France church attack: Even if you are not a Catholic, this feels like a new and deeper wound

Writer and Paris resident Andrew Hussey says that peoples need for answers is not being met and anger is rising

The killing of Pre Jacques Hamel in his church in the Normandy town of Saint-tienne-du-Rouvray last week is not the first time that the death of a French priest at the hands of Islamist extremists has sent waves of emotion across France. In March 1996 seven monks from the Cistercian monastery of Our Lady of Atlas in Tibhirine near Mda in Algeria were kidnapped and held for two months before being killed, allegedly by members of the Groupe Islamique Arm, an Islamist group that was fighting the governments of France and Algeria. Their throats were cut and their severed heads were found hanging in trees or scattered by a roadside; the bodies were never recovered. A communiqu from the terrorists simply read: They were condemned and executed because they were monks and Christians.

The French public was deeply shaken. The murders were announced on 26 May 1996. The next day, Whitsunday, a mass was celebrated in Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. As part of the ceremony, the archbishop of Paris snuffed out seven candles that had been brought from Tibhirine. Church bells rang out all over France. A day later a crowd of 10,000 gathered in Paris in mourning. On 2 June, under heavy armed guard, a funeral mass for the victims was held in Algiers, watched by millions in France.

Eventually the story of the monks was made into a film, Des Hommes et des Dieux (Of Gods and Men). On its release in 2010 the story reduced French cinema audiences not all of them faithful Catholics to tears.

There has been a similar response to last Tuesdays murder. First, there has been shock at the raw violence. Then disbelief that such a terrible thing could happen. Now there is a need to express sorrow and this has been communicated mostly, sometimes unconsciously, in religious language.

The newspaper Le Parisien edged its front cover in black, describing the murdered priest as a martyr. Both print and digital media used old-fashioned words, evoking the saintly nature of the man and his death as a sacrilege.

The Catholic church declared last Friday a day of prayer across France; many churches were packed with non-believers as well as regular worshippers. People needed to come together; even if you couldnt understand what had happened, or find any divine comfort, there was a basic need to be with fellow human beings in the face of such horror.

After a sleepless night, the morning after the murder I went to my local church, Saint-Pierre-de-Montrouge in the 14th arrondissement in Paris. The atmosphere was sombre. People stood around the front of the church in small clusters talking in low voices. Later, buying milk and other necessities at a Tunisian-owned shop on the Rue Didot, the owner noticed that I was English. You are lucky, he said. You can leave France if you want. If you stay you will just see more of the same bad things.

This may be true, but this most recent attack is not just more of the same bad things. In attacking a church and killing a priest, Islamic State has once again changed the rules of the game. This is because it has now attacked something far less abstract and much more visceral in France than ideas such as democracy or secularism; it has attacked a faith an emotional bond which courses through and defines French history and culture. This is why, even if you are not Catholic, this latest outrage feels like a new and much deeper wound.

The warning signs that this might happen have been there for some time. As far back as July 2015 Isis said in its French language magazine Dar al-Islam that it would target churches in France. Only two months before this statement, a young woman called Aurlie Chtelain was shot dead in a botched attack on a church in Villejuif in Val de Marne. Since then, at moments of heightened tension, churches like synagogues have been protected by armed soldiers.

Alongside the fear and sorrow, there is also growing public anger at President Hollandes government. When the prime minister, Manuel Valls, visited Nice shortly after the truck massacre of 14 July, he was booed as he attended a minutes silence and there were placards calling for the president to resign. The general feeling was that the government was not doing enough to stop the terrorists.

The frustration has now intensified as it has emerged that the two killers of 85-year-old Jacques Hamel Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean had both been known to the security services, but still managed to slip under their radar. What is more, the failings of the government and its security services have been publicly highlighted in a French parliamentary commission report into last years terrorist incidents in Paris, from the gun attacks in that January on the offices of Charlie Hebdo to the bombings and shootings in November at bars and restaurants and at the Bataclan concert hall. The initial impact of this report, published on 5 July, was lost in the aftermath of the Nice attacks, but the mistakes and confusion it has identified have not gone away. The head of the inquiry, Georges Fenech, has said plainly that Today, our soldiers are being sent to war with soles of lead. Our intelligence services have failed.

Fenech traces the current problems back to the 2008 reforms of counter-terrorism led by Nicolas Sarkozy. These reforms in effect thinned out the ranks of field officers and paid too much attention to international terror groups such as al-Qaida while ignoring the rapid growth of local jihadis. In other words, the French security services were looking in entirely the wrong direction outwards rather than inwards; a massive strategic error.

But the present problems go deeper than this. One of the main difficulties is that there are roughly 11 different agencies, from the prison services through to the varying strands of military and police, now competing with each over the same diminishing pot of money. Worse, they do not communicate properly with each other. Neither is there any plan to prevent radicalisation at grassroots level; there is no unified strategy, only a panicky response to trouble the whack-a-mole approach as police officers call it.

None of this is new. A few years ago, I visited the prison of Fresnes, to the south of Paris. I had been invited by a senior French official who wanted an outsider to see how things in France didnt work. In her book-lined office, madame la directrice complained to me with cool anger that she could not control who was coming into her prison nor provide follow-up when the prisoners left. And yet even back then everybody who had contact with the system knew that the prisons were engine-rooms of radicalism youngsters entered as petty delinquents and emerged as dedicated terrorists. But nothing could be done about this because of structural difficulties in the French administration.

Worse, right up until the November killings in Paris, the DGSI (Direction Gnrale de la Scurit Intrieure) and DGSE (Direction Gnrale de La Scurit Extrieure), respectively the equivalents of MI5 and MI6, did not speak to each other. Most controversially, Fenech argues that the Bataclan killings could have been avoided if there had been better communication and co-ordination between agencies.

There is only one conclusion here: that it is precisely these failings that keep allowing Isis to write the script for France. This is, of course, also the argument of Marine Le Pen and the far-right Front National, who arguably stand to be the greatest political beneficiaries of the atmosphere of crisis. Almost immediately after last Tuesdays killing of Jacques Hamel, Marion Marchal-Le Pen, niece of Marine and a deputy to the National Assembly, declared: They are killing our children, murdering our police and slitting the throats of our priests. Its time to wake up!

Alarmingly, this populist rhetoric is even being welcomed by voters who would not normally think of supporting the Front National but who feel that those in charge are liars and hypocrites. A deeper problem for Hollande is that Le Pen, and the even more extremist groups who stand behind her, have been vindicated by recent events and the damning parliamentary report which helps to explain them.

But beyond the angry white noise, the far right has no real solutions either. It does not say this; instead it argues for more robust measures, zero tolerance and increased militarisation. Meanwhile, Hollandes government is paralysed, locked into a debate about how far the state can go with individual rights versus increased police powers, and a standoff with Sarkozy, back again with presidential ambitions for 2017 and revisiting his favourite role as le premier flic de la France (the first cop of France).

Last Wednesday, Hollande, Valls and Sarkozy all attended a mass in homage to the murdered priest Hamel at Notre Dame. They walked together towards the altar in a show of unity. But the consensus that we are all in this together, which was shaped in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings (and broken only by Le Pen), has long since disintegrated. In reality, all sides are now at war with each other as well as with Isis.

The use of the word war has now become commonplace in France, as has the sight of heavily armed troops on beaches, in city centres, in airports and at railway stations; everywhere now is the front line. The sight of these troops is never reassuring; usually quite the opposite. There is talk, too, of groups on the far right arming themselves, expecting trouble, maybe seeking it out. In Corsica, an underground nationalist group has released a communiqu threatening Isis and warning local Muslims to take a position against radical Islam. The message is accompanied by a photograph of hooded men in combat gear carrying guns. Its hard to believe that this is happening, but its real.

Back in Saint-tienne-du-Rouvray, the faithful are still trying to come to terms with another form of reality; with the impossible evil that has been visited upon them. Attending the local mass held for Hamel, a 43-year-old woman who did not want to be named told Le Monde: Its horrible, I am horrible but I cant help thinking that it is all because of the Muslims and I cant stop myself getting angry when I see a veiled woman or afraid of an Arab with a long beard in the street … I know Im stupid. I know that this is what they want, to divide us.

The president of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, Anouar Kbibech, has called on all Muslims to attend mass on Sunday to show the solidarity and compassion of the Muslims of France. The Catholic church at first expressed official surprise but then welcomed the move as a noble and necessary act. There have been dark mutterings about security but the church has said that Muslims will be welcomed.

On the internet there has been renewed interest in the monks of Tibhirine. In particular the spiritual testament of one of the murdered monks, Christian de Cherg, has been providing comfort to readers, in Arabic and French. Presaging his death at the hands of terrorists, he writes of his love of Algeria, Algerians and Islam and that, knowing Muslims, he knows, too, that Islamism is a caricature of Islam. If one day and it could be today I should be the victim of terrorism, he writes, I would want my community, my church, my family to remember that life was given to God … Amen. Inshallah.

On reading this I was reminded of the last time I visited Algiers, climbing up to visit Notre Dame dAfrique, the church where the monks were laid to rest. On the esplanade outside, with a view of timbered buildings and the sea, you could easily be in Normandy. Inside, the place is tended by elderly French people who survived the years of war and terror that visited Algeria in the 1990s. There are DVDs on sale of the film Des Hommes et des Dieux a testimony to fear, faith and suffering. The rubric above the altar carries a message: Pray for Us and the Muslims.

Andrew Hussey is the author of The French Intifada: The Long War between France and its Arabs (Granta).


7-9 January 2015

Said and Cherif Kouachi killed 12 people at Charlie Hebdos Paris offices. An associate of the brothers later shot dead a police officer before taking hostages at a Jewish supermarket, killing four more people.

3 February 2015

Moussa Coulibaly attacked and injured three soldiers guarding a building housing the Jewish Consistory of Nice.

26 June 2015

A delivery driver decapitated a man and attempted to blow up a gas factory in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier.

21 August 2015

Ayoub el-Khazani opened fire inside a train travelling from Amsterdam to Paris before being overpowered by passengers.

13-14 November 2015

Suicide bombers struck outside the Stade de France in Paris. Shootings and bombings at restaurants and bars across the city, and inside the Bataclan concert hall, left 130 people dead and 300 injured.

13 June 2016

A police officer and his wife were stabbed to death at their home in Magnanville.

14 July 2016

Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drove a truck through a busy promenade in Nice on Bastille day and shot into the crowd, killing 84 people, including 10 children.

26 July 2016

Adel Kermiche and an associate slit the throat of an octogenarian priest as he said mass in Saint-tienne-du-Rouvray.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/30/france-suffers-deep-wounds-and-finds-no-answers

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