Paris Exposed to Historic Violence: another War of Religion is nigh

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.

The St Bartholomew's Day Massacre was notable for its mob savagery
The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was notable for its mob savagery

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 Paris attacks appear to have been well-coordinated, with clearly delineated targets selected Source: BBC
The Paris attacks appear to have been well-coordinated, with clearly delineated targets selected
Source: BBC

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.

The extremism of a minority of Muslims will face a fierce backlash in Western Europe, precipitating further bloodshed. Source: Tundra Tabloids
The extremism of a minority of Muslims will face a fierce backlash in Western Europe, precipitating further bloodshed.
Source: Tundra Tabloids
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Rio de Janeiro Turns 450: a Portuguese City that the French Arrived at First

The inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro have been celebrating the 450th anniversary of the city’s founding by Estacio de Sa. Whilst Brazil’s history is inextricably linked with that of its former colonial master, Portugal, it was the French who first created a permanent European presence in the Rio area.

A giant cake has been at the centre of Rio's anniversary celebrations
A giant cake has been at the centre of Rio’s anniversary celebrations

In 1555, Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon established the colony of France Antarctique on the island of Serigipe in Guanabara Bay, just offshore from present day Rio de Janeiro. A Catholic – albeit a far from devout one – Villegaignon’s colonists were made up of a mixture of Catholics and Huguenots, the latter seeking to escape religious persecution back in France. Sponsoring the expedition was Gaspard de Coligny, himself a Huguenot convert and leader during the French Wars of Religion.

Both the French and the Portuguese had already traversed much of the Brazilian coast – some merchants and fishermen probably prior to Columbus’ voyage of 1492 – and had made contact with the native Tupinamba people who populated the dense rainforest off Guanabara Bay.

The Tupinamba's cannibalistic rituals - whilst exaggerated - fascinated European readers
The Tupinamba’s cannibalistic rituals – whilst exaggerated – fascinated European readers

In 1557 the struggling colony was replenished by a shipment of Calvinist colonists from Geneva, in addition to more French Catholics. Unsurprisingly, given the religious discord between its various emigrants, France Antarctique was far from a success and Villegaignon proved himself to be a weak and tyrannical ruler. He eventually expelled the Calvinists to the mainland where they were forced to live among the Tupinamba, before he turned his back on the colony in 1558.

It was not until 1560, five years after the foundation of the colony, that the Portuguese Governor-General of Brazil, Mem de Sa, sent a military force to expel the French who, according to the Papal-sanctioned Treaty of Tordesillas, were encroaching upon Portuguese sovereign territory.

Despite overwhelmingly superior numbers and equipment, it took the Portuguese seven years to destroy the French colony, by which time Rio de Janeiro had already been established. As they had in Canada in the 1530s and 1540s, and in Florida in the 1560s, the French had failed to upset the Iberian monopoly on New World colonies in the 16th century.

Yet in the case of Brazil they at least left an interesting legacy of early contact with pre-Columbian peoples. Jean de Lery, a Calvinist who had been expelled from France Antarctique, would write one of the first true ethnographies, based on his encounters with the Tupinamba. His History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil would make a great contribution to early South American history and was often devoid of the proselytizing that characterised many of the Catholic works of the period.

Villegaignon Island - the former France Antarctique - now home to Brazil's Naval School
Villegaignon Island – the former France Antarctique – now home to Brazil’s Naval School

As Rio’s population celebrates its historic links to the early Portuguese explorers, it would be interesting to discover how many people know of their city’s older, if less significant, French connection.

Further Reading

Eriksson, J. (2009), “Travelling savage spaces: Jean de Léry and territorialisations of ‘Antarctic France’, Brazil 1555-60” in K.G. Hammarlund (ed.), Borders as Experience, pp. 68-91

Léry, J. (1992), History of a voyage to the land of Brazil

Lestringant, F. (1991), “The Philosopher’s Breviary: Jean de Léry in the Enlightenment”, Representations, Volume 33 (Special Issue), pp. 200-211

Lestringant, F. & Blair, A. (1995), “Geneva and America in the Renaissance: the dream of a Huguenot refuge 1555-1600, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Volume 26(2), pp. 285-95

McGrath, J. (1996), “Polemic and history in French Brazil, 1555-1560”, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Volume 27(2), pp. 385-397

Nowell, C.E. (1949), “The French in Sixteenth-Century Brazil”, The Americas, Volume 5(4), pp. 381-393