The murder last week of French priest Father Jacques Hamel at the hands of two homegrown jihadis in a church near the Norman port city of Rouen marked just the latest in a series of terrorist attacks that have convulsed France. This one, though, carried unsettling echoes from a chapter of French history much older than that of imperial France.
As Prime Minister Manuel Valls explained, the terrorists’ goal was clear: “By attacking a priest in a Catholic Church, they sought to turn the French against one another and provoke a war of religion.”
The premier’s remark has a special resonance in France. In the mid-16th century, French Catholics and Protestants, each convinced that God was on their side, began a civil war that waxed and waned for nearly three centuries. Is it possible that Catholics and Muslims are about to launch a similar conflict? Has France -- from the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572 to last week’s attack in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, from one massacre to another, one religious war to another -- truly come to this?
“Non, mais” (No, but…), is the short and not entirely satisfying answer. First, it is essential to note that since the appalling events in the suburban town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, both Muslim and Catholic leaders have worked to find common cause. Archbishop Dominique Lebrun, whose Normand diocese includes Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, declared: “The news is insupportable, but we will not take up arms; instead, we will try to love.” Echoing this sentiment, Georges Pontier, head of the French Conference of Bishops, insisted on the need for courage. The courage not to combat other religions, he announced, but “to build brotherly ties with people different from us.” At the same time, the country’s leading Muslim organization, the French Council of Muslim Faith (CFCM), urged its followers to attend a Catholic church on Sunday as a gesture of solidarity and sorrow. A number of Muslims heeded the call, and at Sunday’s memorial service at the cathedral of Rouen, more than 100 stood in the pews alongside Catholics.
And yet, these calls for charity, community, and courage risk falling on ears that, if not deaf, are increasingly hard of hearing. As the historian of religion Odon Vallet observed, even before last week’s attack a “not insignificant” number of French Catholics -- already unsettled by Pope Francis’ advocacy of humane immigration policies and interfaith dialogue -- had already thrown their electoral support to the xenophobic and authoritarian Front National. In the wake of the attack, Odon warned, this reactionary worldview could become the rule, not the exception. “A fairly important, if not unanimous movement among French Catholics,” Vallet speculated, “might demand stronger actions taken against Islamist jihadism, which carries the risk of affecting the entire Muslim community.”
Has Vallet overstated the case for growing religious polarization? Jérôme Fourquet, director of the French Institute of Public Opinion, believes so. He argues that Vallet fails to distinguish between practicing and non-practicing Catholics. It is the latter, Fourquet observes, and not the former who tend to vote for Le Pen’s Front National. But this is largely a scholastic distinction. After all, a vote for the FN remains a vote regardless of the number of masses attended or confessions made. While the anti-Muslim and pro-Front National sympathies of these non-practicing Catholic voters dismay Lebrun and Pontier, the bishops cannot prevent them from identifying with the Catholic faith. Nor is it clear, in the wake of the pedophile scandals that have rocked the French Church, if its leadership has the moral authority to prevent practicing Catholics from migrating toward the FN if there are further such attacks.
For the Muslim community in France, the situation is even more complex. The vast majority of French Muslims are just as shocked by these attacks as their Catholic compatriots. Moreover, the sincerity of Muslim representatives like Anouar Kbibech, the president of the CFCM, cannot be gainsaid when he declared: “We are all Catholics.” But just as the optimism behind the earlier iteration of that slogan, “We are all Charlie,” has long since faded, Kbibech’s affirmation may not gain much traction. French Muslims are caught in a dilemma: by mobilizing against the attacks carried out by Islamic State loyalists, they find themselves side-by-side with those on the right and extreme right who are opposed against not just Islamism in France, but Islam itself.
Equally problematic has been the rise of anti-Muslim acts in France. Already in 2015, the French Collective Against Anti-Islamophobia (CCIF) revealed that anti-Muslim acts -- ranging from graffiti to verbal abuse to physical violence -- had increased more than 20 percent since 2014. Since the attacks in Paris and Nice, this trend has continued, marked by the spread of anti-Muslim hashtags across social media, such as #IslamhorsdEurope (Islam out of Europe), and hostile confrontations on the streets. Tragically, though one third of the victims in the Nice massacre were Muslim, their coreligionists who joined in acts of public mourning were at times met by hostile reactions. [http://www.bfmtv.com/societe/sifflets-crachats-racisme-apres-l-attentat-de-nice-la-france-risque-t-elle-de-chavirer-dans-la-haine-1008730.html] Now that ISIS has, with baleful canniness, struck a small church in a small town that could be anywhere in France, it is likely that suspicions and fears on both sides -- French Muslims and French Catholics -- will deepen a bit more.
In his controversial novel “Submission,” Michel Houellebecq portrays a country that, in 2022, has become a theater of war between Front National and Islamic militias. Such a tableau remains, for the moment, a dystopian nightmare and not a realistic scenario. And yet, in the two years that have passed since the publication of Houellebecq’s disturbing work, events have taken place in France, ranging from mass murders to a permanent state of emergency, that seemed unthinkable -- until, that is, they were schemed and acted upon. While a new war of religion in France will almost certainly not take place, it is all too thinkable that such predictions will not discourage the Islamic State from trying to start one.