There will be people who think that any discussion of political leverage and advantage arising out of the recent violence in France is in bad taste. Politics everywhere is seldom know for a high level of taste and decorum. French politics has a long standing reputation for being confrontational and continuous.
Unlike the US where the entire political spectrum is shoe horned into two parties, most European countries have multiple parties. This allows for separate political parties to form around more specific political interests. In the US people we would think of as being far right are accommodated under the Republican umbrella and people considered far left find a place under the Democratic one. In Europe they are much more likely to have their separate parties. In France the major right wing party is the Front National (French Resistance). It's present leader is Marine Le Pen who is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen the party's founder. It is not some small fringe group. It is presently considered to be the third most powerful political party in the country. While they have polled enough votes in first round elections to make the political establishment nervous, the workings of the French electoral system are such that this has translated into little in the way of electoral victory. They currently hold two seats in the National Assembly and four in the European Parliament. Their political platform has always been one of strong nationalism which translates into being anti immigrant in general and anti Muslim in particular. It should come as no surprise that Marine Le Pen is attempting to get maximum political mileage out of the mass reaction to the recent violence.
“Hollande has been extremely good in this crisis, showing calm and self-control, and using all the right words,” said Alain Frachon, an editorial writer for Le Monde. “If we do a cold, cynical political analysis, he did rather well. Afterwards, of course, all these questions will be raised about security failures and the future.”
If Mr. Hollande has gotten a small boost from these terrible few days, however, so have Ms. Le Pen and the far-right National Front, which has made the challenge of radical Islam to France the center of their politics. Even before the attacks, her brand of nationalistic French populism had helped make her a credible contender to succeed Mr. Hollande in the 2017 election.
The homegrown terrorism here, with its apparent links to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, will also be used by other far-right, nationalist and anti-immigration movements in Europe, from the United Kingdom Independence Party to the Sweden Democrats and Germany’s Pegida — Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. That is another reason so many European leaders from the mainstream parties of the center right and center left, from Angela Merkel of Germany to David Cameron of Britain and Mariano Rajoy of Spain, came to show their own solidarity with France and Mr. Hollande.
Political issues don't get dealt with one at the time in isolation from each other. Hollande and the government are taking the heat for the generally dismal economic picture in France and most of the rest of Europe. It is usually in climates such as this that populist movements like Front National find fertile soil. Hollande took the rather aggressive step of excluding Le Pen and her party from official participation in yesterday's mass rally and observance. She is predictably raising strong objections to that move. Prior to the present upheaval various opinion polls showed her has having support in the 2017 presidential election in the neighborhood of 30%.
Regardless of what one thinks about the content of the cartoons that appeared in Charlie Hebdo, the murder of 12 of its staff members is rightly seen as an attack on some of the fundamental values which we associate with open democratic societies. A fundamental issue that is going to be faced by France and other European nations is whether they are going to respond to attacks such as this by turning to political movements which themselves pose a retreat from some of those same values.