Why you should care
Because the French government’s response to Islamic terrorism could backfire.
The author, a frequent contributor to OZY, lives in Paris.
After two bloody attacks on its capitale in less than a year, the French government is understandably making a serious effort to crack down on terrorism. Reaction to the Nov. 13 attacks, which killed more than 100 civilians, has been severe and swift. What’s far less clear is whether it will be effective. Indeed, many are arguing that new, overzealous security laws are likely to contribute to the underlying problem: a failure of integration.
While the paths to radicalization are varied, there’s little doubt that something in French soil is aiding the process. “A significant number of French youth have gone or are going to ‘the dark side of the force,’ ” wrote researcher Jean-François Daguzan in Le Monde — a problem, he added, that was “carelessly suffocated under the unanimous cry ‘Je suis Charlie’ in January.” The French government was definitely active after the January attacks — it planned prison reforms and strengthened the emphasis on laïcité, the French concept of secularism, in schools. Yet, as in January, all of the identified attackers on Nov. 13 were European.
This time around, the French government is attacking radicalization at a more furious pace. President François Hollande seeks to add thousands of additional security forces within the country, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve intends to dissolve radicalized mosques, and Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced plans for the creation of a deradicalization institution before the end of December. The most controversial development, however, is the three-month-long state of emergency that has been enacted: Demonstrations are banned and the French Interior Ministry can conduct searches without judicial sanction. Already, there are reports that activists and Muslims have been unjustly targeted.
Inadvertently, these moves feed extremist propaganda. Groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State use examples of Western oppression and ostracization to justify their cause, and they don’t need more ammunition. In an interview with Le Monde, sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar noted that despite an increase in middle-class converts to radical Islam since 2013, an “overwhelming majority” of the terrorists who struck Paris this year were from the banlieues, low-income areas outside the city center. It’s not a new story — poverty and marginalization consistently give rise to many different forms of violence all over the world. But the tide has swelled from local gangs to international terrorism, and it’s been overlooked. “No one was concerned that people in the projects lived in such conditions,” said politician Malek Boutih in an interview with the French news show Le Grand Journal. Boutih, who submitted a report on France’s radicalized youth in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, continued in a frustrated voice: “Now the danger has left the projects and become a danger to our country.”
Enduring problems of impoverished areas and unclear assimilation policies have already fostered ill will toward the state. The lack of transportation, jobs and a sense of community in the run-down, isolated suburbs, where many immigrant families live, made international headlines with the riots of 2005. Ten years later — this past January, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks — the prime minister controversially referred to the banlieue situation as “territorial, social, ethnic apartheid.” We can’t be sure of the percentage of religious and ethnic minorities living in these areas, because it is prohibited to note race and religion in French censuses.
Which brings us to the next problem: France believes that ignoring ethnic and religious differences among its citizens leads to harmony. This is embodied in their confusing concept of laïcité, a jurisprudence of separation of church and state, one that favors assimilation over integration. From bans on religious headgear, like hijabs, to efforts to end kosher and halal meals in schools and prisons, laïcité makes Muslims and other religious minorities wary. The far-right Front National is especially known for twisting the term to further xenophobic agendas. Political analysts predict that the Front National may win big in the upcoming election; the government has counted 35 acts of Islamophobia in the past three weeks.
All of these elements are bricks in the wall that block certain French nationals from singing “La Marseillaise” with the rest of their countrypeople. This is not an excuse for terrorism — the attackers made a conscious choice to take innocent lives, while so many others who face insurmountable obstacles do not. This is to say that in the “war against terrorism,” as Hollande has called it, the republic would do well to make sure its citizens feel like citizens in order to stifle the seduction of radical recruiters.
Mr. Hollande, all is not quiet on the home front.