The French Dilemma

The French Dilemma

Marine Le Pen speaking in 2012 (Blandine Le Cain / Flickr)

The horrific attacks in Paris in January spurred a torrent of commentary, most of which addressed their specifically French context. Commentators, particularly in France itself, recalled the long traditions of French satirical writing behind Charlie Hebdo, which had published deliberately offensive cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. They dissected the militant French form of secularism that goes by the name of laïcité, and the long history of French anti-Semitism—which seemed particularly relevant to the siege of a kosher market where a gunman killed four hostages after earlier murdering a policewoman. They discussed the legacies of French republicanism, French universalism, French racism, French colonization, French decolonization, French immigration, and French urban planning. Even when speaking of the effective segregation of immigrant communities in miserable public housing estates—a phenomenon common to many European countries—they tended to emphasize the specifically French features of this segregation. In particular, they pointed to the way French “republican” ideology refuses even to acknowledge ethnic and religious difference, hindering attempts to direct social programs towards particular communities.

This emphasis on France itself, however, has been misguided. Violence by young, alienated Muslims, directed at Westerners deemed to have insulted the Prophet Mohammed, and against Jews, is by no means a singularly French phenomenon. Think, in the first case, of the reaction to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, or to the publication of satirical cartoons in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten. Terrorist attacks by radical Muslims have taken place across the West, and Muslims from many Western countries have undergone terrorist training in the Middle East. The sheer size of the Muslim community in France, plus the factors discussed by the commentators, may have made an attack there more likely. Nonetheless, what happened in Paris in January could easily have taken place in many other locations. It could quite conceivably have taken place in Denmark, a country without a history of colonization in the Muslim world, and with very different traditions of satire and secularism, immigration and race relations. (Indeed, as this article was going to press, twin attacks took place in Copenhagen.)

Ascribing the events to specifically French factors is certainly understandable. Invoking larger, global changes that have swept across France from far parts of the globe can all too easily sound like the “France under siege” rhetoric of Marine Le Pen and her National Front. Drawing attention to the homegrown causes of terrorism, on the other hand, not only counters this “siege” thesis, but does something that seems more constructive. It suggests that preventing further attacks may depend less on sending soldiers into the streets and increasing surveillance on Muslims than on improving social conditions for the French Muslim population and finding ways of making them feel part of the national community. Many commentators have called for improving life in suburban communities through improved teaching, better policing, special employment agencies, and better health care and transportation, all to fight against what Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls has called “this terrible feeling that there are ‘second zone’ citizens.”

Such programs are woefully needed and long overdue. Valls was not wrong, soon after the attacks, to describe the situation of largely Muslim French suburban ghettos as “territorial, social, and ethnic apartheid.” By many measures, notably school performance, French society is rapidly growing more unequal, with Muslim citizens (largely of North African descent) pushed towards the bottom of the ladder. And, for that matter, many aspects of France’s past are ripe for reevaluation, including the still unsettled legacy of French colonialism, and a rigidly secularist republican ideology originally devised in the nineteenth century to reinforce a frail new regime in a country largely inhabited by Catholic peasants.

But these programs and reevaluations should be undertaken for their own sake, not as a means to prevent further terrorism. In fact, they will probably do very little to prevent further terrorism. Linking questions of French social reform to terrorism, natural as it may seem in the wake of the January attacks, creates a host of confusions, and nowhere more so than on the left.

To be sure, the social misery, alienation, and frustration that fester in the French suburbs are not irrelevant to what happened in January. They have nourished a rage that can easily turn white-hot. They have left many young Muslims dangerously sympathetic to radical Islamist rhetoric, and to a rejection of the values of the broader society. And while isolated, largely Muslim housing projects exist across much of Europe, the long and unhappy relationship between France and its Muslims, both in its former colonies and at home, has arguably stoked rage in ways absent in Denmark or Sweden (although, as noted, the threat of terrorism in these places is by no means negligible). Yet this rage has also been fed by changes that have swept through Islam over the past generation and have little to do with social conditions in France—it is in fact deeply condescending to assume that Muslims do nothing but react to the crimes and mistakes of the West. And rage can express itself in many ways, including simple criminality, self-destructiveness, and the large-scale rioting that convulsed the French suburbs most spectacularly in 2005. Carefully planned, premeditated murder requires much more than simple rage. It includes, very often, things that have little to do with the immediate roots of that rage. It is this crucial distinction that has far too often been ignored in the commentary on the attacks.

The abundant reporting done on the January terrorists—the brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, who carried out the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, and Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked the Jewish market Hyper Cacher—bears out this point. Yes, these were men whom French society had failed on many levels. The Kouachis were mistreated by their parents as small children and ignored by social services, and moved on to bleak orphanages after the parents’ early deaths; Coulibaly, meanwhile, grew up in one of the worst public housing projects in France—the isolated, depressing, crime-ridden “Grande Borne” estate fifteen miles south of Paris.

Yet as left-wing commentators hastened to point out after the attacks, these men were also in no way typical of French Muslims, the vast majority of whom have no connection to Islamic extremism, let alone terrorism. Overall, in fact, French Muslims constitute one of the most unobservant, secularized Muslim communities on earth. Anger at French social conditions does not necessarily breed terrorism, even among those sympathetic to extremist rhetoric. Coulibaly, meanwhile, suffered from psychological illness, and had a record of violent crime going back to his teens. Social programs aimed at improving the welfare and integration of large communities can often do very little to save young men with these sorts of problems.

The process that turned the three men from lost souls into terrorist killers depended in very large part on events far removed from France. Chérif Kouachi fell in with radical Islamists when in his early twenties. America’s war in Iraq and the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib fed his outrage and anger, as they did the outrage of young Muslims worldwide. Kouachi even planned to go fight against the United States in Iraq, but the French authorities arrested him on his way out of the country. In prison, he and Coulibaly fell under the influence of a jihadist who had been radicalized in London. The Kouachi brothers later received military training in Yemen and pledged their loyalty to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Only at the end of this long process of indoctrination and training did they walk into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, ready to commit murder. Muslims from other countries have followed similar paths, a large number of them from relatively prosperous backgrounds. Mohamed Atta, the 9/11 terrorist, came from a middle-class Egyptian family and had an architecture degree. Nidal Hasan, who killed thirteen Americans at Fort Hood in 2009, was a psychiatrist and a major in the U.S. Army.

In this sense, the January attacks did not in fact represent a significant break with longstanding patterns of terrorism on French soil. Since the end of the Algerian War of Independence against France in 1954–62, France has experienced several waves of terrorism. Nearly all of them derived from conflicts centered well away from France’s own borders, such as the civil wars in Lebanon in the 1980s and Algeria in the 1990s. Some of these did not involve homegrown fighters at all. Other prominent attacks have mostly had Jewish targets: El Al passengers, synagogues, a Jewish restaurant, a religious school. While taking place on French soil, they stemmed, like much other recent European anti-Semitic violence, principally from anger against Israel. They represented, in the perpetrators’ eyes, an extension of the Middle Eastern conflict to France, more than an assault upon France itself (they were also largely unconnected to France’s earlier history of anti-Semitism).

Given this background, much of the commentary after the attacks has seemed sadly beside the point. Will improved education and health care in places like the “Grande Borne” prevent the radicalization of individuals? Even if, miraculously, they do, the next attacks in France might well come from perpetrators raised in Liège, or Malmö, or Cairo, or Algiers, wholly beyond the reach of French social policy.

As is so often the case after spectacular terrorist attacks, what countries don’t do matters just as much, if not more, as what they do. Above all, it is crucial to avoid treating the January attacks as shots in a war waged on France. Despite the links to international terrorism, these seventeen deaths were not part of a war. They were vicious terrorist crimes. It is the murderers who saw themselves as holy warriors, and French society should do everything in its power to deny them this distinction. The government should institute reasonable security measures to protect people from similar crimes in the future. But these measures should stop well short of anything like military mobilization.

Similarly, the French should guard against any curtailment of civil liberties. And if the government does propose new social reforms, it should make clear that these steps are being undertaken for their own, very obvious reasons, and not because of the attacks. It is not as if the attacks were necessary to reveal what was wholly evident long before they took place. And what could serve as a more potent incentive for future terrorism than the thought that a few spectacular murders could turn an entire society on its head?

The example of the United States after 9/11 offers a very large cautionary tale here. As Juan Cole has argued, Norway, which carefully resisted dramatic security measures after the massacres carried out by the disturbed, far-right killer Anders Brevik in 2011, provides a better model. The French Jewish population needs increased security, not simply because of the very real threat it faces from terrorism, but also because of a worrisome increase in less dramatic anti-Semitic violence. And, for that matter, Muslim places of worship need increased security as well, particularly after Islamophobic attacks occurred in retaliation for what happened in January. But apart from these specific cases, the French state needs to act with restraint.

Unfortunately, given the terrific emotional shock of the January events, apocalyptic language has been hard to resist. “Yes, France is at war, against terrorism, jihadism and radical Islamism” said Prime Minister Manuel Valls in a much noted speech, while President François Hollande, in a hugely unfortunate choice of words during a press conference, pledged to undertake a “reconquest” of minority communities. The huge, spontaneous demonstrations by nearly 4 million people across France on January 11, while eminently understandable, all too easily fed into the sense that the country was facing an apocalyptic threat, as opposed to a manageable security challenge.

As the shock of the attacks wears off, and the torrent of commentary subsides, the Socialists in particular will have to make some very difficult choices. Initially, these choices were not easily visible. Despite worries that Marine Le Pen would reap the greatest political benefit from the attacks, she did not. The depth of the shock instead led the French to rally around their elected leaders. The popularity of Hollande and Valls both soared (particularly in Hollande’s case, it had nowhere to go but up). But will this pattern continue? In France, the most serious ideological divide no longer comes between the two major parties, but between them, on the one hand, and those representing the extremes on both sides of the political spectrum, on the other. Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party (descended from the Gaullists) and the Socialists are both dominated by well-heeled graduates of the country’s elite “grandes écoles.” They both favor policies of free trade and free movement of peoples, and of embedding France firmly in super-national networks and federations—above all the European Union. As the political scientist Sophie Meunier has put it, they are the parties of “ouverture” (opening) towards the world. A French friend of mine cynically refers to them (in English, deliberately) as “neoliberalism, and neoliberalism light.” Both parties also remain firmly attached to the republican ideology of laïcité and of refusing to give ethnic or religious difference formal acknowledgement in the public sphere.

Those on the political extremes, by contrast—both the National Front and a number of extreme-left factions (including Trotskyite groupings and the “Parti de Gauche” of former Socialist minister Jean-Luc Mélenchon)—are the parties of “fermeture” (closing). In very different ways, they fear and distrust globalization, which they blame for shackling French workers to forces and institutions beyond national control. They have no use for the European Union. The National Front built its support through its hostility—often overtly racist—towards immigrant communities, and more recently towards migrant workers from central and eastern Europe. The far left’s protests against global capitalism have proven less electorally effective, but still appeal to as much as 15 percent of French voters.

Already in 2002 political radicals on both sides combined to cause an earthquake in French politics. In the first round of presidential voting, the extreme left siphoned enough support from Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin to push him behind Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie, the National Front’s founder. In the second, run-off round, the centrists united behind President Jacques Chirac to crush Le Pen père. But the defeated candidate boasted, quite correctly, that henceforth, the major parties would not be able to ignore his issues and his supporters. Indeed, Nicolas Sarkozy, Chirac’s successor, built his political success in large part on the harsh stance he took towards rioters in the heavily Muslim suburbs, referring to them as “scum,” and saying that the housing projects needed to be cleaned out with a high-pressure hose. Upon his election in 2007 he made the reinforcement of “national identity” one of his top priorities.

Since François Hollande defeated Sarkozy in 2012, the National Front itself has risen alarmingly. Marine Le Pen has shown herself a considerably smoother operator than her blustering father, who was prone to embarrassing anti-Semitic outbursts. Indeed, she has cannily courted French Jewish support, arguing that only the National Front can protect French Jews against anti-Semitism. She has also taken full advantage of President Hollande’s weak leadership and romantic scandals, and France’s deep, continuing economic malaise. By late last year, polls showed her leading in first-round presidential voting, although she was still unable to beat the most likely centrists in run-offs. She has also built up her party organization, which is crucial if the Front is to garner more than protest votes and have a presence in the French parliament. In February, a National Front candidate (who had once boasted of French civilization’s superiority to “that of the Huns and the Bantus”) just barely lost an important by-election, in a seat recently held by a Socialist finance minister.

As the January events recede, and what Hollande has called the “spirit of January 11” (and its massive demonstrations) wanes, Marine Le Pen could well recover her former momentum. After all, nothing more perfectly brings together everything that her party has warned about in hysterical tones for decades than the specter of French-born Muslims, the descendants of immigrants, carrying out terrorist attacks at the behest of international jihadist organizations. If the Socialist government proves incapable of preventing additional attacks, Le Pen’s popularity could soar.

And so, over the coming months and years, the Socialists in particular will face difficult temptations. Finding their newfound popularity tightly bound to the “spirit of January 11,” they will do what they can to keep this spirit alive. One way to do so will be through the rhetoric of “war,” and aggressive security measures. The other will be to push social programs, and also the school measures aimed at the “integration” of minority communities.

But President Hollande’s embarrassing talk of “reconquest” is only the most recent sign that the Socialists have not done much better than Sarkozy’s UMP in paying attention to what most French Muslims actually want. It is difficult to generalize about French Muslims, because they come from many different ethnic, national, and social backgrounds. But by all indications, a sizeable majority of them reacted to the January events with the same horror as other French citizens—certainly, the leaders of the major mainstream Muslim organizations did. Most of them also want to further their communities’ integration into French life. They generally have little affection, however, for the ideology of laïcité, which they see, correctly, as far less neutral than its advocates pretend (the French state gives considerably more support to Catholic religious institutions and schools than to Muslim ones). And in the wake of the attacks, many Muslims bristled at the idea of honoring, in the name of free speech, a magazine which they saw as deliberately offensive towards what they held most sacred. This attitude, it needs to be said, is different from the radical Islamism that appeals only to a small minority of French Muslims. Michel Houellebecq’s recent novel, in which a Muslim political party wins a presidential election and imposes Sharia law on France, is a fantastical satire, nothing more. Many French observers were shocked to find that large numbers of Muslim students refused to participate in the minute of silence for the January victims—it was a worrying sign of just how deep the alienation now runs in some communities. But the wrong sort of reforms can aggravate this alienation rather than alleviate it.

Socialist leaders, however, despite having won the votes of a large majority of French Muslims in 2012, and despite putting Muslims in prominent positions in the party and government, still seem to think that the most effective response to the problem of “integrating” minority communities consists of increased instruction in secularism, along with aggressive measures designed to counter discipline problems in schools (such as having students stand up when teachers enter the room). It is worth recalling that before the January attacks, the most ambitious “integrative” measures the French state undertook in this century were bans on wearing “prominent religious symbols”—that is, especially Muslim headscarves—in schools and face coverings in public. Few things, in practice, have done more to provoke anger in Muslim communities and the sense that its members are unwelcome in France. They will certainly do nothing to decrease the susceptibility of the most alienated young Muslims to radical rhetoric.

These temptations for the Socialists will be hard to resist. But the best way to resist will be, even while honoring the “spirit of January 11,” to keep the attacks themselves in strict perspective. Again, these seventeen murders, horrible as they were, did not constitute the opening salvos of a war. They were not an invasion. They posed no real threat to the “spirit of France,” or to “freedom,” whatever Prime Minister Valls may have said. They were not flares exposing deep social pathologies that had somehow previously escaped notice. They were not themselves the direct product of those pathologies. They represent a serious security threat, since it is entirely reasonable to assume that the dangerous organizations which sponsored them will try to attack again. But they are not an apocalyptic threat. To treat them as a crisis that calls the very nature of France into question is not simply a misguided, if natural, reaction, but exactly what the perpetrators were hoping for.


David A. Bell teaches French history at Princeton.