The consequences of the now famous movie, Innocence of Muslims, has also reached France, following the death of several members of the American Embassy in Libya, including the American ambassador, on September 11th. A small group of Muslim protesters were arrested during a demonstration unauthorized by the Parisian police prefecture. On the same day, 120 protesters were arrested in Belgium.
On September 15th, more than 200 protesters, most of them noticeably young, gathered themselves before the American embassy in Paris. They were answering an invitation sent via social networks and text messages. The demonstration was relatively calm despite some acts of violence and the police acted quickly, arresting around 150 of the protesters. The crowd was made of men and women, some of them wearing salafist clothes and mottos, others being dressed as the average French young person.
Even if the event was barely noticeable compared to the violent manifestations in the Middle East, it triggered a controversy in France, where some members of the opposition criticized the reaction of the government. Manuel Valls, Minister of the Interior, expressed his commitment to firmness against such events.
On the national television channel France 2, Valls called the protests “unacceptable”’ and supported the action of the police. Nevertheless, he immediately asked the French citizens “not to confuse [the protesters] with the immense majority of our fellow-citizens.” According to him, the protesters were “caricaturing Islam as it’s practiced in our country.”
Valls acknowledged that the protests could bring back some traumatic memories in France’s recent history. In March 2012, the Muslim terrorist Mohamed Merah frightened the whole country after a series of bloody killings in the southern cities of Toulouse and Montauban, targeting soldiers and Jews.
“Let’s not forget what happened in March in Toulouse” Valls said. He also added that “the threat is here,” stating that “through the Internet and trips through countries like Afghanistan or Pakistan, there are young people in our neighborhoods who can be touched by this ideology of violence.”
Valls declaration was then particularly firm, “I won’t allow women fully veiled, prayers in the streets, mottos hostile to our allied countries, to our values, to make themselves heard in our streets.” Along with the Minister of the Interior, the French Council of the Muslim Cult condemned the demonstration.
Valls received the support of his majority and of his fellow members in the government, including Jean-Marc Ayrault who said that “the demonstration was forbidden and the police did its job.” The Prime Minister was “shocked” by the criticisms coming from the opposition and especially from the former Prime Minister and now candidate for the head of the UMP, François Fillon.
Fillon showed his astonishment, worrying that such an event could take place so close to the Elysée, the presidential palace, and the ministry of the Interior. Fillon’s main opponent inside the UMP, Jean-François Copé, acknowledged that the police had been “brave” and had done its best. However Copé but took advantage of the situation to note, “the problem is more serious that this demonstration”. He then called for the expulsion of the illegal immigrants who were a part of the protests from the country.
Some members of the opposition were softer in their criticism of the government. Frédéric Lefebvre, former minister under Sarkozy, called on his “friends” in the UMP, “not to exploit” the event, considering that the police and the Minister had done all they could.
Interviewed by RTL radio about the revolutions in the Middle East and the recent events, Marine Le Pen expressed deep concerns about the protests, asserting that “what happened showed the weakness of our intelligence services that should know about these protesters even before they march.”
Some of the protesters interviewed by the French media showed their surprise in light of what happened. They claim that they thought that the demonstration was authorized and wanted to protest passively. LeMonde reported that an anonymous young boy said that “the American embassy (was) just a symbol” and that they “were not here to burn it down”.
Indeed, the demonstration was organized in chaos on Facebook and Twitter. The first organizers had actually asked the Parisian police prefecture for permission but were probably overwhelmed by some of their followers. On the Facebook page of what seems to be the organizers, Manifestation à Paris contre le film “Innocence of Muslims”, the creator of the page wrote: “we are not going to cause trouble or havoc. We must show a good image of Islam . . . we are only protesting to show our disagreement . . . this movie is unacceptable”.
An investigation will take place to analyze in depth what happened and to discover if the protesters were really Islamic radicals or offended young Muslim activists, an important nuance to the story.