Father Hamel as a saint, donated to the Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray church by a Muslim painter

-Analysis-

PARIS — The nation of France has become a new sort of Ground Zero for Islamic terrorism's attack on the West. Over the past 30 months, images have spread around the world of both wanton and targeted terror on French soil: from the January 2015 shooting at the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices, to the coordinated assaults at Parisian cafés and the Bataclan concert hall later that year, to last summer's truck attack in Nice.

But there was another chapter in this drama, which happened one year ago today, that garnered far less attention abroad: the brutal execution of 85-year-old priest Jacques Hamel, stabbed to death by two Islamists during morning mass in his Normandy church.

The sole homicide was largely lost in the aftermath, just 12 days earlier, of the a self-proclaimed jihadist in a rented truck had run down 86 people as the summer resort city of Nice was celebrating Bastille Day, France's national holiday. Yes, the assault on Hamel may have happened in a place off the tourist map, and claimed just one victim — but it too deserves to be remembered.

The details of the assassination in the small northwestern town of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray have been vividly documented. The 85-year-old priest was presiding over mass with just a handful of parishioners, when two men with prior links to jihadism stormed in the church, holding knives and screaming "You Christians are wiping us out!" They forced Hamel to his knees and stabbed him 18 times. The terror group ISIS later claimed responsibility for the attack.

La Croix —July 26, 2017

As far as symbolism goes, targeting a single priest in France was as chilling a signal from jihadists as killing cartoonists, young music fans or people celebrating the founding of the French Republic. It is believed to be the first time ISIS jihadists have targeted a church in Europe. France, also known as the Catholic Church's eldest daughter, was born more than 1,500 years ago, and its history was largely inseparable from that of the Catholic Church. And though it often escapes the secularists who dominate much of public discourse, France's soul is still profoundly Catholic.

Combating Islamic terrorism will require the commitment of all religions.

The objective was clearly not just to kill a single priest, but to try to set off an explicitly religious conflict within France, which has Europe's highest number of Muslims. French daily Le Figaro"s religious editor Jean-Marie Guénois spoke with Bernard Auvray, a 72-year-old who volunteers at Hamel's church, about the reaction in town. "Many things have changed over the past year," Auvray says. "There's still mistrust and acrimony for some, but a spirit of rapprochement now prevails between Muslims and Christians."

For the anniversary, Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, condemned the "cowardly killing" of the priest, the French Catholic daily La Croix reports. "Islam can never tolerate this kind of act in violation of divine law," Boubakeur said. Hamel's killing reminds us that combating Islamic terrorism will require the commitment of all religions, in big cities and small towns — in France, and beyond.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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