In the wake of the October 29th attack, Christian Estrosi, the Mayor of Nice, made a speech calling on France to “wipe out “Islamo-fascism”. Several days before on the 25th of October, both the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu accused European politicians of having fascist sympathies.
However, the anger communicated by those involved – anger at the murder of civilians, anger at the responses of French president Emmanuel Macron and other French politicians, has been diffracted into standpoints so extreme and remote from one another that they prevent any chance of redress and reconciliation, while both minimising and displacing the experiences of the victims.
The killings of Samuel Paty, Vincent Loquès, Simone Barreto Silva and Nadine Devillers were inherently symbolic acts, in both the ways in which they were carried out and the motivations ascribed to them. In their aftermath, each has been accorded an encoded, emblematic meaning. Samuel Paty is viewed as a surrogate for French laïcité and his murder perceived as a direct attack on French secularism and the right to freedom of speech. The victims killed in the Roman Catholic Notre-Dame de Nice have been cast as representations of Christianity, and of French history and identity. In line with this sentiment, a statement issued by the Catholic Church following the attack in Nice asserted that “Christians must not become a symbol to be cut down”; the victims being seen as not only individuals tragically murdered, but also as simulacrums of the Church and European identity as a whole.
As the fight for control of the narrative has emerged amongst political, cultural and religious stakeholders, responses have become similarly stylized and laden with symbolism. Images of Macron as the devil, or with a boot print stamped upon his face have been seen at protests against Macron’s defence of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet across the Islamic world. The French flag has served as an important emblem on both sides; held aloft as a token of free speech in memorials of Samuel Paty; burned as an ideogram of Islamophobia on the streets of Peshawar. This typification has continued away from the streets. French products are being boycotted in Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and Bangladesh, with items from cheese to toothpaste being removed from supermarket shelves; to shoppers in Doha and Amman the presence of these articles in the marketplace serves as a stand in for the French economy and culture. More disturbingly, in a now removed tweet, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad situated the Nice attack in a broader narrative of the conflicts of the twentieth century between France and its former colonial possessions, implying that the actions of the Tunisian attacker were merely a justified return shot.
Yet the use of divisive symbols and calls for emotive acts does little to identify or ameliorate the underlying social and geopolitical causes of acts of terror, and brings little justice to the victims and still less hope of reconciliation.
Domestically within France, neither Macron’s tough stance nor the use of polarising and inflammatory language by French politicians is likely to abate in the near future, as the country begins to look towards to 2022 presidential election. After a year wracked by terror attacks and the broader global instability caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, both the incumbent and his challengers are likely to take positions supporting further strengthening of domestic security forces and crackdowns on immigration.