On October 16th, middle-school teacher Samuel Paty was decapitated for having shown caricatures of the prophet Mohammed to his class. The cartoons were the work of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, twelve of whose editors fell prey to an Islamist attack of their own in January 2015. On October 29th, less than two weeks later, an assailant claimed the lives of three people in Nice, one of whom was also beheaded. In the same town, in July 2016, an Islamic terrorist drove a truck through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day, killing 86 and injuring over four hundred. This past Friday, November 13th, marked 5 years since the attacks on the Bataclan and Stade de France in Paris that killed 130 innocent people, the highest death toll recorded on French soil since the Second World War.
Since 2012 there have been 95 recorded incidents of Islamist terrorism in Europe, collectively claiming 373 lives. Of these, 28, or almost 30%, have taken place on French soil, amounting to 265 victims, over 70% of the total body count. What exactly have the French people or the Republic they inhabit and embody done to deserve such a vile fate in the minds of extremists? There are many possible answers, and each of them no doubt plays some contributory role.
A leading explanatory candidate is that of France’s championing of secularism. Indeed, the country lays claim to the very invention of laicité, the separation of church and state. The French constitution states that “all citizens regardless of their origin, race or religion are treated as equals before the law and respecting all religious beliefs.” Upon those foundations, almost fifty years later, a 2004 law prohibited “all clothing or other attire displaying religious worship to be worn in schools.”, effectively banishing head scarves, kippahs and crosses from the classroom. In the name of these same secular principles, a 2010 bill came into effect “prohibiting concealment of the face in public space”, thereby outlawing burqas in public. Encountering considerable resistance from the Muslim community, the state justified the ruling as necessary for identification purposes, and suggested that forcing women to comply with such a practice was sexist. Upon appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in 2014, although such reasoning was dismissed, the ban was eventually upheld as the Court accepted the French government’s argument that the law was based on “a certain idea of living together”. On the same grounds, a 2016 ban on “burkinis” lead to multiple confrontations between beach-going Muslim women and police.
In 2018, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that the French ban disproportionately infringed upon the right of women to manifest their religious beliefs, and could have the effect of “confining them to their homes, impeding their access to public services and marginalising them.” Interestingly, the coronavirus pandemic has cast these laws in a new and particularly unfavourable light. As the Washington Post put it “if an observant Muslim woman wanted to get on the Paris Metro, she would be required to remove her burqa and replace it with a mask”. The concept of “living together” has changed significantly in 2020, as have the terms of the debate over whether such bans are justifiable. For many, the damage has already been done, as the legal developments of the past two decades point to a brand of secularism that has outgrown tradition and gradually and purposefully encroached upon the religious freedoms of Muslims.
A related factor, especially at the fore at the moment, is the French government’s staunch defence of the principle of freedom of expression. France has a robust tradition of satirical comics, which in a secular context without laws forbidding blasphemy or anticlericalism, invariably leads to controversial depictions of religious idols. Passions have been running high since Charlie Hebdo republished its infamous cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in September to coincide with the trial of the terrorists allegedly connected to their attack. On October 2nd, French president Emmanuel Macron reaffirmed his commitment to French secular values and unveiled his government’s plans to tackle “Islamist separatism”, describing Islam as “a religion that is in crisis all over the world today”. In the wake of Samuel Paty’s murder two weeks later, Macron refused to denounce the caricatures that ultimately cost the history and geography teacher his life. Rather, the French president doubled-down by vowing “We will continue” for Samuel Paty, and hailing him as “The face of the Republic”. Since, the villainization of Emmanuel Macron far and wide across the Muslim world. Among other leaders, Pakistani prime minister Imran Kahn accused him of deliberately provoking Muslims, and Turkish president Recep Erdoğan suggested he undergo “mental checks”. A condemnation of France as a whole has led to boycotts of French products and widespread protests against the country. Images of burning French flags are all-too-reminiscent of the anti-American vitriol in the Middle East from decades past, epitomised in chants of “Death to America”. In a bid to calm the international waters, the president laid out his case to Al Jazeera Arabic: “I understand and respect that people can be shocked by these cartoons but I will never accept that someone can justify the use of physical violence because of these cartoons.” In a subsequent tweet, Macron swore “We will not give in, ever.”
Following the Nice knife attacks, French prime minister Jean Castex announced a nationwide state of emergency alert, as the president himself vowed to double the number of soldiers deployed domestically. Interior minister Gérald Darmanin initiated a broad crackdown by calling for an immediate investigation into dozens of organisations, mosques included, deemed to be fostering radical Islamist ideas. Critics of the government’s hard-line reaction argue such measures only contribute to the stigmatisation of Muslim communities and play into the hands of radicals by subverting the presumption of innocence, as others denounce the French president’s uncompromising stance as discriminatory and flirting with Islamophobia. Human rights watchdog Amnesty International rebuts that “The French government’s rhetoric on free speech is not enough to conceal its own shameless hypocrisy”. The accusation being that the freedom of expression of the Muslim community, their right to oppose depictions of their faith they consider offensive, is being stripped away as they find themselves unfairly demonised as separatists or Islamists. Claims of “selective freedom of speech” in France are bolstered by an expansive and imprecise 2014 law punishing any instances of “justification of terrorism” by 7 years imprisonment. The line between voicing outrage at caricatures of the prophet and supporting the violent retribution it too often entails is becoming ever more blurred. A nation under attack is a fearful one. A fearful nation is one that is all the more hostile. Hostility makes distinguishing friend from foe in the fight for the values at the heart of French society all the more difficult.
Another conspicuous bone of contention is French foreign policy. The events of 9/11 triggered Article 5 of the NATO treaty, stating that an attack against any member would be considered a direct attack on all parties, effectively dragging the West into the “War on terror”. However, then-president Jacques Chirac was famously a vociferous critic of the US-led plan to invade Iraq, spearheading the opposition and even threatening to veto the proposition before the Security Council. Subsequent administrations have proven more bellicose. Soon after his election, Chirac’s successor Nicolas Sarkozy sought to sweeten France’s soured relationship with the US by returning to NATO’s active military command. Nowadays, France is widely perceived to be leading the charge against jihadist groups in Africa. President François Hollande launched two military operations on the continent, one to stop an Islamist take-over of the Malian capital of Bamako, another to restore peace in the increasingly violent power vacuum their first intervention left behind. In a historical volte-face, France was also the first European country to join the United States in the bombing campaign against ISIS. Since, jihadists have pointed towards France’s participation in the international coalition against the Islamic State as justification for reprisals. In response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2018, current president Emmanuel Macron joined the US and United Kingdom in a military operation in Syria to rid the regime of chemical weapon capabilities. If France was once a country seen to prudently shy away from intervention on foreign soils, this image has been dutifully shed in the eyes of her allies and, critically, those of her enemies.
Anti-France animosity has roots that burrow far deeper than the 21st century. The French colonial empire was a party to the hasty divvying up of the Middle East with their British counterparts after WW1. The chronic instability of the region has long been attributed to the careless tracing of lines in the sand to facilitate the exploitation of its natural resources. This is but the most recent manifestation of a history marred by imperial expansionism in North Africa. A common grievance in jihadist propaganda states the influence of French education, culture and political institutions in erasing the Muslim identity of colonial peoples. A particularly heinous stain on France’s colonial record is Jules Ferry’s legitimisation of colonisation by way of a mission civilisatrice: “The higher races have a right over the lower races, they have a duty to civilise the inferior races.” Such words are bound to leave scars that endure long throughout time.
The legacy of this colonial past, far from being buried in the history books, lives on through the rich diversity of modern France’s ethnic make-up. Today, France is home to the largest population of Muslims in the European Union, accounting for about a third of the total at approximately 5 million people. Islam is the second most practiced religion in the country after Catholicism, and counts more followers than the next three religious minorities combined. A lion’s share of French Muslims can trace their heritage back to France’s former colonies, especially those in North Africa. French people of Maghrebi origin form the largest ethnic group in France after those of European origin. Those with Algerian ancestry alone account for up to 2 million citizens.
Although efforts to integrate such immigrants into French society have improved greatly over time, deep chasms remain painfully unbridged. A major problem is that of a concentration of immigrant populations into undesirable suburbs (banlieues) of the largest French cities such as Paris, Marseille and Lyon. For far too many, this entails living in public housing projects known as HLMs (Habitation à Loyer Modéré), built in the sixties in low-rent neighbourhoods. Whereas just under 18% of the general French population live in such subsidised units, half of all North African immigrants call them home. These neighbourhoods, also known as cités, are shackled by high rates of poverty, welfare dependence, broken families, criminality and violence. As native French families flee in droves, many fear a ghettoisation of the projects, aggrieved by an abandonment by local and national government. A lack of dynamism and investment has led to the unemployment rate of populations of immigrant origin being twice the national rate, and even higher among the youth of North African origin. The knock-on effects of economic stagnation and an idle job market only exacerbate the difficulties of integration later in life. The disaffected youths of these lost urban peripheries expressed their agony in the riots of November 2005, which resulted in images of burning cars splashed across all news networks, a three-week state of emergency and almost 3000 arrests. In their book, Integrating Islam, Johnathan Lawrence and Justin Vaïsse lament “the creation of a vicious cycle in which because these young people have little hope of getting a good job in the future, they have no real incentive to succeed at school and therefore become less employable.” Although many French citizens of Muslim descent are happily integrated, the experience of a disenfranchised youth, cast aside by French society and with little hope for the future, breeds the kind of festering resentment and hatred that Islamic terrorist networks thrive off of. France leads the EU in terms of home-grown terrorist fighters exported to Iraq and Syria to join the ranks of ISIS.
If acts of terror play into anyone’s hands, it is into those of nationalists who momentarily see their acrimony reflected back by the population at large. Such atrocities invariably lead to a widespread outpouring of grief and a protective sense of community. The visceral nature of Islamic terrorism also extracts the worst from people, blurring the line between a desire for justice and for revenge. Throw in some careless generalisations, cutting stereotypes and thinly-veiled racism and far-right parties such as the Front National are gifted a surge of support. Historically marginalised due to its overt anti-Semitism, the party of Jean-Marie Le Pen has enjoyed a consistent increase in popularity under the tenure of his daughter, Marine, since 2011. In order to rehabilitate the party and capitalise upon the wave of populism sweeping Europe circa 2015, she expelled her father from the organisation altogether. Marine Le Pen has since claimed the position of being anti-EU, anti-immigration and uniquely concerned for France’s national security. Thus, with every instance of Islamic terrorism on French soil the Front National’s standing is revitalised, and even Le Pen’s most egregious comments gain traction. The reprisal of the slogan “La France aux Français” masks a nativism that has frequently specifically targeted Muslims. Even her advocacy for secularism (which she asserts stems from France’s Christian heritage) is bloated out to the extreme: “we have to oppose all demands that aim to shatter secularism – demands for different clothes, demands for special food, demands for prayer rooms. Demands that create special rules that would allow Muslims to behave differently.” Alienated no longer, Marine Le Pen was the run-off candidate against Macron in the 2017 election, securing a third of the national vote, and has recently been polling neck and neck with the incumbent president with an eye to the 2022 race.
As more voters lend their ears to the message of the far-right, centrist parties may well be tempted to drift in their direction to poach votes for themselves. In the current climate, caution, tact and understanding are paramount, none of which feature in the nationalist lexicon. If one factor among all those mentioned in this article has the capacity to make the situation immeasurably worse, it would be succumbing to the ignorance and fear-mongering of nationalism.
There are certainly further interpretations not explored here, but taking into account these five elements when seeking to understand the precarious situation France finds herself in is a good start. Upholding the core tenets of French society and culture, assuring accountability for a grisly colonial past, assimilating a sizeable minority and resisting swelling anti-immigrant sentiment is a balancing act quite unlike any other. One mis-step could send the country tumbling down a vicious spiral of intolerance, hatred, relentless attacks, further bigotry and an irreconcilable divide between differing faiths and ethnicities. Few scenarios so clearly spell disaster. The only feasible aversion route is to bridge the gap between France’s ideals and the lived experience of the entirety of the French people. This would entail standing true to the country’s 18th century Enlightenment values of secularism and freedom of expression, whilst also acknowledging the various failures and imbalances that plague their implementation in the unfathomably more diverse 21st century. As one of the defining challenges of our time, all eyes are on France to show the world that these odds, however exceptional, are not insurmountable.