Sarah Glynn writing for Bella Caledonia.
Around quarter of a million Kurds live in the Republic of France, and many of them came here to find safety because their lives and freedom were threatened in the countries of their ancestors. But last week, like ten years ago, they saw that they were also not safe in the heart of Paris.
On Friday, a 69-year-old retired railway worker got out of a car in the rue d’Enghein in the 10th Arrondissement, pulled out a gun and shot into the entrance of the Ahmet-Kaya Kurdish Cultural Centre, which has been described as similar to an embassy for the Kurdish Freedom Movement in France. His shots killed two people and fatally wounded a third. He then turned his gun on people in a Kurdish restaurant opposite the centre, and in a Kurdish barbershop further down the road, before being overpowered by the barbershop workers as he was reloading. By the time the police arrived, the gunman had already been disarmed. By the time the ambulance reached the victims, they had bled to death.
It was soon revealed that the murderer had convictions for misuse of firearms and was awaiting trial for attacking Somali migrants with a sabre. He had been remanded in custody, but, as the state had failed to bring him to court within the time limit of a year, he had been released under judicial supervision just eleven days before Friday’s attack. He had been banned from possessing or carrying weapons and been required to undertake psychiatric care.
It may be that the French authorities are correct in their assumption that this French racist was indeed a ‘lone wolf’, but many argue that this man with a history of extreme racist violence was being used by Grey Wolves – by Turkey’s ultra-nationalists – for their own purposes. Most Kurds are convinced that the attack is the work of the Turkish state, and there is circumstantial evidence that should make investigators take this view seriously, despite the odd choice of executioner. Radicalisation in prison, as a criminal lawyer told French television channel, RMC, ‘would not be an unusual scenario.’ For the moment, there is no concrete proof either way, at least in the public domain, but it should not be that difficult for the police inquiry to uncover any links, if they exist, as everyone the killer met during his year in prison should be known. However, the French authorities will have to work hard to win the trust of the Kurdish community in their handling of the case, and they have not got off to a good start. France’s relationship with the Kurds is symptomatic of the country’s wider politics, whose bitter divisions were so evident in recent elections.
France, along with Britain and their First World War allies, was responsible for the division of Kurdistan between middle eastern states a hundred years ago, and politics today is no less self-serving than it was then. We have seen how all European states continue to guard their good relations with Turkey even as the Turkish government sinks into ever greater authoritarianism. They value their Turkish trade – including arms sales – and the EU deal that effectively subcontracts to Turkey Europe’s responsibility for Syrian refugees, as well as Turkey’s strategic geography as a NATO state. Despite some verbal grandstanding, when it comes to action, France makes sure not to upset Turkey’s wishes. Nowhere is this clearer than in the investigation into the killing, ten years ago, of three leading Kurdish women just a few streets away from last week’s triple murder.
In July 2015, two and a half years after those earlier murders, le Monde reported that “for the first time, the French justice system evokes the possible implication of a foreign intelligence service, in this case the MIT [the Turkish Intelligence Service] in a political assassination committed in France.” Subsequent evidence has supported this cautious implication. MIT involvement is such an open secret that in February 2021, in a live broadcast on CNN-Türk, the former head of the Turkish General Staff’s Intelligence Department not only admitted that the murder was an operation by the Turkish state, but also called for more of the same, telling viewers, ‘They also have their elements in Europe. We have to do something in this direction in Europe. I mean, it was already done once in Paris …’
However, when Ömer Güney, the man accused of carrying out the 2013 murders, died of a brain tumour shortly before his trial in early 2017, the French authorities closed the case. It was officially reopened in 2019, after intense pressure from the Kurdish community, but with no obvious progress. At the time of Friday’s attack, there was scheduled to be a meeting in the community centre of around sixty women to plan the tenth anniversary commemorations of the 2013 murders. Thankfully, it had been postponed by an hour, but the timing supports the view that the choice of target was more than a coincidence.
There is also evidence linking the 2013 murders to a network of assassination and espionage, including the attempted assassination of two leading Kurdish politicians in Brussels in 2017. The lawyers for the Belgian case highlighted the unwillingness of European authorities, including those in France, to carry out a proper investigation. A key figure appears to have been Ismail Hakki Musa, who was deputy undersecretary of MIT in 2013, and later became Turkish Ambassador in Paris. His complicity was investigated by le Journal du Dimanche in March 2021, but he abruptly left Paris the day before the article was published. The newspaper commented, ‘Protected by his diplomatic immunity, [he] will never have been worried by the French authorities’.
As well as direct threats from the Turkish government, Kurds face attacks from the Grey Wolves, which are linked to the National Movement Party (MHP), the coalition partner of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The Grey Wolves have been responsible for thousands of murders of Kurds and leftists in Turkey, and Ömer Güney wore a ring with their triple moon symbol before he went undercover into the Kurdish community. The Grey Wolves are active and organised throughout the Turkish diaspora and have been described as the biggest far-right party in Europe. Although they were officially banned in France two years ago, this doesn’t make them disappear, and they have been particularly aggressive in Lyon.
Despite this background, Kurds are given no special protection. Rather, it is the Kurds who have been treated as potential troublemakers, especially since Turkey succeeded in persuading the European Union to list the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terrorist organisation in 2002. Agit Polat, spokesperson for the Kurdish Democratic Council in France (CDKF), told l’Humanité that less than three weeks before the attack, they had warned the French authorities that the cultural centre was being threatened and was at risk. He observes, ‘We are regularly monitored but not protected.’ At the same time, Kurds are under violent attack in Turkey, and the Turkish military is attacking them in Syria and in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, all while the world turns a blind eye to their plight. They have good reason to believe that the French authorities are not on their side.
As news of the attack spread, Kurds gathered near the community centre – sad, shocked, and angry that another triple murder had been allowed to happen. When the French interior minister made it clear that they were treating this as an isolated attack and not as terrorism the crowd showed their anger. This was only increased by the heavy-handed response from the French police, whose powers and confidence have been boosted by the Macron government, and scuffles broke out amidst the tear gas.
The next day, tens of thousands of Kurds from across Europe gathered in the Place de la Republique, where they were addressed by many French elected representatives in their blue, white and red sashes, as well as by Kurdish leaders. The organisers of the demonstraton stressed the need to remain calm and avoid provocations, but when a white van drove past and its occupants made the Grey Wolf hand signal, some of the demonstrators could not be restrained. The many police present did not stop the van, but turned their riot control weapons on the Kurdish demonstrators, further enflaming the situation. The consequent rioting by a small fraction of the large crowd went on into the evening. This was not politic and not helpful, but it was understandable and predictable. It made for dramatic images, but the only significant casualties were parked cars and shop windows, which hardly compares with the previous day’s murders – though you wouldn’t think so from some media comments.
In response to the murders, the Mairie of the 10th Arrondissement lowered the French Tricolour to half-mast and flew a Kurdish flag alongside it in honour of the victims. Strong public support for the Kurdish community was demonstrated by the parties of the left: by the French Communist Party, which has a long history of support for the Kurdish struggle, and also by La France Insoumise. Already, on Friday evening, the latter’s co-President, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, had made clear that they did not accept the official view that the killer was acting alone. Speaking at Saturday’s demonstration on behalf of a delegation of MPs from his party, he told the crowd that they demanded a total lifting of the secrecy over the 2013 murders, and that last week’s murders should be referred to the prosecutor for counterterrorism.
Monday’s editorial in the Communist Party newspaper, l’Humanité, observed that after the price paid by the Kurds in the fight against ISIS, Paris should be honoured to remove the PKK from the terrorism list, and that ‘defending their struggle is also preserving our freedom’. It has been widely argued that the terrorism listing, which was made at a time when the PKK was suing for peace, is based on a political decision rather than legal argument and has been used by Turkey to justify all their attacks against Kurdish activists and Kurds in general.
The Kurds want to be able to live in safety. They want the French authorities to make a thorough and transparent investigation, both of these recent murders and of the murders ten years ago, and not to aid the Turkish state evade justice. And they want France to stop treating them as criminals. This shouldn’t be too much to ask.
The three people killed on Friday epitomise the Kurdish struggle. Emine Kara (nom de guerre, Evîn Goyî) had been part of the Kurdish Freedom Movement since 1988, fighting first with the PKK and then against ISIS in Syria, especially in the liberation of Raqqa. She came to France after being wounded and was appealing refusal of refugee status. She played a leading role in the women’s struggle, including here in France. Another CDKF spokesperson, Berivan Firat, observed in the light of Kara’s role in the defeat of ISIS. ‘She is also a woman who fought for the protection of France. Unfortunately, France could not protect her.’ Mir Perwer was a young Kurdish singer and songwriter. He had been active in the pro-Kurdish leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey and had spent two years in detention, but when he was handed a twenty-year sentence he felt he had no choice but to go into exile. He was accepted as a refugee in France and was trying to arrange for his wife and child to join him. Abdurrahman Kızıl, who had lived in France since 2001, began struggling for Kurdish freedom in the early 1980s. He was first forced to leave his village for Istanbul, and then, after detentions and torture, to leave Turkey.
This is the nature of Kurdish existence. The response of the French authorities will define the nature of this country.
Sarah Glynn is a writer and activist – check her website and follow her on Twitter