Sarkozy and Far Right Benefit From French Weekly Charlie Hebdo Firebombing

The firebombing of a French weekly raises the specter of Muslim violence.

Alexander Klein / AFP-Getty Images

It’s a cliché among amateur detectives and conspiracy theorists, of whom France has a great many, that those who benefit most from a crime are the likeliest perpetrators. But that logic isn’t much in evidence when it comes to the burning of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, its Paris headquarters firebombed in the dark hours of Wednesday morning.

In this case everyone’s obvious suspects are Muslim radicals hellbent on attacking Charlie Hebdo for the incendiary issue it advertised it would publish this morning. The cover is a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad (the “guest editor”) declaring “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing.” The name of this special issue: Charia Hebdo (Sharia Weekly), referring to the religious code and law of Islam. The attack on the publication did not end with the Molotov cocktail thrown into its offices. Someone hacked into its website, too.

But there’s also little doubt that those who’ll benefit most from this crime are the right-wing politicians in France, including President Nicolas Sarkozy. They play on a generalized resentment of Muslim immigrants in thinly veiled but suggestive language that may broaden the anger still more.  Here and throughout Europe—and indeed in the U.S.—Muslims are attacked intolerantly for their alleged intolerance, and the acts of very few are attributed to many. The attack on Charlie Hebdo fits perfectly into that picture.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who had just embarked on a somewhat disappointing tour of the United States (Rep. Ron Paul reportedly declined to see her), jumped at the chance to warn against “these political-religious groups that impose their law, and, when they cannot do that, do it with violence.”

President Sarkozy’s political fortunes have been bleak for more than a year now. His approval rating is guttering in the low 30s. But he continues trying to shore up his backing among Le Pen’s traditional constituency. The head of Sarkozy’s party, Jean-François Copé, said the Charlie Hebdo attack “recalls those that can be committed by fundamentalists who manipulate religion for political ends.” Sarkozy’s close associate, Interior Minister Claude Guéant, declared that “the freedom of the press is a sacred freedom in our country,” and “whether one likes or does not like Charlie Hebdo” (which is savagely critical of Sarkozy and Guéant), all the French should stand in solidarity with the publication.

Prominent leftists, including Socialist Party presidential candidate François Hollande, did just that, supporting the weekly and free expression, but with less suggestive talk about who might have been behind the attack.

Leading Muslim voices, meanwhile, strongly attacked the attackers. The French Muslim Council, which had taken Charlie Hebdo to court in 2006 after it republished controversial cartoons of Muhammad, flatly condemned the burning of the publication’s offices. Several younger leaders of more liberal groups with large Muslim memberships went to the scene. Sihem Habchi, who heads the women’s movement Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores nor Submissives), condemned the act as “a great hurt for the image of Islam.” The head of SOS Racisme, a French government organization combating racism, defended “the idea of a right to blaspheme” and the freedom of the press to “denounce the dogmas of all religions.”

In fact, investigators remain open to the possibility that the perpetrators weren’t Muslim fundamentalists at all. One senior law-enforcement official noted that another issue of Charlie Hebdo had just attacked the crazy elements of the Catholic Church.