France today unleashed a broad crackdown on Muslims accused of extremism, carrying out dozens of raids, vowing to shut down aid groups and threatening to expel foreigners as anger swept the country following the decapitation of a high school teacher for showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in class.
Many of those swept up in raids were already in police files for showing "signals" of potential radicalisation, like preaching radicalised sermons or sharing hate messages on social networks, government officials said. More than 200 others — the bulk already in prison — were threatened with a rare mass expulsion.
But other groups targeted in the raids included Muslim associations previously given government subsidies for their work promoting better civic relations, and only 15 of the people arrested had any connection to the gruesome attack on Saturday.
The scope of the response was a measure of how the killing of Samuel Paty, a teacher in a suburb north of Paris, had reopened old wounds in France. The nation remains traumatised by terrorists attacks by Muslim extremists that killed scores in 2015, starting with the editorial offices of the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine — whose cartoons the teacher had shown.
As much as the Charlie Hebdo killings, the killing of Paty has struck deep inside the French psyche as an assault on a principal pillar of the French republic — the secular public school system — as well as the nation's devotion to freedom of speech.
Thousands of people took to the streets in cities around France over the weekend to demonstrate their horror at the killing. And politicians, especially on the right, jostled to sound the alarm against "the enemy within," as the hard-line interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, put it in a radio interview, referring to radicalised Muslims.
Some voices were raised against the breadth of the government's raids, but in general the tone was set by President Emmanuel Macron's likely principal challenger in 2022, the far right leader Marine Le Pen, whose party has targeted Muslims and immigrants for nearly 50 years.
"This situation calls for a strategy of reconquest," Le Pen said. "Islamism is a bellicose ideology whose means of conquest is terrorism."
Even before the attack on Paty, Macron, looking to consolidate a right-leaning electorate that is his only solid base heading into the 2022 election, had embarked on a campaign against what he called "Islamist separatism" in a speech earlier this month.
The speech reinforced the idea, current on France's right, that there is a large and hostile Muslim contingent waiting in the wings — the country's suburbs — to tear down French values. Macron vowed to end home-schooling as well as the practice of bringing in foreign imams.
The police began their work at 6 am, going after "numerous" Muslims in multiple raids, Darmanin said. "Important police operations have been carried out starting this morning, targeting radicalised individuals," Macron's prime minister, Jean Castex, said in a speech.
"Other actions will follow," Castex promised, against "networks and individuals who are attacking our basic values and the Republican ideal."
Some 51 Muslim aid organisations will also be targeted by the police this week, the interior minister said, some of which would be dissolved at Macron's request. Darmanin called the most prominent of them, Collective Against Islamophobia, the CCIF, which compiles a register of anti-Muslim acts, "an enemy of the republic."
Its former president, Marwan Muhammad, one of the most prominent of France's Muslim activists, said the CCIF "didn't have the slightest involvement" in the killing of Paty.
Already, 15 people have been arrested, including family members of the suspect, an 18-year-old Chechen refugee named Abdullakh Anzorov, who was shot dead by the police after the killing. Also in custody is the father of a student at the school who had denounced Paty online for showing the caricatures and had demanded his dismissal. The video circulated widely on social media.
The interior minister announced that it would expel 231 foreign citizens identified for their radicalism, including 180 who were already in prison. Those not imprisoned would soon be arrested, officials said. At times, the French government has expelled foreign Muslims it accuses of being radicalised. But a mass expulsion like the one currently envisioned is unusual.
By day's end it was not clear how many arrests had resulted from the police raids. Some of the country's prominent Muslim preachers defended the government's actions. "When the war has already been declared, what you need is a wartime government," said Hassen Chalghoumi, president of the French Imams' Congress.
But a few Muslim scholars raised questions — not just about the raids, but also about Paty's use of the Muhammad caricatures in class.
On raids, some said politics appeared to be winning out over good sense. "I'm afraid that there has been a rush into a certain number of decisions," said Rachid Benzine, a political scientist. "It's, 'We're going to do these raids' — and then they have nothing to do with the actual investigation. It seems like these are punitive expeditions, kind of score-settling."
"And of course there's a risk that the courts will eventually reject all of this," Benzine added.
Macron will deliver a solemn eulogy to Paty on Wednesday at the Sorbonne. He has already been hailed as a martyr of the French Republic. The emotion of thousands who turned out for him across France was real. A huge gathering at the Place de la Republique in Paris recalled the ones held after the attacks of 2015.
But a few wondered about what had transpired in Paty's class.
"I feel like it's very hard to use these cartoons for strictly educational purposes," said Farhad Khosrokhavar, a sociologist at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, EHESS, in Paris.
"Secularists think that it is their right, because of the law that allows blasphemy and any form of mockery of religion. But on the other hand, there is the feeling that in doing so, it is the Muslims who are despised, not the prophet," he said.
"By using cartoons to teach freedom of expression, we do not understand that we offend people," Khosrokhavar said. "There are a thousand ways to express freedom of expression, so why choose this one?"
Francoise Lorcerie, an education expert at the National Centre for Scientific Research, said she had never heard of using the caricatures of the prophet in a classroom setting for high school students. And she was critical of Paty's invitation to Muslim students that they leave the class to avoid being offended.
"Obviously these caricatures are wounding for Muslims," said Lorcerie. "I'm not so sure about presenting these caricatures, without some sort of justification," she said.
From the standpoint of the absolute value of secularism, "it doesn't conform to his obligation to be neutral," Lorcerie said. "There should be a reflection on all of this."
Written by: Adam Nossiter
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