In August 1572 the French Wars of Religion ignited once more as a Catholic mob stormed through Paris indiscriminately murdering Protestant Huguenots, a slaughter sanctioned by King Charles IX. Subsequently known as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the violence would eventually spread across France, leading to the deaths of between 5,000 and 30,000 people.
Religious distrust and hatred erupted in a furious spasm that would haunt France for decades to come, the clash of conflicting belief systems threatening to tear the country apart from the inside.
Today, French President Francois Hollande vowed to ‘destroy’ the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), whose coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday resulted in the deaths of at least 129 civilians. These two events – separated by almost 450 years – have important differences and similarities that testify to the new war of religion now being fought in the streets of Western Europe.
Firstly, the logistical origins of the two massacres bear no hallmarks to one another. The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was initiated by a vengeful monarch and his controlling mother (Catherine de’ Medici) intent on destroying the Huguenot political hierarchy, in particular their military leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. The mob violence that developed was an unintended – if not wholly unsatisfying as far as the Catholics were concerned – consequence of the Crown’s directives.
The Paris attacks on Friday were coordinated between a terrorist cell affiliated with ISIL, although the full operational details are still not completely known. This was an atrocity perpetrated by a minority of radicalised individuals sponsored by an overseas terrorist organisation, rather than a state-sanctioned bloodbath supported by the majority of the country’s citizens.
The second key difference – linked to the first – is that the carefully-constructed and targeted execution of the Paris attacks was in stark contrast to the haphazard and sprawling nature of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Again, this reflects the ‘minority’ nature of the Paris attacks when compared to the ‘majority’ support for the Catholic mob violence in the 16th century.
A striking similarity between the two events, however, is that neither was surprising. Just as the French were fully aware that they were immersed in a civil religious war in 1572, so too do the French people of today know that a sharp religious divide has opened up within their cities. A minority divide it may be but its strain of virulent hatred has for some time been obvious with other, smaller-scale terrorist attacks having been enacted by Muslim fanatics throughout the course of 2015 (see the Charlie Hebdo shooting for instance).
8% of the current French population is Muslim, a proportion that increases significantly in the larger cities. The majority of these people are second or third generation North Africans who arrived in France during the period of de-colonisation. It is amongst the younger generation – those born in France – where rates of radicalisation are higher. The masochistic appeal of ISIL has turned a small but significant number of young French Muslims into potential homegrown terrorists, a phenomenon likely to be repeated across other countries with similar religious minorities.
The porous EU borders have allowed Middle Eastern extremists to cross into Western Europe with alarming ease, giving hardline ISIL supporters access to disillusioned young Muslims. Some of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks are thought to have been French-born, whilst others appear to have travelled overland from Syria and other warzones where the ISIL flag is flying high.
Like the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the Paris attacks immediately affected Frenchmen but the long-term repercussions are international. Western Europe is at war; it may not have committed ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria or Iraq but desperate violence has come to our doorsteps. As with its 16th century equivalent, the battle is going to take decades of strain, violence and compromise to finally bring it to a satisfactory end.