The “War on Terror” in France

January 7, 2015: Eleven people are shot on the premises of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper, in the 11th arrondissement in Paris. The perpetrators are two brothers who claimed to be acting on behalf of Al-Qaeda to punish those who deride Islam.

November 13, 2015: One hundred and thirty people are shot in Paris, in the 10th and 11th arrondissements. It is the biggest attack that France has ever faced on its own soil in a generation. The perpetrators are nine men acting on behalf of the Islamic State (ISIS). On the same evening, a national state of emergency is declared.

July 14, 2016: Eighty-six people are killed in Nice, a city in southern France, on Bastille Day, a French national holiday. The perpetrator drove a truck down the most popular avenue in the city. The Islamic State claims responsibility for the killings two days later.

October 30, 2017: French president Emmanuel Macron signs a new anti-terrorism law. On November 1, 2017, after two years of existence and six extensions, the state of emergency is lifted.

The concept of a “state of emergency” was initially created in France under President Charles de Gaulle in 1955, during the Franco-Algerian War. It temporarily restricts certain public liberties and increases the powers of the Minister of the Interior, the prefects, and the police in order to deal with a crisis that threatens citizens’ safety and public order. Such powers include the ability to restrict the mobility of certain individuals, to prohibit certain public meetings, and to conduct searches and seizures without legal warrants, among other things. Two years is an unprecedented length of time for this exceptional state to remain in place, and, now that it has been lifted, one may want to examine its controversial replacement, the new anti-terrorism law.

Article 1 of the law replaces the current use of house arrests for suspicious individuals with mobility restrictions for them within a larger perimeter of their city. Article 2 grants prefects the power to close down places of worship more easily than they had been able to even under the state of emergency. Article 3 defines the terms of video surveillance of suspects as essentially the same as it was during as the state of emergency. Article 4 keeps home searches and raids in place. Police controls will now be more frequent. Article 19 formalizes border control powers in the same terms.

In essence, the new anti-terrorism law is strikingly similar to the state of emergency. In fact, despite a few variations in scope, the new powers granted to the Interior and the police are essentially the same as before. The state of emergency had become quite unpopular by the time it was lifted, as its restrictions were being felt more and more strongly by the population. Protests were much more difficult to organize, bag searches had become a routine, and the constant military presence served as a reminder that France is at war with an intangible entity that could strike any moment. Opinion polls show that, although over 70 percent of the French population was in favor of an extension for the state of emergency immediately after the attacks in Nice, support for the measure dropped considerably. By the end, only 27 percent of the French population believed that the state of emergency was truly efficient, compared to almost 60 percent in January of 2016. Lifting the state of emergency in such a grand fashion, with a signing ceremony in the presidential office, posing for cameras and surrounded by flags, was a political move for Macron to give the impression that things are changing for the better, that the grim state of things is behind us.

In reality, the law is just another extension for the policy, except, this time, it is indefinite. While the state of emergency needed a majority in Parliament to be extended, the law of October 30 will now remain in place until the legislature decides to repeal it – a difficult process, unlikely to happen in the near future.

The French political board is very divided on this law. The president’s majority party, La République en Marche, has voted overwhelmingly in favor of it. Most representatives of the Parti Socialiste, the traditional left-wing party, also voted in favor. The far-left, however, has uniformly rejected the law in the name of individual liberty and claims that it is a simply a “permanent state of emergency” under a different name. The traditional right-wing party, Les Républicains, criticized the law for being too weak and for not addressing the issue of immigration, which they consider the most significant source of radicalization and terror. The far-right party, Front National, also voted against the law because they considered it too weak. The party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, identified the fact that the law does not have any provision against “Islamic ideology” as a reason to vote against it.

The reason this law has been received so differently across the political spectrum is because it is the product of the unresolvable debate between individual liberties and national security. The left tends to prioritize citizens’ freedoms, while the right places a higher value on security. This then leads to the question: whose liberties are actually restricted by the law?

In the two years during which the state of emergency was in place, 45 potential attacks were thwarted. 4,469 administrative seizures were made, allowing for 625 different instances of arms seizures, 78 of which involved military-grade weapons. 754 house arrests were enforced. 19 mosques were closed down. Although there is no direct link to prove causality between the state of emergency and these results, it is reasonable to think that the exceptional state did lead to some of these things. One can hardly imagine a citizen being unwilling to open their bag before entering a mall or uncomfortable with the sight of the military in the subway if it means that 45 potentially deadly attacks were thwarted.

The debate about individual liberty and security is not a debate pitting all French citizens’ liberties against all French citizens’ security; instead, it is struggle to reduce the liberties of some French citizens for the security of all. The people who are truly affected by loss of individual liberty are not regular citizens. The people affected are those suspected of terrorist activities, who consequently will be searched, raided, and placed under house arrest and surveillance without a fair trial. These suspects are identified with a “fiche S” and today constitute a group of roughly 12,000 people. It is the rights of these suspects, their individual liberty, their fundamental rights to privacy, freedom of movement, association, and speech, that we are really talking about.

Interestingly enough, all of these 12,000 individuals are French citizens. The perpetrators of the attacks in Paris and Nice, at least those whom French secret services were able to identify, were also French citizens. All suspects arrested or put under surveillance since the implementation of the state of emergency have been French citizens who have a “fiche S.” The new anti-terrorism law allows the government to violate the liberties of these people for the greater security of all. The assumption behind this is that the enemy comes from within. Border controls, for example, are less useful for controlling who comes in to the country than they are for keeping terrorists on the run within French jurisdiction.

The idea that the enemy is an insider makes sense. Unlike what the Républicains suggest, attacks are not perpetrated by foreigners coming into the country and radicalization is not carried out by recent arrivals. The terrorists behind the January 7 and November 13 attacks were almost all born in France. The French government has understood that terrorism and radicalization must be fought on French soil. What it has failed to understand, however, is that the enemy is not Islam itself.

The parameters for a state of emergency do not include any special clause about religion. This state simply grants the executive exceptional powers to limit or prohibit access to certain places, but not necessarily places devoted to worship. The law of October 30, on the other hand, ensures that executive regulation centers on religion. Article 2 of the law gives prefects the power to close places of worship exclusively. The assumption underlying this article is that radicalization has to do solely with religion.

It is not surprising that such a conclusion was reached by many in the French government. The Charlie Hebdo attack was carried out in the name of Allah, and all known or suspected terrorists are Muslims. But there is something intriguing about how people who knew these attackers describe them after they committed the crime. Relatives often say similar things: it is shocking that these people committed terror attacks in the name of Islam because, although they were Muslim, they were not practicing; they drank, they smoked, and they barely went to the Mosque. “They were completely normal boys,” said the mother of the Barcelona attackers, for example. “They helped me, took care of me (...) They had jobs, they didn’t steal. They never caused problems to me or anyone else.”

If radicalization truly was due to Islam itself, why is such a small proportion of the Muslim population is affected by it? If the answer is that only the most extreme Muslims can become terrorists, then why do terrorists often turn out to be moderate practitioners, not particularly diligent about their faith until a recent and sudden turn?

In fact, unlike what one might expect, almost all the people with a “fiche S” are second-generation Muslim immigrants or converted Muslims. There are no first-generation immigrants and no third-generation ones either. According to French political scientist and scholar of Islam Olivier Roy, the reason for this very specific composition is that the true reason for radicalization is not faith in Islam, but “generational rebellion” (“révolte générationnelle”).

As Roy argues, both second-generation immigrants and converted Muslims wish to disengage with their parents’ faith because they perceive it to be the reason for their marginalization in French society. Islamophobia is rampant in France. The poor and segregated neighborhoods in the outskirts of Paris, the banlieues, are majority Black, Arab, and Muslim. It is forbidden for Muslim women to wear a veil in public, but Christian nuns are perfectly free to do so. There are regular talks of taking away pork-free meals from school cafeterias in the name of secularism but none to remove Christmas as a national holiday. Islam does not cause radicalization; rejection and fear of it does.

The French Republic is founded on the principle that there is no intermediary level between the state and the citizen. Subcommunities are not recognized by the state – not even those of  race – and all citizens are purported to be equal. The people who radicalize and become terrorists are not fanatics of Islam. They are French citizens, but only on paper, feeling cheated by a discourse of equality that exists only in the realm of ideas. Olivier Roy puts it best: it is not Islam that is radicalizing, it is radicalization that is Islamicized. Why does this happen with Islam and not another religion? Because Islamic faith is the reason that future terrorists are marginalized in the first place. Thus, joining ISIS appears to be their best option for terrorizing those who rejected them.

In the United States, after the attacks on 9/11, the Bush administration was forced to address horrendous crimes committed in the name of a religion that has over 1.6 billion followers. As University of Exeter Professor Gregorio Bettiza shows, the resulting confusion in American policy-making towards Islam, wherein the government attempted to secure the “good Muslims” as allies in the fight against the “bad terrorists,” ended up singling out the Muslim population as the only source of potential terrorists. This had a stigmatizing effect, which increased anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States. The exact same thing is now happening in France.

By indirectly identifying the cause of radicalization as religion, its breeding ground as places of worship, and its perpetrators as faithful believers, the law of October 30 implies that only religious people are likely to become radicalized. In reality, it is abandoned and marginalized French citizens who are likely to do so. The more Islam is put under scrutiny, the more ostracized Muslims will be, the more rejected they will feel, and the more likely it will become that some of them will radicalize. Evoking religion in an attack is simply an excuse to reject an identity of self-hatred. Roy shows that none of the terrorists involved in the attacks on French soil were theologists or even had any significant interest in theology. They were people who chose Salafist Islam because they identified with its rejection of a certain concept of culture.

Even if the Islamic State vanishes, Roy argues, radicalization will still be a problem. It will simply be carried out under a different name. The solution to fight terrorism on French soil is less about waging a war against the Islamic State than it is about addressing the French people who are excluded and looking for a cause to join.

The state of emergency was tenable because it was temporary, but the law of October 30 is permanent and therefore not viable. A solution in which minorities are excluded and stigmatized is not a solution for the long run. There are alternatives to the approach taken by France or the US after 9/11 for combating terrorist activity. The Danish city of Aarhus, for example has chosen to extend a helping hand to returning foreign fighters by supporting them with housing, education, employment, and psychological treatment. Aarhus hopes to prevent attacks by presenting the state as an ally rather than an enemy to rebel against.

Similarly in Sri Lanka, atempts to aid the rehabilitation of former members of the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist separatist group, have shown extraordinary results. A study by Professor David Webber of the University of Maryland proves that those fighters who underwent full rehabilitation showed far fewer signs of extremism afterwards than those who only went through partial rehabilitation, and that they were even less radical than people who never joined the Tamil Tigers in the first place.

Terrorist attacks on French soil are not perpetrated by fanatic Islamic theologists. They are also not perpetrated by foreigners who come illegally into the country. And they are, above all, not perpetrated by trained ISIS soldiers. Terrorism on French soil is perpetrated by French citizens, born in France, who have lost hope in their country and have found another cause to live – or die – for.

To address the issue, then, France must extend a helping hand. The young people who radicalize turn to ISIS because it is all they have left. When facing violent and racist police controls on a daily basis, how can these people not feel like enemies of the state? When their place of residence handicaps them on the job market, how can they not lose hope? The outbreaks of violence in the banlieues in 2005 serve as proof that there exists an urgent need for reforms aimed true equality in terms of education, employment, and social mobility. The social programs put in place after 2005 did not produce nearly enough results and must be expanded.

Beyond social reforms, France’s integration model must be revised. By denying the existence of intermediary communities between the nation and the individual, the French state essentially erases the identities of some of its citizens. If their religious, racial, or immigrant backgrounds are not recognized, those marginalized as a result of these things cannot be protected. Without protection, they are repressed and rejected. The French model of nationalism insists that citizenship is the only aspect of identity that matters. No race, religion, or foreign heritage should be considered by the government as incompatible with “being French,” so long as the social contract of citizenship is signed in the end. It is time that the promise of equality is kept.

On January 7, 2015, France faced the first attack of the darkest year in its recent history. Almost immediately after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, a slogan overtook the nation: “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”). For a brief moment on January 7, it seemed like France was Charlie. But in reality, on the outskirts of Paris, in the banlieues and elsewhere, some young people screamed “I am not Charlie!” I am not, they insisted, because I am not part of the model you talk about. I have no place in the unity you dream of. And these people are correct: they are not included in French unity. Until we reach out a helping hand to bring them in, so long as we continue to make laws that will stigmatize and marginalize them, so long as we refuse to listen to their prayers and instead only cower at the sight of their religion, they will not be Charlie.