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A man places a placard during a vigil to pay tribute to the victims of a shooting, by gunmen at the offices of weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, at Paulista avenue in Sao Paulo, January 7, 2015. The placards read, "I am Charlie".

NACHO DOCE/REUTERS

On the day armed gunmen attacked the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, a divisive new novel appeared on the country's shelves. It imagines a fictional France, seven years from now, where a Muslim party rules the government, women leave the workforce and teachers are forced to convert to Islam.

The book is not intended as a provocation, its author, Michel Houllebecq, recently told a literary journal. "I condense an evolution that is, in my opinion, realistic," he maintained.

The future envisioned by the author is the latest controversy in a debate roiling Europe about the role of Islam and immigrants in society.

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Wednesday's deadly and unprecedented attack on a newspaper in central Paris could prove a turning point at a time when xenophobic and anti-Islam sentiments are running high.

It remains unclear whether the attackers were connected to existing extremist groups. But their link to Islamic extremism – witnesses said the gunmen shouted "Allahu Akbar" and claimed to avenge an insult to the Prophet Mohammed – will intensify unease across the political spectrum.

There have been new protests emerging from the political right, together with the rise of hyper-nationalist parties. In Germany, for instance, thousands of people have begun gathering on Monday nights in the eastern city of Dresden. They rally under the banner of a previously unknown group: Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West.

From the left, meanwhile, there is concern that such demonstrations and parties work to alienate and vilify whole communities. In the wake of the Paris attack, some commentators worried about the possibility of reprisals against European Muslims.

"We have to be very careful not to attribute jihadist terrorism to Muslim communities within Europe," said Andreas Zick, director of an institute for research on conflict and violence at Bielefeld University in Germany. "This was an attack on freedom. This is shared from every point of view."

Politicians from all parties in France and across Europe, together with Muslim leaders, condemned the attacks. Marine Le Pen, leader of the country's far-right National Front party and a future presidential contender, said she rejected any link between "Muslims devoted to our nation" and those who killed in the name of Islam. At the same time, she said there was a need to "liberate the discussion" of such topics to avoid "any denial."

In recent months, unease about a possible threat to civic values has grown. Germany, for instance, has been embroiled in a loud and public clash over the anti-islamization, anti-migration protesters in Dresden. On Monday, some 18,000 protesters gathered in the city, the largest showing so far. The group says it aims to resist a "misogynist, violent political ideology" while preserving and protecting "our Judeo-Christian culture that dominates the West."

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In response to Wednesday's attack in Paris, the group – which goes by its German acronym, PEGIDA – posted a statement on its Facebook page. "The Islamists, against whom PEGIDA has been warning over the last 12 weeks, showed in France today that they are not capable of [practising] democracy, but instead see violence and death as the solution," the group wrote. "Our political leaders want us to believe the opposite is true."

The group has drawn strong criticism from mainstream German politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel. In a New Year's Eve speech, she urged Germans to reject the movement, saying its leaders were "full of prejudice, coldness, even hatred."

For decades, European countries have wrestled with issues related to waves of Muslim immigration. But the recent rise of the militant group calling itself Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, together with a heightened awareness of the possibility of European recruits to such ideology, has produced a newly tense atmosphere.

Surveys show that Europeans consistently and erroneously overestimate the percentage of Muslims in the population. A poll by Ipsos Mori earlier this year found that, on average, French respondents believed that Muslims made up 31 per cent of the total, while the true figure is 8 per cent; British respondents gave estimates of 21 per cent, while the real number is 5 per cent.

Prof. Zick of Bielefeld University said he worried about a potential rise in anti-Muslim prejudice. Such behaviour only plays into the hands of radical groups, he noted. Recruiters tell young people "you are discriminated against. They want to get rid of you. Here is your place."

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