Why France is the target of jihad
Horror struck again in France when a man inspired by Islamic State (ISIS) drove a lorry into crowds celebrating Bastille Day on the famous Promenade des Anglais in Nice, killing 84 people and wounding more than 300. Less than two weeks later, two men who had also pledged allegiance to ISIS killed a priest in a church in northern France.
The question that haunts France and many other observers is: Why France?
Belgium has been targeted recently but neither Spain nor Britain has suffered anything like the ferocity of the attacks that France has since January 2015.
Failures in intelligence gathering and terrorism prevention may have played a part in the string of terrorist attacks. Indeed, critics argue that the dissolution by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008 of the domestic intelligence police, Les Renseignements Généraux, as part of an overall merger with counterintelligence and the dismantling of neighbourhood police has weakened French security.
The second question relates to the reaction of the French political class and media after such attacks. Until last November, there was at least a veneer of national unity as in Spain in 2004 and Britain in 2005. No longer. Insults fly in all directions among politicians and the media, which begs the question of whether politicians are not playing directly into the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS), whose sole purpose is to increase fear in the West.
Since the revolution of 1789, France has a very distinctive view of itself, what the sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar calls “an assertive form of republicanism and an open distrust of religions, beginning, historically, with Catholicism”.
Decolonisation, decades of social exclusion of many French Muslims, the stigmatisation of cultural differences and globalisation have, in Khosrokhavar’s view, “narrowed the state’s room for manoeuvre”.
The French definition of citizenship rests on very exalted ideals. Over the past generation, the republican ideal in France has melted away. The country seems incapable of reform, its economy has not produced many new jobs and young people are far more likely to be unemployed than in Germany or Britain.
Ghettos exist in both these countries but those who feel alienated in France are far more numerous. It is worth remembering that discrimination vis-à-vis workers and graduates who are Muslim is far stronger than elsewhere in northern Europe. It has taken longer for French Muslim citizens to attain senior positions in politics and private companies than in Britain, which does not pretend to be a monocultural society. French politicians proclaim they want to enforce inclusion. Everyday reality often tells a bleaker story.
France still suffers from the scars left by the brutal decolonisation of Algeria. Britain seems to have managed its decolonisation better. If French people of Portuguese origin wave Portuguese flags when the national Portuguese team wins in an international football tournament, no one sees anything wrong. If French citizens of Algerian origin do the same, the National Front spreads rumours of churches being set ablaze.
Religion in France is deemed to be a private affair — hence the battle about headscarves being banned in public places. This frontal way of dealing with Islam in the public sphere allows accusations of Islamophobia to flourish yet France is no more Islamophobic than its neighbours as the number of mixed marriages bears testimony.
Integration through the public schooling system has, until recently, worked well but the job market is stifled except for public institutions, such as the army and the police, which recruit many young French people of Muslim origin. Immigration fears are shared in Germany and Britain but minorities in both countries can express their religious and communal differences more openly.
France’s multiple interventions in Muslim countries such as Libya, Syria, Iraq and Mali further complicate matters. However justified these interventions may be — and some are hard to defend — what is not is the torrent of ill-informed comment that conflates Islam with any number of foreign conflicts.
This disregard for the complexity of international affairs, when combined with laïcité, creates a climate in which “France’s staunch version of secularism is so inflexible it can appear to rob them (Muslims) of their dignity”, Khosrokhavar wrote in the New York Times. It feeds into a nihilist generational revolt whose foot soldiers are criminals or the unhinged.
ISIS ideology frames the anger and alienation the way the extremist left of the Red Brigades did in the 1960s. Nor should the effects of reactionary doctrines of Muslim communities in the West, long fuelled by ample funds from Saudi Wahhabist individuals, be underestimated.
Ministers and politicians of right and left started squabbling and exchanging insults within hours of the attack in Nice. The only man who came out with dignity was the public prosecutor in Paris, who chose his words with extreme care. Many conservative and some socialist politicians enjoy playing catch up with the National Front.
Irresponsible media, populist politicians pandering to the worst instincts, a president who has forfeited the respect of the vast majority of his countrymen and continuing turmoil in the Middle East are unlikely to provide a happy backdrop to the coming months.