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.