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Europe is facing a threat. We saw it in horridly explicit detail in Paris this week, and we are seeing it in ballot boxes and angry protests. It comes from within, but is manipulated and supported by extreme forces abroad. And it comes simultaneously from two small but noisy minority populations, diametrically opposed but sharing one menacing vision.

The fundamental unity that has kept Europe in democratic prosperity through the postwar decades is built on a mutual understanding that its peoples, despite their disparate languages and nationalities and religions and practices, are one, sharing fundamental values.

The challenge, rising from below during these difficult years, comes from a different vision: One that sees the world and its peoples as divided into "civilizations," fundamentally incompatible with one another. The most extreme holders of this vision, such as the Kouachi brothers in Paris (the key suspects in this week's attacks) or Anders Breivik in Norway (the author of the worst terrorist attack in Europe this century), believe that this incompatibility is a material threat deserving a violent response. Others simply want to turn it into a political reality.

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The first group comes from a criminal subgroup on the fringes of Europe's Muslim populations.

France faces this problem most dramatically. It has the largest Muslim population in Europe, accounting for 8 per cent of it people; they are also by most measures the most culturally and politically integrated religious-minority population in Europe: fluent, very secular, prone to intermarriage, very loyal to France, politically moderate. They're not a new population, and have very small families, so are not growing much.

But they, like most European Muslims, are generally very poor, and excluded rather dramatically from France's very closed employment and education systems. Among the young males who drop out of high school, there is a group – generally the least religious in origin – who are attracted to crime and political extremism.

This male, alienated sub-population is manipulated from abroad: The extremist armies of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have drawn some in, inculcated them with a "clash-of-civilizations" vision, radicalized them, and sent them back on deadly missions. Their targets are liberals (such as the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists), Jews (as we saw on Friday), and broadly the European project.

Seven years ago, after an earlier moment of violence, I sat down with the ambitious mayor of a south Paris suburb with a large Muslim-immigrant population. He warned that the high-school dropout sons of poor but ambitious immigrants were at risk of extremism: "The root causes of the violence of course are still present, and it's still a powder keg," he said. "The poverty still exists – the ethnic segregation, the social segregation, the unemployment, people suffering from violent crime and also suffering from a sense of not being part of the national community." He urged a politics of inclusion.

His name was Manuel Valls, and today he is the Prime Minister of France – launched to that position in good part by his response to this religious-minority alienation, a response that sadly was not as inclusive as his earlier words suggested. And today he is electorally threatened by, and at the same time courting, the other population given to radical divisiveness.

That population is generally of Christian descent, more elderly, and politically conservative. While less frequently prone to violent acts of terrorism, they are an order of magnitude larger in population and pose an even bigger threat to Europe's integrity.

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In France, almost a fifth of the population has been willing to vote for an extremist party, the National Front, which is founded on the same clash-of-civilizations ideology that motivates the jihadis. As with the Islamic-extremist underclass, it targets Jews and pro-European liberals, and opposes European unity.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, seemed strangely quiet and anodyne after Wednesday's attack. There's a good reason: She and her father, the party's founder, have for years been the key targets of Charlie Hebdo: The newspaper has featured her on the cover as a Nazi concentration-camp guard. As a libertine product of the 1968 democracy movements, it represents everything she opposes.

She, like her political cousins in Britain (Nigel Farage's UK Independence Party) and the Netherlands (Geert Wilders' Freedom Party) is an explicit supporter of, and is backed by, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has turned the clash-of-civilizations ideology into his guiding mission (with the addition of an equally fictional third, "Eurasian," civilization).

So far, parties like hers have failed to either govern or become the leading opposition in any major European country.

But Islamic-extremist attacks like this week's are intended not just to punish, but to polarize: Jihadis explicitly want a war of "civilizations" in Europe. If that other, larger group of divisive believers prevails at the ballot, then their mission will have succeeded.

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