Comment: Charlie Hebdo drew critics, fans as European immigration held up to scrutiny

A woman holds up her hands bearing the words "Not afraid" in French during a gathering in solidarity of the victims of a terror attack against French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Wednesday, January 7, 2015. (AP)

Just as Australia struggled with and debated the nature of the Lindt Café siege in Sydney, so too will France grapple with the shocking attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine.

As far as massacres go, the attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris is surely among the most chilling and shocking. Its impact will likely reverberate throughout Europe, if not beyond it.

The three hooded gunmen, who stormed the office of the magazine and remain on the loose, killed ten journalists and two police officers. It was publication day, so most of the magazine’s journalists, cartoonists and editor were on board, including one reportedly on an Al Queda watch-list. Eleven others are seriously injured.

Paris remains defiant. Tens of thousands of people turned out for a peaceful demonstration in the city centre just hours after the tragedy, and despite the heavy police protection around capital, more so after President Francoise Hollande placed Paris on high alert and declared the massacre an ‘terrorist attack of exceptional barbarity’. Witnesses say the assailants shouted the Prophet has been avenged’ as they unleashed a barrage of gunfire.

This wasn’t the magazines first brush with terror. Charlie Hebdo has a long history of provocative cartooning. Its offices were firebombed in 2011 after the magazine featured a caricature of the prophet Mohammed on its cover.

Recently, however, the magazine was again under protection over the planned cover of this week’s edition. It was to mock a new Michel Houellebecq novel, Submission, a futuristic work about France under Islamic rule in the year 2022 and is due to hit bookshops across France next week. Mere anticipation of the novel has been stirring up simmering angst in Europe over Muslim immigration.

Just as Australia struggled with and debated the nature of the Lindt Café siege in Sydney, in which two innocent people and the gunman died, so too will Paris struggle with and debate what has occurred.

It was terrorism, but was it ISIS or Al Qaeda sponsored? Or was it the work of three disaffected nutters attaching their personal grievances to a political cause capable of instilling fear as Al Queda was for so long? It was clearly not a suicide mission. Like Man Haron Monis in Sydney, these were not jihadists. Even President Hollande has stopped short of labeling the killings Islamic terrorism. The attack, he said, was against free speech. "We are threatened because we are a country of liberty," he said as he appealed for national unity.

Although there is no ‘good time’ for such viciously shocking events, this is a particularly bad time, if not entirely unexpected.

From the Netherlands to Italy to the UK, Europe is wracked by racial tension. Anti-immigration parties are winning seats in national parliaments and in the European Parliament. In the United Kingdom, IKIP is making serious inroads in to British politics, advocating a “rebalancing of immigration” in order to increase the number of available jobs for non-immigrants. Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden have been simmering with anger over the huge influx of mostly Muslim immigrants and debate has raged about how best to deal with the newcomers. Many are of course fleeing the conflict in Syria, which has worsened since the advent and territorial successes of Islamic State (ISIS). Others are fleeing Sudan. All however, are entering Europe as it struggles to emerge from the global financial crisis and as unemployment and inflation edge ever higher. The discomfort in many EU nations has morphed in to fear that the very essence of “European culture” is under attack.

France in particular has struggled with how to deal with the influx of immigrants and asylum seekers. Just last year the European Court of Human Rights upheld the French governments ban prohibiting the wearing of Islamic headgear in public places. But even before this, tensions were obvious. There have been riots in several of Paris’ poorer suburbs with largely Muslim populations. And in the past month there have been less serious attacks than in Paris overnight in smaller cities around the country.

With 10 percent of its population declared Muslims, far-right parties are finding willing ears in which to whisper coded, and sometimes not so coded, words of anti-immigration hatred.

In this climate, Charlie Hebdo went the extra mile to provoke with its cartoons satirising religion, Islam in particular. When many publications self censored to ensure against provocation, the iconoclastic magazine refused to bow to any cultural or religious sensitivities.

Just as Islamic leaders emerged during and after the Lindt Café siege, so too have they in Paris to express their shock and sorrow. “They have hit us all. We are all victims. These people are a minority," said one.

But that will do little to quell the nervousness of a nation that has failed for so long to come to grips with its Muslim population. Nor will it make the rest of Europe feel that the message of continued tolerance is one that pays social dividends.

The one glimmer of hope was that so many refused to hide as the manhunt for the armed killers was underway (as I write there are unconfirmed reports the gunmen have been found). Instead the French chose to respond to the worst attacks on freedom of expression in Europe by quietly taking to the streets, many bearing placards saying “Je Suis Charlie” – I am Charlie.

Monica Attard is a Sydney based freelance journalist and former ABC foreign correspondent and senior broadcaster. 

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