One year on from the assassination of Fr. Jacques Hamel: what has changed in France
by Catherine Field (*)

Commemorations for the 85-year-old parish priest whose throat was slit in front of the altar, presided by the Archbishop of Rouen, include President Emmanuel Macron, the Interior Minister and Muslim Representatives. The unity between Catholic and Muslim communities has been strengthened. But the government's fight against jihadism has many flaws. Overcrowded prisons, unemployment and marginalization are the ingredients for recruitment and radicalization.

 


 

Paris (AsiaNews) - On 26 July 2016, two men aged 19 stormed the tiny church at Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy as Father Jacques Hamel was celebrating morning mass.  They took four parishioners, among them two nuns, and Father Hamel hostage.  After a short stand-off, the assailants forced the 85-year-old French priest to his knees in front of the altar and then slit his throat.  According to Dominique Lebrun, the Archbishop of Rouen, the priest’s final words were ‘Begone, Satan.’

Sister Danielle, who was in the church at the time, said the attackers filmed the murder.  The men claimed they were ‘soldiers’ of so-called Islamic State (IS) and wanted revenge for western-led attacks on IS in Iraq and Syria.  Both men were known to security services.  One was under police supervision and was wearing an electronic monitoring device after spending 10 months in custody for trying to travel to fight in Syria.  They were both shot dead by police as they came out of the church.  IS claimed responsibility for the attack and the murder. 

Pope Francis condemned the attack, decrying the ‘pain and horror of this absurd violence.’

The slaying of Hamel shocked the world.  In France, which had already been rocked by a string of Islamist-inspired attacks, the sense of shock rippled across the country.  Within hours, members of the Muslim community gathered at the scene of the attack to express their outrage.  The following weekend, Muslims and Catholics stood shoulder-to-shoulder in churches around the country.  Just as they had done two weeks earlier after the Nice attack, many Muslims stood up and said the atrocity was not done in their name.  Initial fears the attack would strain religious tensions were unfounded.

Ceremonies will be held Wednesday to commemorate Father Hamel.  The Archbishop of Rouen will say morning mass at Saint-Étienne church.  Among those present will be French President Emmanuel Macron, France’s minister of the interior, members of the local Muslim community and representatives of the Conseil français du culte musulman (CFCM).  A headstone dedicated to Hamel will be unveiled and, later in the day, vespers will be said at a nearby basilica.  The day's commemorations will end with a procession to Hamel’s grave.  

Representatives of the Catholic and Muslim communities in the area say they are heartened by the sense of communion between the different faiths.  Yet questions remain about the government's ability to respond to radicalisation and the rise in Salafist-style Islam.  According to the French interior ministry, some 15,000 people are on record as belonging to or having links to radical Islamist movements.  The threat remains however the motive no longer comes from those striving to usher in a new Islamic conquest but rather seeking to retaliate for western coalition strikes on IS in Syria and Iraq. 

What has not changed are the conditions within French society through which young Muslims, predominantly males, are recruited into jihadism.  Intelligence services say most, although not all, have grown up in rundown and crime-ridden suburbs -- "banlieues" -- on the edge of the major cities where the sense of discrimination and lack of job prospects is high.

Youth unemployment remains doggedly high in France, with the latest figures showing 21.8% of those aged under 25 registered as unemployed.  Although that figure is down from 23.3% in the last quarter of 2016, it is still substantially higher than the average of 13% youth unemployment other OECD countries and more than triple the 7% in neighbouring Germany. 

That unemployment is higher among those of North African descent is of little doubt, although gaining official data to buttress anecdotal evidence is difficult.  Under secular laws, even to collect statistics on religion or ethnicity is illegal.  A study by a Paris research institute found young men identified as practising Muslims who apply for jobs have a 4.7% chance of getting a job interview, compared to 17.9% of practising Catholics.

French intelligence services have been working alongside representatives of the Muslim communities to target and close mosques which have been infiltrated by jihadists.  However on-line radicalisation and peer group pressures are widespread.  The most prevalent forum for recruiting in France is its notoriously overcrowded penitentiaries.  Prison officers say jihadists often target vulnerable inmates in communal areas such as in the showers or when out walking rather than in allocated areas for prayer.   

France’s prison population at the end of June 2017 was 70,018, with a further 11,763 on release under electronic surveillance.  It is estimated that between 40-60% of inmates are Muslim.  According to the Justice Department the country’s 186 prisons have places for only 59,090 inmates; 1,616 are sleeping on mattresses.  France’s largest prison, Fleury-Mérogis, just outside Paris has a capacity of 2,956 inmates but currently houses 4,352.  

There’s also the shortage of prison chaplains.  Although the number of Imams has increased from 69 in 2006 to 193 in 2015, the government is accused of not allocated enough funds to cover training and salaries thereby leaving the way open for untrained, volunteer Imams to fill the gap.  In May 2017, the government went further and issued a decree making it compulsory for any newly recruited hospital, military and prison chaplains to pass a civil and civic training diploma.  This could further slowdown any hoped for increase in the number of Imams wanting to become chaplains.

However, the temptation of jihadism reflects a wider malaise -- of a country where many young Muslim males feel they have no place in France.  Many native-born French people feel similarly about Islam. In a survey carried out by the Ipsos institute last month, at least 60% of French people questioned said they believed Islam incompatible with French values.  Forty-six percent of those polled said "even if it is not its main message, Islam still contains within it the seeds of violence and intolerance".

*Catherine Field, a Paris-based journalist, is a graduate of Religious Science from the Institut catholique de Paris. She is an expert in social sciences and interreligious dialogue. She recently completed an 18-month research project with the University of Cambridge centred on the revival of religion in the public sphere in England and France.

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