France: A Strange Defeat

Jacky Naegelen/Reuters
Éric Zemmour arriving at court for his trial on charges of inciting racial hatred, Paris, January 2011


For three days the sirens never stopped in Paris. They began on the morning of January 7 right after two French Muslim terrorists infiltrated the offices of Charlie Hebdo in the Marais and killed twelve people. A police dragnet spread out as the killers veered through the city before they escaped in the direction of Reims. The next morning a young policewoman was shot dead on a street near a Jewish school just outside the freeway ringing the city and again the police spread out. On January 9 television stations reported that another terrorist had taken hostages at a kosher grocery store near the Porte de Vincennes, and through the window of my office, which gives onto the Seine, I heard a steady stream of police and military vehicles rushing to the scene throughout the day. And then ambulances, which meant the news was not good.

Yet somehow it did not feel as if lightning had struck. Of course no one had predicted the spectacular assaults that took place. But throughout 2014 a series of disturbing events had in a sense primed the French public for them. Within days of the killings one began to witness a retrospective narrative developing, which suggested that “all the signs were there” but “they”—the government, the police, journalists—refused to recognize them. Untrue, but it is not a hard story to sell.

It all began in May when Mehdi Nemmouche—a Franco-Algerian petty criminal who had converted to radical Islamism in prison and then gone to Syria to join jihadist groups fighting there—walked into the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels and calmly murdered four people with an assault rifle and revolver. He had been inspired by Mohamed Merah, the terrorist who in March 2012 assassinated three Muslim French soldiers in Toulouse and Montauban, thirty miles away, then massacred a teacher and three students in a Jewish school in Toulouse. Merah’s last victim was a little girl, whom he turned toward the surveillance camera before shooting her in the head. The public’s response focused less on the victims than on the fact that Merah—who was killed by police while hiding out in an apartment in Toulouse—was then celebrated as a hero on social media by French Muslim sympathizers.

The battlefield successes of ISIS last summer brought more reasons to worry, as news reports circulated about devastated French families whose children, boys and girls, many recent converts, were leaving France to join jihadist forces. Four young men from one French country village, for example, were killed in Syria in a single week in October. The most dramatic case was that of Maxime Hauchard, a twenty-two-year-old convert from a small Norman village, who, along with another French convert, was spotted in an ISIS video in November participating…

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