On Friday Paris prosecutor François Molins announced the name of the man who had fatally shot a police officer on the Champs-Élysées Thursday night before being shot dead as he tried to flee the scene. Karim Cheurfi, the prosecutor said, was a convicted criminal who had spoken about wanting to kill police officers. On the ground by his body, police said they found a handwritten note defending the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).
The timing of the attack seemed calculated. Thursday marked the last day of campaigning for France’s presidential election. The first round of voting takes place Sunday with the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen likely to make it to the second, runoff round. The polls have consistently indicated that she will then lose this round—which will take place on May 7—to the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron.
Cheurfi’s attack could change that. A last-minute poll taken after the attack showed a slight increase in support for Le Pen, though she was still just behind Macron. Le Pen and her party, the National Front, have campaigned on a nationalist platform that includes a commitment to expel all foreigners with suspected links to Islamist extremism. In October 2015, Le Pen stood trial for inciting hatred after comments she made in 2010 comparing Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation. (The court subsequently acquitted her). Many French moderates fear that Thursday’s shooting might win Le Pen additional public support.
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“It’s a very crucial time for France given that it’s a general election,” says Nathalie Goulet, a French senator and vice-chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. ISIS, Goulet says, will want to carry out attacks in France in order to sow division and boost the far-right ahead of the May 7 election. “ISIS wants to increase the level of Islamophobia and stigmatization of the Islamic community,” she says. “Whatever can bring the chaos is good for them.”
It might seem strange that ISIS would want to see Le Pen made president of France but it makes a perverse sense. In a divided country, extremist groups can thrive. And, if the National Front takes power and discriminates against France’s Muslims, that creates a potential pool of support for ISIS recruiters to try and benefit from.
“We’ve seen much more [ISIS] plotting since the beginning of the year,” says Jean-Charles Brisard, president of France’s Center for the Analysis of Terrorism. Since the start of 2017, Brisard says, France has foiled seven ISIS plots.
Though the election has spurred on would-be jihadists, ISIS has long seen France as a target, both for what it is and what it does. In September 2014, the group’s spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, now deceased, issued an infamous statement to ISIS supporters. “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European—especially the spiteful and filthy French—or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way, however it may be.”
The singling out of France, says Pieter van Ostaeyen, a PhD candidate at Belgium’s KU Leuven university, is because ISIS loathes the country both for its “colonial past and involvement in wars in the Middle East and North Africa region” and its secular identity.
In the 1800s France intervened in Syria, Lebanon and Algeria—ruling entirely over the latter country from 1852. And while France no longer holds territory in the region, it continues to involve itself in conflicts there.
The most significant is the international fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In September 2014, France began airstrikes against the group in Iraq, becoming the first country to join the U.S.-led intervention there. A year later—and three months before the U.K. did the same—France began carrying out airstrikes over Syria.
To ISIS, France was an obvious enemy, and one that was easier to hit than the U.S. and Britain. (France is both geographically closer to the group and has a far weaker security service, partly because of free movement across the borders with Belgium and other neighboring countries). On November 13, 2015, ISIS carried out a series of coordinated attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. In response, France ramped up its airstrikes.
That doesn’t fully explain why ISIS would target France. Other European countries have joined the U.S.-led coalition attacking the group and they have not been subject to the scale and number of attacks that France has.
Unlike the rest of Europe, however, France is avowedly secular and therefore stands in direct opposition to the Sharia-law governed caliphate that ISIS hopes to maintain. Policies France holds such as the ban on facial coverings —which affects Muslim women who wear the burqa and niqab—have angered both Islamist extremists and many ordinary Muslims.
It is not just France’s secularism, Goulet says, that has made it difficult for Muslims to assimilate into the country. Many immigrants, including second or third-generation immigrants, live in poor-quality housing in rundown suburbs that some say prevents them from integrating fully into “mainstream” French society and adopting its values.
This pool of people who have been isolated from the rest of France and subject to racism and discriminatory laws, make rich pickings for ISIS. Two of the November 13, 2015 attackers came from the Paris banlieues. In January 2015, the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, in collaboration with the Munich Security Review, estimated that France had the highest number of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, at 1,200 people, out of all of Western Europe.
Some of these militants may have returned to France, but another threat, says Brisard, comes from the people who never left. French security officials have been made aware of more than 1,000 people who wanted to leave France to join ISIS and in some cases confiscated their passports or banned them from leaving the country. France’s new president will have to find a way to prevent people from heading down these dangerous paths—and protect the country from yet more attacks.