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People set flowers at a memorial in front of the Notre Dame church, in Nice, France, October 30, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Daniel Cole

The French public has been shaken in recent weeks by a series of horrific knife attacks, which government authorities attribute to lslamist extremists. Those responsible for these reprehensible acts should be brought to justice—properly and fairly, without vilifying Muslims.

On September 26, an attacker, arrested soon after, injured two people with a cleaver in Paris outside the former office of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. On October 16, a man beheaded a secondary school teacher who used controversial cartoons published by that magazine in his classes; police later fatally shot him. On the morning of October 30, a man stabbed three people to death and wounded several others in a church in Nice; a suspect is now in custody.

In recent weeks, shocked mourners across France have gathered at public memorials for the victims.

Tragically, France is no stranger to Islamist extremist violence. In January 2015, there were deadly attacks in Paris at Charlie Hebdo’s office and a kosher supermarket, and that November at the Stade de France and the Bataclan theater. On Bastille Day 2016, there was an attack in Nice. The criminal trial relating to the first Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket attacks is underway, providing a measure of justice for those who lost family or friends more than five years ago.

This is a moment for grief and mourning. It should be followed by a calm, just, and fair response.

President Emmanuel Macron’s message to the country after the Nice attack called for unity, saying “Whatever your religion, whether you have one or don’t, we need to unite right now. We mustn’t give in to the spirit of division.” This approach needs to be reflected in the government’s response. But, in recent weeks senior government ministers have amplified their rhetorical and legislative offensive against “political Islamism,” and “communitarianism,” an approach that risks further fanning the flames of anti-Muslim prejudice in a country with a record of discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities, including in police profiling  and repressive counterterrorism laws.

As French authorities respond to this spate of attacks, it is critical that they have a firm commitment to the rule of law and human rights. This helps ensure their actions do not stigmatize specific groups. Doing so will also help prevent anger and alienation that could prompt further attacks, including in retaliation for overbroad responses to the grim events of recent weeks. Everyone in France should be protected and also be equally respected.

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