Worrisome new trend in ‘ultra-right’ terrorism reflects mainstreaming of Islamophobia in France
LONDON - Following the arrest in late June of ten “ultra-right” militants suspected of plotting to attack Muslims in France, there are warnings that the mainstreaming of Islamophobia has reached unprecedented levels.
Of great concern was that the purported ringleader of the group was a former French policeman who was released under judicial supervision despite the severity of the charges he is facing.
“It’s outrageous,” said Yasser Louati, a Muslim activist and co-founder of the Committee of Justice and Freedom for All. “Here we have members of a terrorist organisation being arrested and they don’t receive the same treatment when Muslim terrorists are apprehended or suspected terrorists are interrogated… It’s highly problematic.”
“So that means that the message being sent to all other groups that have not been apprehended so far is: Carry on. You can either do it and succeed or if you get caught, don’t worry about it,” he added.
The nine men and one woman who were arrested in a series of raids across France are allegedly linked to the anti-Muslim group Operational Forces Action (AFO), which has described France’s Muslim community as “the enemy within.” The group’s website — “Guerre de France” (“War for France”) — claims to prepare “French citizen-soldiers” for combat on “national territory.”
The group is reportedly led by a 65-year-old policeman, identified by French prosecutors as “Guy S” and said by local media to be Guy Sibra.
A total of 22 rifles, 14 handguns, homemade grenades and thousands of rounds of ammunition were reportedly seized by police during raids that focused on the Paris area, the Mediterranean island of Corsica and the western Charentes-Maritimes region.
The group’s potential targets included imams, Islamist prisoners after release from jail and women wearing hijabs chosen at random, French broadcaster TF1 said.
“I’m not surprised by these arrests because the current climate of Islamophobia encourages this sort of passage from words to deeds,” Abdallah Zekri, of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, was quoted by the Guardian, a British newspaper, after the arrests in June.
He called on “all political leaders to denounce with the greatest firmness the violent action directed against the Muslims of France” and urged authorities to protect France’s 2,500 mosques.
The AFO is an offshoot of Volunteers for France (VPF), a legal far-right group that espouses virtually the same ideology but disavows violence. France’s media have described AFO as “ultra-right,” to distinguish it from “far-right” groups that share the AFO’s anti-Muslim views but claim not to support violence.
The biggest such group is the National Rally, formerly the National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, who finished second in the French presidential elections in 2017.
Although Le Pen publicly condemned the AFO’s alleged plans, this is not to say there is no sympathy in the National Rally or France’s far-right towards AFO’s views and aims.
“If groups are forming to defend themselves,” National Rally Vice-President Louis Aliot told L’Opinion, “it is first and foremost because the state is being soft on radical Islam.”
Demonstrating the connections between France’s far-right and “ultra-right,” Sibra assisted with the National Front’s campaign efforts during the 2015 regional elections and was a member of the VPF, leaving the group in 2017 to form the AFO after describing its leadership as “too soft,” the Nation, a US magazine, reported.
Analysts warned that the difference between “far-right” and “ultra-right” groups was strategy, not ideology.
“They both see the immigrant as a coloniser who must be sent back home,” Stephane Francois, an expert on far-right groups at the National Centre for Scientific Research, told the Nation. “The entire ideology is based on the notion that we are at war against a pernicious or silent Islamic occupation.”
The difference is that the AFO, unlike the VPF, openly advocates violence.
A VPF statement said there was no proof “at this stage” that those arrested intended to carry out any illegal acts, strove to differentiate itself as a “legal” association that worked within French laws and criticised France’s media for drawing comparisons.
“Our organisation, which is resolutely committed to the defence of the identity of the French nation and the fight against Islamisation of the country, is naturally considered radical by some. This is notably the case of a collaborator media that submits to extremist Islamism,” the statement added.
This is not the first time a far-right terrorist group has apparently sought to target Muslims. In October 2017, dozens of far-right activists were charged with being part of a “criminal terrorist conspiracy” in Marseille and Seine-Saint-Denis, believed to belong to an anti-Muslim group planning attacks on mosques or Muslim politicians.
Louati said he did not hold out much hope that Islamophobia would decrease.
“Tomorrow is going to be worse than today. Everything is put in place for things to get worse because there is no institutional resistance to Islamophobia,” he warned. “In fact, Islamophobia has been institutionalised.”
“The centre of gravity of politics [in France] has shifted so far to the right that the ideas that were extreme 20 years ago have now become mainstream.”