France’s War on Terror

Macron’s response has dangerous implications.
French President Emmanuel Macron talks with first responders outside Notre Dame Basilica in Nice after three people were killed before a Mass (CNS photo/Eric Gaillard, pool via Reuters).

As the threat of terrorism tightens its grip on French life, the mood here is starting to feel like it did in the United States during those bleak years after 9/11. Terrorism has become the main focus of President Emmanuel Macron and his party, the press spends much of its time relaying the government’s proposals and talking points about the issue, and legislation that curtails civil liberties in the name of “security” is now making its way through Parliament. Those who don’t get with the program are regarded with suspicion.

The familiarity of this response, however, shouldn’t obscure the important differences that mark the current political situation in France. While the 9/11 attacks resulted in nearly three thousand deaths, they weren’t followed by another major terrorist strike on American soil, and none of the perpetrators hailed from the United States. France, on the other hand, is in the midst of a drawn-out stretch of terrorist violence that has involved major attacks committed by people either born or raised in France—a cycle that has left more than two hundred and sixty dead since 2012. Of these, the November 2015 attacks in Paris and Bastille Day 2016 attacks in Nice were the deadliest.

Recent events have only added to the unease, especially the gruesome killing of middle-school teacher Samuel Paty in October. After showing his class in suburban Paris a drawing of the Prophet Mohammed—an exercise intended to help illustrate a debate about freedom of expression—rumors abounded that Paty had forced Muslim students to leave the room. (In fact, he’d told students to briefly look away if they’d rather not see the images.) A few days later, an eighteen-year-old Chechen refugee with no link to the school tracked down Paty and beheaded him in the street right outside the school where he taught.

Paty’s death hit with particular force because of the critical role the French state assigns its schools. In addition to transmitting knowledge and teaching students how to think, France’s education system is supposed to inculcate the universal values of the Republic—that is, to make students into good French citizens. A pillar of that citizen-forming process is understanding the principle of laïcité, or secularism: among other things, the notion that all religions are equal before the law and that the state must oversee a delicate balance between protecting one’s private religious practices and enforcing neutrality in public spaces.

When Paty was murdered, it seemed to many like a pointed repudiation of that. Here was a schoolteacher trying to encourage critical thinking about one of France’s foundational principles, all while being mindful of his students’ needs, and it cost him his life.

But the national mourning for Paty had hardly finished before another attack occurred—this time, at a Catholic church in Nice, when a twenty-one-year-old Tunisian who had recently arrived in the city killed three people. Days later, a lone gunman in Vienna killed four people and wounded twenty-three others—a reminder that the threat of terrorism isn’t limited to France.

What is going on? The answer is one that some, for fear of stoking bigotry, hesitate to give: Islamist terrorism is a real problem in France. Those who support a just and measured response to it need to understand it as well as possible, rather than deny or downplay the issue.

Islamist terrorism is a real problem in France. Those who support a just and measured response to it need to understand it as well as possible.

French political scientist Olivier Roy is well known for his argument about the “Islamization of radicalism.” Alienated youth turn to jihadism, Roy suggests, because it offers them a satisfying framework to channel their nihilistic fantasies and sense of disgust with the world. In his telling, Islam isn’t much of a factor per se: disillusioned young people are just latching onto what’s in front of them. After all, extremists of all stripes have often pointed to religion to justify terrible acts of violence.

But Roy’s formula was, originally, a response to fellow political scientist Gilles Kepel’s thesis about the “radicalization of Islam,” one that many other specialists in the field take for granted today. According to these experts, the recent spike in jihadism is linked to a fundamentalist turn within Islam itself—manifest, for example, in the spread of Salafism in Western Europe. (According to a 2018 note by France’s police intelligence bureau, around thirty thousand to fifty thousand people in France today are considered Salafists—a tiny minority of the country’s roughly 4 million Muslims, but a number that nevertheless appears to be rising, up from four thousand in 2004.) The overwhelming majority of these deeply conservative Muslims may be nonviolent, but according to Kepel and those who think similarly, their mosques and study groups help nourish homegrown jihadist thought.

Kepel’s basic approach is shared by Macron, and it comes with fairly clear political implications: if authorities want to fight homegrown terrorism, they have to look to the conservative Muslim communities making their homes in France.

Kepel and Roy’s competing approaches are often pitted against each other by journalists—a literary device made all the more tempting by the two famous scholars’ bitter personal rivalry—but, as others have pointed out, the differences may not be so stark. In fact, they can even be understood as complementary. The development of Salafist organizations may well be isolating a segment of young Muslims from the rest of mainstream Islam and French society at large, increasing the chances they fall into jihadist circles, but there might be other factors pushing someone over the edge. What about someone hardened by spending their formative years in prison? If that person ends up joining ISIS, were they radicalized by the Muslim religion or the rough life they didn’t choose for themselves?

 

These are complicated questions that require nuanced policy responses—questions inseparable, too, from the economic context of the impoverished working-class neighborhoods where conservative forms of Islam have flourished. Unfortunately, the French government’s response to the October attacks has been lacking in such nuance: it can be hard to determine which of its new policies are designed to actually reduce the threat of young people radicalizing and which are simply designed to score political victories for the president and his party.

In the next presidential race, in 2022, Macron is once again expected to face Marine Le Pen in the run-off round. Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party has long bashed immigration and now regularly calls for improving security and defending laïcité. By leaning into these themes, Macron and his government aren’t just innocently tackling topics of public concern. They’re hoping to win over voters ahead of a hypothetical rematch against Le Pen—and at times, this strategy has involved reaching into the far Right’s rhetorical tool box.

This process was already in motion before the recent attacks, with newly appointed Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin spending his summer hyping up a non-existent crime wave and warning of ensauvagement—the notion that the country is turning “savage.” It was stunning to hear a government minister talk this way, borrowing a word more commonly spotted in the far-right weekly Valeurs actuelles or broadcast on the CNews channel, the French equivalent of Fox News.

But those expecting a more sober-minded approach after the attacks were to be disappointed. In a televised interview just four days after Paty’s murder, Darmanin criticized the supposed overabundance of halal food in supermarkets. A week later, he doubled down on the comments, saying he understood why stores sold such food, but that he regretted the presence of entire “shelves” dedicated to it.

When the person in charge of the country’s police force make comments like that, it sends a message to France’s Muslim and non-Muslim population alike: this is not going to be a nuanced public debate. The dragnet being cast is a big one. Hold on to something sturdy if you can.

Many of the new security measures the government has taken in recent weeks are uncontroversial. For instance, the state has temporarily shuttered a mosque led by an imam with Salafist leanings. And it’s moved to dissolve a marginal Islamist organization that had relayed unfounded criticism of Samuel Paty on social media before his death. But it’s also formally abolished the much larger, more mainstream Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) for allegedly fueling discrimination and “provoking acts of terror.”

These are serious charges against a group whose statistics on discrimination have been regularly relayed in the press, and a group that only last fall helped organize a march with mainstream left-wing parties. But as the state’s chilling decree makes clear, the main offense here is guilt by association. Because the CCIF has previously criticized government measures designed to fight terrorism as “Islamophobic,” the group “must be seen as sharing, condoning and contributing” to extremism and generating the risk of violence. (France’s Human Rights League, a well-regarded human-rights organization that was founded during the Dreyfus Affair, called the decision to dissolve the CCIF “political” and warned it will reinforce the idea that all Muslims are to be viewed with suspicion.)

The government is moving forward with a bill that holds nightmarish implications for civil liberties.

The government has also unveiled legislation designed to “reinforce Republican principles.” This was already planned before the October attacks, billed as the “law against separatism,” but Macron’s party has beefed up the proposal since then. In addition to limiting the ability of parents to homeschool their children, it now includes measures that make it easier to arrest people for sharing harmful information online. But it also enhances government oversight over funding for cultural associations, and would require organizations that receive public subsidies to respect “Republican values,” giving authorities power to nix state funding if they feel those groups aren’t meeting their responsibilities.

In addition to all this, the government is moving forward with a bill that holds nightmarish implications for civil liberties. While not technically presented as part of the fight against terrorism, the so-called “general security law” is part of a broader push to improve public security—all designed to help Macron convince right-wing voters that he is, indeed, a law-and-order president and deserves reelection in 2022. Most notably, the bill would greatly expand the use of drones and body cameras on police officers. Originally, it also came with a measure to clamp down on sharing images of police officers—punishable by up to a €45,000 fine and a year in prison—but Macron’s party has since vowed to “rewrite” that section of the bill after mass protests.           

Demonstrations in late November and early December, backed by journalist unions and NGOs, marked a rare bright spot in an otherwise very gloomy political atmosphere. In case anyone forgot how the Yellow Vests, trade unions, climate movement, and anti-racist protesters have managed to wrangle concessions from the government in recent years, taking to the streets still works.

 

Despite such occasional victories, it all feels terribly corrosive for French democracy: the obsession with security; the rollback of civil liberties; the aspersions cast by the interior minister and various talking heads on an entire religious minority; the installation of an us-versus-them logic that refuses to grapple with even mild pushback against the official line; and a resulting tendency to define critics as either bad-faith actors or political naïfs who don’t grasp the extent of the threat facing the nation. (In a perfect distillation of this tendency to lump together all the naysayers, France’s education minister has on multiple occasions warned against the apparent danger posed by “Islamo-leftists,” an all-encompassing shorthand for political adversaries that harks back to the far Right’s denunciations of “Judeo-Bolsheviks” in the 1920s.)

In recent weeks, a number of French politicians and journalists have accused foreign critics, especially Americans, of misunderstanding laïcité or underestimating the danger  posed by Islamist extremism. They’re partially right. Some of these critics have gotten basic facts wrong, and it occasionally feels like they don’t appreciate the very real differences that exist between the small minority of deeply conservative Muslims who have become radicalized and the rest of France’s Muslim population. But the concerns expressed by other American observers about recent developments in France should be taken as a sincere warning: they’ve already seen what kind of damage this sort of climate of suspicion can produce in the United States.

Mathieu Magnaudeix, the former U.S. correspondent for the outlet Mediapart, has described the recent string of security-driven legislative proposals in France as a “Patriot Act à la française” warning that, like the United States, “we’re going to be in this for twenty years.” The comparison should be taken seriously. He’s right in noticing that the legal infrastructure justifying permanent state surveillance in the United States, introduced in the months following 9/11, has become so entrenched that most have forgotten it’s even there. Once you grant far-reaching new powers to the government, it can be very hard to take them back.

Macron’s recent rightward turn has been criticized on these grounds; if Marine Le Pen were ever to win the presidency, he’d be leaving an arsenal of dangerous tools at her disposal. That argument has some merit, but it seems to partially misread the situation. The government’s onslaught against civil liberties is not some hypothetical risk. It’s happening right now. It’s happening today.

Published in the January 2021 issue: 

Cole Stangler is a Paris-based journalist who writes about labor and politics. His work has been published in The Nation, Jacobin, The Guardian and The Washington Post, among other outlets.

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