As people in different parts of the world prepared to protest against the Charlie Hebdo killings that took place earlier this month and rally for freedom of speech and expression, French premier Manuel Valls declared war against radical Islam on January 10. Valls’ declaration came after the harrowing shootout of January 7 led to the deaths of 12 people followed by an aftermath that killed and injured several others.
“It is a war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity,” Valls said during a speech in Évry, south of Paris.
French authorities started the day by tracking down the companion of one of the killers, who reportedly fled to Syria via Turkey only a few days before the first assault took place in Paris on January 7. The police suspected 26-year-old Hayat Boumeddiene, who was gunman Amedy Coulibaly’s partner, to have been involved with one or more of the attacks.
“We are 99 percent sure that she traveled to Syria from Urfa,” said a Turkish intelligence official, referring to a city in southern Turkey. “There is no evidence that suggests she was involved in the terrorist attacks in France this week.”
France remained on high alert even a day after security forces shot down Coulibaly, who had taken four hostages to a kosher supermarket near Porte de Vincennes where he eventually killed them, and brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi who had claimed the lives of 12 people in and around the Paris headquarters of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday.
The French government said it would deploy 500 additional troops on the streets over the weekend during which several unity rallies were expected to take place. On Saturday, hundreds and thousands of people marched in Paris, Nice, Toulouse and several other cities across France to show solidarity with friends and family of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo killings. Similar rallies were also held as far away as in Tel Aviv, Madagascar and Bangui in Africa.
Ministers in the French government met for an emergency session to discuss ways in which such attacks could be prevented in the future. Meanwhile, residents raised questions about why the law enforcement agencies had failed to curb suspect terrorists who were apparently known to both the intelligence as well as the police. Some of the survivors shared shocking accounts of their ordeals at the hands of the heavily armed militants, who reportedly prepared to die as police forces started to amass outside the places that had been seized by them.
The crisis and its aftermath brought about a major challenge to French President Francois Hollande and his ministers, who have been witness to a deep cultural and religious rift in the country, which has a rapidly growing Muslim population and has to struggle with security threats from Islamic extremists at the same time. Hollande appealed for unity, while warning Muslims that they would be perceived as an enemy if such attacks continued.
“There needs to be a firm message about the values of the republic and of secularism,” Mr. Valls said in Évry. “Tomorrow, France and the French can be proud. Everyone must come tomorrow.”
However, the rallies planned over the weekend were already beginning to seem polarized in certain areas. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, appealed to her followers to stay away from the gatherings, saying the event had been taken over by parties that represent everything France hates – electioneering, partisan spirit and indecent polemic.
Valls’ declaration that France is at war with jihadists and extremists highlighted the depth of its peoples’ concerns over security not only in France but across most of Western Europe. According to the Defense Ministry, 250 soldiers were added to the 850-strong force that was already deployed in the greater Paris area on Saturday and another 250 were added to that number the following day.