Does an ‘ultra-right’ vigilante group reflect the French national mood?

PARIS — Last month, the French authorities announced they had derailed a violent attack by an ultra-right group called the Action of Operational Forces (AFO). Its ten members, led by a former police officer known as Guy S., were planning to attack Muslims—imams and veiled women in the street at random—and poison goods at halal grocery stores. They had stockpiled weapons and materials to build homemade bombs. But although they were immediately charged with terrorist conspiracy—some were also accused of illegal possession of firearms and explosives manufacturing—they were subsequently released with “judicial supervision.”

The AFO’s stated objective is to “fight the Islamist peril.” It is an offshoot of a legal association called the Volunteers for France (VPF), created in the aftermath of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. Both groups seek to recruit among the French police and military to help achieve their vision of fighting radical Islam, although the VPF condones the smaller group’s violent tactics.

The main far-right political party, the National Rally—until very recently named the National Front, which is currently in upheaval despite significant electoral gains last year —immediately distanced itself from the AFO, even though much of the party’s rhetoric mirrors the group’s depictions of Muslims and a France under siege. The VPF, for its part, questioned the accuracy of official reports, attempting to undermine the credibility of journalists who reported the story. The news media has referred to the groups in question as the “ultra-right” to differentiate from the political far right. But while their strategies differ, they are consistent in their depiction of a country in peril—from both immigrants and Muslim citizens who refuse to integrate.

The incident is an important indicator of the scope and depth of the far right in France. But perhaps more interesting, the AFO’s planned violence against Muslims—not radicals, but French Muslims at large—must be understood in the context of a constant media narrative about Islam and its incompatibility with the Republic that I have outlined in my newsletters for ICWA.

recent controversy over a student-union representative who wears a hijab is just one example, but one doesn’t have to dig too deep to come up with an exhaustive list; public-opinion surveys asking about Islam’s “compatibility with the Republic” have been a fixture for decades. Such rhetoric is hardly limited to the right or the far right—it is decisively part of the French mainstream. It’s worth considering how the hysteria that has reigned since the terrorist attacks of 2015 and 2016—on the heels of two decades of a seemingly endless debate about the headscarf—have allowed groups like the AFO and the VPF not only to thrive but also come so close to launching coordinated, violent attacks.

It is important not to overstate the capability and scope of right-wing extremists. Numerous experts told the New York Times that groups like the AFO are young and disorganized. But beyond the constant questioning of Muslims that has become so common in the French media, the hardening of views toward Muslims is another manifestation of an anti-immigrant wave sweeping across Europe [YES?]—in tandem with President Donald Trump’s unprecedented crackdown on migrants that is wreaking havoc across the Atlantic.

In a particularly striking move this week, Denmark introduced harsh new laws that officially deem 25 low-income, heavily Muslim neighborhoods “ghettoes.” As of age one, children in those areas—“ghetto children,” officially—will be separated from their families for some 25 hours a week for mandatory training in “Danish values,” from Easter and Christmas to the Danish language. Failure to participate could  cause families to lose welfare payments—a sinister and authoritarian inculcation in national values. And Germany was flung into a political crisis over immigration last month that forced Chancellor Angela Merkel—who had doggedly insisted on welcoming migrants and refugees—to agree to build border camps for asylum seekers and strengthen the country’s border with Austria.

The AFO’s violent aspirations, and the French government’s light condemnation of them, provide just another example of the rightward shift across the continent. Perhaps that’s why they quickly faded from the news media’s view here, a chilling reminder of the current moment.