe is now “at war”. He called for the “de-Islamisation” of the West, adding:
We have to close our borders, reinstate border controls, get rid of political correctness, introduce administrative detention and stop immigration from Islamic countries.
Europe’s mainstream political parties and the fascist and racist parties are stoking up Islamophobia.
The results are predictable as they are terrifying for the victims. Within two days of the shootings at Charlie Hebdo, there were 14 violent attacks on Muslims and mosques in France.
Islamophobia is on the rise, an IPSOS opinion poll conducted in France last year found that 74 percent of those interviewed thought Islam was an “intolerant” religion incompatible with the values of French society, while eight out of ten thought Islam sought to “impose its model on others”.
In Germany we are witnessing the rise of the anti-Islamic Pegida street movement, but anti-racists should be encouraged to see the rise of a protest movement challenging Pediga.
Sadly large sections of the French left do not have a good track record on opposing Islamophobia and support uncritically the concept of laïcité – the separation of church and state.
The separation of church from state is something socialists have supported, and on paper it looks very good, but in reality French governments of all political persuasions have financed the Catholic Church and pay out large subsidies to private schools, most of which are controlled by the Catholic Church.
Of more concern is how laïcité is being used as a justification for curbing Muslims’ religious freedom of expression and rights. Muslim women can no longer wear the Niqab in the street or at work. Outside some mosques in Paris the police have issued fines to those who praying on the streets.
These are dangerous times.
The political solutions being put forward by Cameron, Sarkozy and Merkel are only going widen the fault lines and deepen the bitterness. We are witnessing the dark clouds of fascism looming over much of Europe, urgency is required to defeat this threat.
Now more than ever we need unity – unity between Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists – resistance to economic austerity and a political rejection of Islamophobia.
Does the tragedy of the last week strengthen the right or open up new possibilities for unity? This political and ideological battle will be fought in every French town, city, college and workplace. The outcome will have consequence for us all.