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After Charlie Hebdo attack in France, backlash against Muslims feared

Anti-immigrant parties in Europe may gain further ground after Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris

Gun and grenade attacks outside at least two French mosques heightened fear Thursday of an anti-Muslim backlash after a military-style assault on a newspaper that satirizes Islam.

The attack on the newsweekly came as far-right parties have been gaining in popularity not only in France but also in Germany, Britain, Greece and elsewhere, feeding the anti-immigrant sentiments on which they thrive.

With tension building, Muslim community leaders advised veiled women to avoid going out alone and urged their members to join in a national minute of silence for the victims of Wednesday's attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

"Anyone who associates this criminal act with Islam is mistaken. It is an act of terrorism. The perpetrators of this act should be arrested, condemned and eradicated," Abdallah Zekri, president of the National Observatory Against Islamophobia, told reporters at the Grand Mosque of Paris.

While expressing sympathy for the victims, he noted that it is often Muslims who suffer after such attacks. "Whenever something like this happens, we are on the front lines as scapegoats," he said. "There have been a number of attacks already this year."

The incidents outside mosques in Le Mans, southwest of Paris, and in Villefranche-sur-Saone, near Lyon — neither of which caused injury — suggested that anti-Muslim retribution had already begun, he said.

“We're all in danger now. In the shops, in the bus," an Algerian-born grandmother, Algdia Henneche, told the Associated Press. "I've brought up seven children here. France is multicultural — we welcome all countries. Now for my grandchildren, what will happen?” 

While President Francois Hollande called for national unity, leaders of the far-right National Front demanded that he step up measures to tackle Islamic fundamentalism and bring back the death penalty.

"The time for denial and hypocrisy is no longer possible," party leader Marine Le Pen said in a video on her party's website. "The absolute rejection of Islamic fundamentalism must be proclaimed loudly and clearly."

The National Front and other anti-immigrant groups have gained ground in Europe, propelled by a moribund economy, high unemployment rates and frustration with mainstream parties.

Recent surveys show Le Pen would outpoll Hollande and center-right challengers if the 2017 election were held now. Her party led all French parties in the European Parliament elections, picked up two seats in the French Senate and took power in 11 French towns.

"It is easy for voters to be seduced by the views of political parties on the far right, particularly as they have made great efforts to foster a more moderate image," Bela Arora, a senior lecturer in global governance at the University of South Wales, said in an email.

Other parties benefiting from seething resentments include the U.K. Independence Party, which has called for tougher controls on immigration, and Germany's Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA, which rallied an estimated 18,000 marchers Monday in Dresden. Analysts said such parties would probably use the attack in France to mobilize more support.

"This has already started," said Johannes Kiess, a sociologist at the University of Leipzig, pointing to recent posts on the German group's Facebook page.

"Today in France the Islamists that PEGIDA has warned you about for 12 weeks have shown that they are not capable of democracy and see violence and death as a solution!" read one post Wednesday. "Our politicians want us to believe the opposite. Does this kind of tragedy have to happen in Germany before people will wake up?"

Such sentiments have been building since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. and have in some quarters reached almost feverish proportions since the extremist group Islamic State seized large parts of Iraq and Syria last year. Hundreds of European nationals are believed to have traveled to the region to join the militants, and European leaders worry they will return to stage attacks at home.

As society has become more fragmented, European leaders have struggled with how to handle a wave of immigration from Islamic countries grappling with war, poverty and oppressive governments.

In Britain, authorities have long championed multiculturalism, an approach that celebrates differences and promotes freedom of religion and expression. But that has caused anxiety about a loss of British identity, said Brooke Rogers, a terrorism scholar at King's College in London.

France, which is home to Europe's largest Muslim population, many of them the children and grandchildren of people who immigrated from the country's former colonies in North Africa, insists on assimilation. New arrivals are required to learn French. Face-covering veils at odds with the state's strict secularism are prohibited in public places; head scarves are not allowed in public schools.

The approach has caused friction with some young Muslims, who complain of discrimination and take issue with France's military campaigns against militants in North Africa and the Middle East.

"What just happened in Paris has to do with the profound crisis of our model," said Myriam Benraad, a Middle East research fellow at Science Po in Paris. "A lot of French people think the country cannot welcome any more of these young people because the model does not work. French society is very polarized these days and this does not help."

Rogers noted, however, that communities across Europe have rallied behind Muslims when they are scapegoated for terrorist attacks. "Yes, these attacks can fragment us, but there is also a lot of pulling together and resilience," she said.

After Wednesday's attack, the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie — "I am Charlie" — became a rallying cry on social media. Some added #JeSuisAhmed, a reference to Ahmed Merabet, a French Muslim policeman who was among the 12 people killed.

Near the offices of Charlie Hebdo, Parisians paid tribute to the victims by laying flowers, pens and candles. One man held a cardboard sign that read: "Catholics, Muslims, Jews, atheists, all united for liberty." Another placard taped to a signpost read: "To those who would use this tragedy to serve their own xenophobic, economic, political or moral ends, don't fool yourselves. If you try playing that game, you are the actual terrorist."

"The danger is the stereotypes that can be drawn from this," said Alain Godon, who was visiting Paris from his village in Brittany this week when the shootings occurred. "A lot of Muslims I know want to come here to pay their respects, but they are afraid to be seen here. That's a shame."

Times staff writer Zavis reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent O'Brien from Paris. Special correspondents Jabeen Bhatti and Nele Obermueller in Berlin and staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Beirut contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

7:45 p.m.: This post was updated with additional reaction and analysis.

This post was originally published at 6:21 p.m.

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