Paris maintained a united front the day after suspected Islamist gunmen killed 12 people at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, despite a number of reported assaults on mosques across France.
Wednesday's attack on the journal's city center offices left 10 journalists and two police officers dead — the worst terrorist act on French soil in decades. Survivors described masked shooters that shouted "Allhu Akbar" ("God is Great") and claimed to be from Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda.
Prominent Muslim figures throughout Europe immediately condemned the killings, but the attack came at a time when Islamic extremism is a key security concern across Europe, and some feared that it might lead to an increase in Islamaphobic sentiment.
Thursday morning saw reports of a gun and grenade attacks on Sablons mosque at Le Mans, northwestern France, while an explosion at a kebab shop adjoining a mosque in eastern Villefranche-sur-Saône prompted the region's deputy mayor Bernard Perruttold to tell AFP that he thought it might be linked to the Paris killings. Attackers also fired on a Muslim prayer room in southern Port-la-Nouvelle, according to local media.
In the capital, however there was no such backlash. Tributes were paid to the attack victims, including a minute's silence and an 8pm local time dimming of the Eiffel Tower's lights.
"It is not normal that those [terrorists] soil this language and Islam."
Large numbers of Parisians laid flowers outside the Charlie Hebdo offices. Among them were around 20 Imams, including Hassen Chalgoumi, from the Drancy in Paris's northeastern suburbs. Speaking with VICE News shortly afterwards, Chalgoumi paid tribute to the magazine's staff, who he said died for freedom, as well as the policemen who he described as martyrs that gave their lives to protect others. The attackers, he said, were not Muslims.
"They used my religion, they took my religion hostage. His prophet is not my prophet. When [the terrorist] says Allahu Akbar... he soils our religion..." he said.
Chalgoumi added that he feared a rise in Islamaphobic sentiment as a result of the killings, but warned that extremism should not be amalgamated with Islam, and called on what he described as the "silent majority" of Muslims to make a stand against violence.
"We are here to show our grief, our sadness, our support. And also that we say no to these barbarians..." he said. "This racist, terrorist, extremist minority, those are not the one who decide the path of humanity. It is us, the silent majority, the majority who believes in human life, who believes in tolerance, in freedom, in forgiveness. It is us who has to say stop."
Photo by John Beck
Photo by Etienne Rouillon
Riposte Laïque, an isolated anti-Islam group that had previously called for a march akin to those organized by German far-right group Pegida to be held in Paris January 18, staged a Thursday night protest at Place de la Bourse in central Paris in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings.
Authorities took the plans seriously, and the approach to the planned rally point was lined with police vans. Ultimately the vehicles outnumbered a small number of mostly middle-age protesters who attended, however. Those who did milled around on the edge of the square as three police officers asked them not to enter and nearby market traders dismantled their stalls.
Pierre Cassen, the group's founder, told VICE News afterwards that he wanted to rid France of Islam. "We think that the government should stop allowing Allah's soldiers into French territory," he said. "We think that it allows Islam, a religion of conquest, to develop itself via a ruse. We wish the government to expel Islamists from the country."
He went on to lambast President François Hollande, who he called a "traitor to his own country" for allowing Muslims to live in France.
His views had little visible support. One mile away in Place de la Republique, where a spontaneous vigil was held Wednesday night in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo staff, thousands gathered once again at the behest of Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo. The mood was defiant, but amongst the recurring chants of "Charlie-berté!" (a portmanteau of Charlie and "freedom"), there were frequent shouts of "no amalgamation," meaning that Islam should not be conflated with terrorism.
Youths holding placards scaled the statues, and at one point coaxed the entire crowd into a minute's silence.
Among the attendees was Sabyl Ghoussoub, 26, director of Beirut's Lebanese Film Festival, holding a placard with "I am Charlie" written in both French and Arabic. Ghoussoub said that he had attended Wednesday's gathering and decided to return today with the sign.
"I'm a Franco-Lebanese Christian," he told VICE News. "It is not normal that those [terrorists] soil this language and Islam."
Additional reporting by Etienne Rouillon