Wednesday’s attack in Paris is the latest in a string of terrorist incidents in recent years that have earned France the ignominious title of Europe’s leading terrorist hub. Of all the European countries confronting Islamic extremism, none is more threatened than the French Republic.
France’s Muslim population now stands at approximately 10 percent – the largest proportion in Europe. Marseille, the country’s second-largest city, is now 30-40 percent Muslim, with conditions ripe for radicalization: in parts of the city, youth unemployment exceeds 40 percent and more than half the population lives in poverty. France has sent at least 700 fighters to Syria – the largest contingent of any European country. The government’s perceived failure to integrate the Muslim minority has prompted a xenophobic, far-right backlash exemplified by the rise of Marine Le Pen’s National Front party.
This toxic brew is increasingly bubbling over. During a 72-hour period just before Christmas, for example, France experienced three violent Islamist attacks. On December 21, an assailant stabbed a police officer in the central city of Tours while shouting “Allahu akbar.” The next day, a van driver plowed into pedestrians in the eastern city of Dijon while shouting the same slogan, injuring 11 people. A day later saw another vehicular terrorist attack at a Christmas market in Nantes that injured 11.
With Muslim anti-Semitism steeply on the rise, France is also the scene for the world’s largest exodus of Jews: 20,000 of whom applied to leave for Israel in 2013 alone – twice as many as the year before. In 2012, seven people were killed – including three soldiers and four children – in attacks on a shopping center and Jewish school in and around Toulouse, southern France. In May 2013, Paris saw a police officer stabbed by a Muslim convert, and last spring, during the Gaza war, mobs of youth of Muslim youth looted Jewish-owned stores and firebombed a synagogue in the capital.
Last spring Mehdi Nemmouche – a French citizen who fought in Syria, likely for the Islamic State – opened fire at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, killing four people. European intelligence experts warn that returnees from the Syria war pose an unparalleled threat to the Continent.
Wednesday’s attack aimed to strike at the core of the French traditions of freedom and tolerance, and in the heart of the country’s capital. France’s extremist threat, however, will not confine itself to the republic’s borders.
Oren Kessler is deputy director for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Lawrence Muscant is vice president.