On Monday, October 28, the French police arrested a man suspected of arson and firing shots at a mosque in Bayonne, in the southwest of France. The individual, Claude Sinke, is an 84-year-old man who once stood as a far-right candidate in local elections when he was a member of Marine Le Pen’s party National Front. The Pyrénées-Atlantiques police stated that the man attempted to set fire to the door of the mosque and that, when interrupted by two other men, he opened fire. Before fleeing the scene, the man set fire to a car. He was arrested close to his home in the Landes, which is approximately 10 miles away from the crime scene. The two men who startled him and tried to prevent the fire, aged 74 and 78, were seriously injured but are in stable condition. They are believed to have been worshippers at the mosque.
The suspect was a candidate in local elections in Landes in 2015 for the National Front party, but had subsequently left the party as its ideas did not suit him (the National Front removed him for comments that were found to be against the spirit and political line of the party). The response to the attack from the political world was immediate. French president Emmanuel Macron condemned the act stating that the republic will never tolerate hate. Similarly, France’s interior minister and Marine Le Pen offered their solidarity and affirmed that such violence is completely contrary to the values of the country and its political parties. On the other hand, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the left-wing party France Unbowed, tweeted after the attack: “In Bayonne the harassment of Muslims has produced its effect. Enough is enough now.” He then called for all public figures to cease the encouragement of hatred.
Hate crimes against communities such as the Muslim one are not a new phenomenon in France. France has an exhaustive catalog of anti-racism legislations which outlaw racial discrimination, ban hate speech, and establish the legal role of anti-racist associations as partners of the government. However, hate speech and racially motivated violent crime have been on the rise in the country, according to a report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, estimated at 5 million or more out of a population of 67 million. According to the report, Muslims in particular are continuous targets of racist discourse. Moreover, there has been a rising number of anti-Muslim attacks reported since 2015. In fact, numerous alleged plots involving far-right extremists have made headlines recently. In June 2018, 13 people with links to the Operational Forces Action group were arrested by anti-terrorist police over an alleged plot to attack Muslims. The War for France website of the radical group portrayed an apocalyptic battle scene under the Eiffel Tower with the claim of preparing French citizens to fight on national territory. France’s TF1 television stated the group planned to target radicalized imams after their release from jail as well as random veiled women in the streets.
France has registered 72 violent attacks against Muslims in 2017, showing an increase from the 67 in 2016. In July 2017, a 23-year-old was charged with plotting to assassinate the French president at the Bastille Day military parade. The young man told investigators that he wanted to kill the president along with Muslims, Jews, blacks and homosexuals. However, violent acts of Islamophobia may be traced back all the way to 2007. In that year, 148 Muslim headstones in a national military cemetery near Arras were smeared with anti-Muslim messages and a pig’s head was placed amongst them. Since then, attacks on mosques have occurred intermittently. This year in June, a gunman wounded an imam in a shooting at a mosque in the city of Brest, in northwest France, whereas in March, workers building a mosque in the southwestern town of Bergerac found a pig’s head along with animal blood at the entrance to the site.
Despite political attempts to establish a cohesive French identity in the country, there continues to be social challenges that reinforce a division amongst the people and further highlight the decreasing tolerance for other religious practices by a certain part of the French population. For instance, the concept of laicité (freedom of religion and the separation of state and religion) is a core value in French society. Nonetheless, Muslim women wearing headscarves is an issue that continues to be brought up in the political debate. Recently, a mother helping out during a primary school outing for her son’s class was told by a politician to remove her headscarf in a regional parliament in eastern France. Officially, there is no law banning mothers in headscarves from accompanying school trips (France’s state council ruled in 2013 that mothers were free to wear whatever they would want during outings). However, there is a growing pressure from the right for a ban on mothers in headscarves taking part in school activities, thus indicating a decreasing tolerance for other religions by a certain fraction of the French population. A worse problem, though, arises the moment people stop limiting themselves to words and pass to carrying out violent actions as the ones aforementioned.
Islamophobia is not the only form of racism inspiring hate crimes against other religious communities in France. The European country has struggled and continues to struggle with violent anti-Semitic crimes too. Attacks may be traced back all the way to the early 2000s. For instance, during one single weekend in 2002, a gunman opened fire on a kosher butcher’s shop in southern France and vandals set fire to the front doors of a synagogue in Strasbourg. Moreover, a group of men crashed two cars through the main gate of a synagogue in Lyon, set fire to one of the vehicles at the temple’s prayer hall and a young Jewish couple were wounded in an attack and required hospitalization. In 2006, a young French Jewish man was kidnapped by a violent group called the Gang of Barbarians and was tortured for three weeks before his death. These are only a few examples. After a record high in 2015, anti-Semitic acts fell by 58% in 2016 and went down another 7% in 2017. However, 2018 saw a drastic increase by 69% in the first nine months. 2019 does not seem to be a more optimistic year. In fact, in the first weeks of 2019, French authorities discovered 96 tombs desecrated in a Jewish cemetery in eastern France, the word “Juden” (German for Jews) scrawled across a bagel shop in Paris, and swastikas marring a street portrait of former government official and Auschwitz survivor, Simone Veil. France has the largest Jewish population in Europe and the third-largest Jewish population in the world. Nonetheless, despite Jewish people making up less than 1% of the total French population, they are the targets of nearly 40% of racially or religiously motivated attacks in the country according to a 2017 study.
Nowadays it appears that the most obvious answers capable of explaining the occurrence of hate crimes are the immigrant crisis in Europe and the subsequent rise of the political right on the continent. Whilst they may certainly be influencing factors, the issue of racism and violent crimes in France goes deeper than that. Public opinion surveys conducted before the migrant crisis began to reveal an uncomfortable truth about a part of French society. For instance, a survey by Ipsos made in 2014 revealed that 63% of French voters considered Islam incompatible with the values of French society. Moreover, 24% said the same about Judaism and about 74% thought that Muslims want to impose their values on others. Another survey conducted by Ifop in 2012 found that 42% of the French population felt that Islam represented a threat to French identity.
Surveys regarding public opinion about the Jewish community do not present better results. A survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League in 2002 found that 42% of respondents thought that French Jews are more loyal to Israel than France and 16% thought that Jews are more willing than others to use shady practices to obtain what they want. Moreover, 42% believed Jews have too much power in the business world. Another Anti-Defamation League survey carried out in 2004 found that 15% of French respondents believed that Jews do not care what happens to anyone but their own kind. In 2012, the Anti-Defamation League released an additional report presenting very similar findings to the 2002 survey, thus demonstrating how the general anti-Semitic feeling characterizing a portion of France’s population had not improved. Considering the various dates of surveys and attacks targeting the communities, it is clear that tensions have been a recurring issue at least since the early 2000s. It is not difficult to see how these recent years of economic instability, the enduring migrant crisis, and the gradual rise of extremist views may have exacerbated the social issues and helped the seeds of hatred to grow stronger, therefore encouraging certain individuals to carry out more hate crimes.
All these details obviously raise the question of how these problems could be mitigated, if not solved. The first thing that needs to be understood is that there is no quick and easy fix. There are various ways of addressing these issues, starting with creating a more solid relationship between the general population and the law enforcement and criminal justice systems. According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, a lack of trust by the population induces the majority of hate crimes victims to avoid reporting their experiences, thus leading to under-reporting. There also needs to be more public, official inquiries by agencies and governmental bodies in order to encourage public debate as well as brainstorm better ways of responding to hate crimes and addressing the roots of the problem. In this manner, people (and politicians) belonging to all communities may be educated and learn to better respect one another. One additional tactic to educate people could entail governments reaching out to communities and civil societies as well. Furthermore, laws could be improved or updated in order to increase the ability of prosecuting offenders. One thing is certain, though: this will be a very slow process during which other hate crimes will definitely occur. The key is to learn from these occurrences and not let them spread more hatred and tension amongst the population as they have been in these recent years.
CTG works with private and public partners in order to investigate issues such as this in depth. CTG contributes to creating a safer world through the monitoring of Internet activities to be able to identify and prevent potential threats to people’s security. This could potentially impact the amount of hate crimes occurring. Nonetheless, this kind of issue cannot be mitigated simply by security organizations. Governments must also do their part as these problems need to be addressed at their roots.
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2. Vandoorne, Saskya, “84-year-old man arrested after two seriously hurt in French mosque attack”, CNN, 28 Oct. 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/28/europe/france-mosque-attack-bayonne-intl/index.html.
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4. Image: “Mosque Missiri, Frejus, France” by Patricia.fidi licensed under Public Domain
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14. Image: “Manifestation du 19 fèvrier 2019 contre l’antisémitisme, place de la République à Paris” by Olevy licensed under Public Domain
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22. “European Attitudes Toward Jews: A Five Country Survey”, Anti-Defamation League, 2002, https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/israel-international/EuropeanAttitudesPoll-10-02.pdf
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25. “Hate crime”, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, https://fra.europa.eu/en/theme/hate-crime