PARIS — The wave of terror that left 17 people dead in and around Paris has ushered in a new sense of insecurity across Europe — but also what could be a defining moment for the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam forces of the far right.
Nationalist and populist movements are surging across the region, most notably in France, where the National Front — a party once linked to former Nazi collaborators — has become the nation’s third-largest political force. Yet now it appears that the far right sees an opening in the new atmosphere of angst that could help bolster its long-standing critiques of Islam and calls for tighter security and immigration caps.
The terrorist violence is also fueling fears of a backlash against Muslims, particularly among France’s community of 5 million, the largest in Europe. Muslim leaders say the days after last week’s shootings have produced 54 “anti-Muslim attacks” – an unprecedented number that includes the beating of a Muslim boy after a moment of silence for last week’s victims as well as multiple arson attacks on mosques.
“I’m very scared of what the National Front is going to try to do,” said Sarah Belhaddad, a 17-year-old French Muslim student in Paris.
Amid the tragedy, Marine Le Pen — the leader of the National Front, who once compared Muslim immigration to France to the Nazi occupation — has been going nonstop, drilling home her message that the French must stop being “angels.” Shunned by organizers of a historic national unity march Sunday in Paris, she opted to hold her own rally in the south of France.
“This is a turning point for open debate,” Le Pen said in an interview Monday at her office in a western suburb of Paris. “If, after these attacks, politicians shut down any ability to debate these issues, the victims will have died twice.”
She is not alone. In the days since the attack, from Spain to France to Germany, the far right has sought to leverage the events of last week. And it may be paying off.
In Germany, a growing anti-Islamic movement known as Pegida, which has deeply worried German politicians, has staged weekly marches in several cities since October. The largest, in the eastern city of Dresden, drew a record 25,000 anti-Islam protesters Monday night. That was 7,000 more than last week — even as organizers said they managed to spread their demonstrations to at least two other German cities, Munich and Leipzig. They also plan to start similar protests in other nations including Britain, Norway, Spain and Denmark.
Counterdemonstrations in some cities — especially Berlin — have been far larger. But highlighting the general sense of alarm, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she would join a rally to be led by Muslim groups Tuesday in Berlin to promote religious freedom and tolerance.
Even though the Islamists who staged last week’s attacks were French-born citizens of African descent, the incident has been seized on by some as a problem stemming from immigration. In Spain, Manuel Canduela, leader of Democracia Nacional, the Spanish equivalent of France’s National Front, called for a new “deportation policy” in a post on his Facebook page. He added, “Europe for the Europeans.”
In Britain, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Nigel Farage, was accused by some of insensitive political posturing Wednesday when, soon after two Islamist extremists gunned down staff members at a French satirical newspaper, he appeared to blame the attack on cultural diversity in cities such as London and Paris. A flash poll taken the next day by the firm YouGov showed a spike in his public support, up 4 percentage points to 18 percent in four days.
“Protest party? Flash in the pan?” he gloated in a tweet after the poll results came out.
Alexander Häusler, an expert on far-right movements at the University of Applied Sciences in Düsseldorf, called the attacks in France ”wheat to the mill of the entire anti-Muslim right in Europe.”
Others, however, cautioned that such appeals could quickly backfire if they are seen as political opportunism.
For the moment in France, other political tides may also keep the far right at bay– chiefly, a sense of national unity as illustrated by the citizens of all races and creeds who turned out Sunday by the millions across the nation. But many here say such goodwill may quickly fade.
President François Hollande — an unpopular Socialist — appears to have received a boost from the crisis, earning kudos from even his fiercest critics. His nationally televised hug Sunday with a doctor who had treated victims appeared to move the nation, just as his deployment of 10,000 troops into the streets Monday to protect Jewish schools and places of worship seemed to underscore his seriousness.
“François Hollande did what needed to be done,” former president Nicolas Sarkozy – a Hollande adversary — told French radio station RTL on Monday.
Yet Hollande and Sarkozy are both likely to face tough questions on how such a massive lapse of security could have occurred. That could be an opportunity for Le Pen, who, even before the attacks, was riding high. Her party finished first in local elections last year and is polling even stronger ahead of another vote in March. Her ambition is to do in 2017 what her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who ran the party before her, never could: Win the French presidency.
Most analysts think her chances are slim. But some but, some caution, they may be growing. In an interview Monday with The Washington Post, she called for dramatic new steps to cope with homegrown terrorism — including a crackdown on the financing of “radical” mosques and Islamic associations and more funds for overburdened security agencies. To monitor the movement of jihadists, she said, France must quickly reinstate border controls by suspending a landmark treaty allowing visa-free travel across 26 nations in Europe.
“We need to eradicate Islamic fundamentalism on our territory,” she said.
Now, she said, is also the time to address what she calls the underlying issues eating away at France – including a complete overhaul of immigration laws, barring all but a small fraction of those seeking entry.
Le Pen has sought to remold the party as a kinder, gentler right wing – distancing herself from her father, who is known for spewing hate speech, particularly about Jews. Le Pen, however, argued Monday that French Jews are now best served by the National Front. She said her party is standing against anti-Semitism in France, which, she suggested, is the product of the “suburbs” populated heavily by Muslim youths.
“For many years, the FN has been the only political party that has been ringing the alarm bells, and we have not been heard,” she said.
Now, she hopes, it will be.
Virgile Demoustier in Paris, Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin and Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.