This article was published on Backbench and won IMPACT Article of the Month
France starts a new week in a much more jittery state and darker mood than it started the last. It asks itself: why us? While Islamist terrorism is a much worse scourge in countries across Africa, the Middle East and Asia, in our Western bubble it is France that has suffered most: from Mohammed Merah’s murderous rampage in Toulouse and Montauban in 2012, to the Charlie Hebdo attacks at the beginning of this year, to Friday’s events.
Meanwhile, a report by the French senate in April estimated at least 1,430 of the 3,000 plus Europeans who have left to fight for ISIS were French.
The first of Friday’s murderers to be formally identified, Ismaël Omar Mostefaï, was French-born with a history of petty crime and drug use. This follows a similar pattern to other Islamist terrorists in France as wayward youth who have hardly been strict adherents to Islamic teachings.
Merah, who killed seven people, grew up on the outskirts of Toulouse and was a robber who had served short stints in prison. Ahmed Coulibaly, who killed a policewoman and four hostages in a Jewish grocery store in January, had been involved in armed robbery and drug trafficking.
France and Islam
It is often said that France assimilates immigrant into one unified French culture, avoiding multiculturalism and ensuring everyone shares the same values of liberté, égalité and fraternité. That is more the aim rather than the reality. The word that sums up France’s historic attitude towards Muslim immigrants is blindness: both in the secular sense of not recognising citizens by their religion, but also not recognising and dealing with the social problems and tensions in neglected banlieues where many have found themselves.
Northern African immigrants arrived in large numbers in the latter half of last century. Up until the late 1980’s there was a prevailing laissez-faire attitude from the state. It was left to Islamic states to look after their religious needs, and it was assumed that they would naturally integrate into society. As well as North African and Turkish influences on Islam in France, radical Saudi Wahhabism has also taken root.
A critical year was 1989. This was when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses, whose publication was marked by protests across the Muslim world. 1989 was also the year of the first affaire du foulard in France. Three girls refused to take off their Islamic headscarves at school and were suspended in a case that went to the supreme court. This caused much national angst about religion in the public sphere; a debate which recurs sporadically and particularly in relation to the dress habits of Muslim women.
The outskirts of large cities where many descendants of North African immigrants live have traditionally suffered from police brutality, low job opportunities and an overwhelming sense of rejection, as was depicted in the award-winning film La Haine.
There have been periodic riots in these areas, such as those in 2005, when the death of two teenagers chased by police into an electric-power substation triggered almost three weeks of rioting across the country. Nicolas Sarkozy, Interior Minister at the time, called the rioters “racaille” (scum): an inflammatory word which only increased the sense of separation between the disaffected youth and the general public.
Formal efforts to incorporate Muslims into society have not fared well. The French Council of the Muslim Faith, set up by Sarkozy to provide representation for Muslims for matters affecting them, has largely been seen as elitist and unrepresentative. It has been criticised for two fairly contradictory reasons: on the one hand for going against the principle of secularism in France by dealing with citizens according to their religion; and on the other for not being effective enough.
Frayed social fabric
The aftermath of the attacks in Paris have seen demonstrations of public solidarity. Graffiti artists have painted Paris’ motto Fluctuat nec mergitur (beaten by the waves but not sunk) at Place de la République. Whether the show of unity will match up to the marches after the Charlie Hebdo attacks remains to be seen, but there is a lingering sense that all this is papering over the cracks – mainstream cohesion masking difficult tensions at the edges.
After the attacks in January, there were reports of Muslims schoolchildren refusing to respect the nationwide silence. Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, a well-known comedian, wrote on Facebook “je me sens Charlie Coulibaly”, an amalgamation of Charlie Hebdo with the terrorist Ahmed Coulibaly.
As for the far-right, the organisers banned Marine Le Pen of the National Front from participating in the Paris march, and her father and founder of the party, Jean-Marie, said “je suis Charlie Martel,” in reference to an 8th century ruler of Francia who defeated Muslims in the Battle of Tours, thus supposedly saving Christian Europe.
A recent book which has taken the literary market by storm, Submission by Michel Houellebecq, imagines seven years into the future, when Islamists take power in France, not through violent attacks, but through the many voters’ general apathy, lack of faith in liberal values and fear of the powerful National Front. Violence spreads between racist ‘nativists’ and Islamists, and Jews leave the country in fear. While being firmly in the domain of satire rather than prediction, events like those Friday’s give it an eerily realist tone.