Terror, Republican values and a very French paradox

15 September 2016

As France comes to terms with a series of major terrorist atrocities, its core Republican values are being tested by a prolonged national state of emergency and an increasingly security-driven public agenda. Professor James Shields FAcSS, Professor of French Politics and Modern History at Aston University, reflects on the political implications of the intensified terrorist threat in France and some of the challenges posed for social science.

The recent spate of terrorist atrocities in France has confronted the country with a stark opposition between its core Republican values of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and the curtailment of those values under a prolonged national state of emergency. France is a country in search of answers. Why has it become the prime target in Western Europe for jihadist attacks? What can be done to arrest and reverse the radicalisation of homegrown Islamist terrorists? And how far should a society based on democracy and the rule of law sacrifice its citizens’ freedoms in the interests of security?

These questions pose a challenge to social scientists. Those with an eye to history and geopolitics highlight France’s troubled colonial past and a belligerent (for some neo-colonial) foreign policy combating Islamist movements in Africa and the Middle East; sociological analyses focus on the exclusion and alienation experienced by many in France’s largely North African Muslim immigrant communities; and political analysts see France increasingly as a test case in sustaining the precarious balance between a rights-based civil society and the intrusive powers of the state.

While academics ponder, the French are having to adapt to the daily realities of increased surveillance, arbitrary search and arrest, house raids without warrant, and other muscular counter-terrorist measures. But what, we might ask, have such measures achieved? France was already on its highest state of alert when Paris café terraces and the Bataclan music hall were raked by gunfire in November 2015, and the country was in a full state of emergency when a lorry was driven through crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice in July 2016.

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January 2015, the government’s response was focused on national unity and the defence of the great Republican values of liberty and equality, with Prime Minister Manuel Valls calling for an end to France’s “social apartheid.” Now, after the third major atrocity in 18 months, a string of smaller-scale attacks and a death toll exceeding 230, the focus has turned from inclusion to exclusion, to identifying France’s enemies within while stepping up the fight against its declared external enemy, Islamic State (IS), in Syria.

The arguments that raged earlier this year over government proposals to strip nationality from French citizens convicted of terrorism provided ample commentary on the drift of public debate in France. Across the political spectrum, the same rightward shift is clear, from Marine Le Pen’s imprecations against immigrants, dual nationals and (by association) Islamist terrorism, through centre-right leader Nicolas Sarkozy’s railing against government laxity and calls for a “war” to “exterminate” terrorists, to a governing Socialist Party riven between those espousing the historically tolerant principles of the French left and those urging tougher action against the terrorist threat.

Meanwhile, Le Pen has taken her far-right Front National to new electoral heights, with 6.8 million votes in recent regional elections, and she stands poised for election to the run-off in the presidential contest next spring. As President Hollande sinks ever deeper in unpopularity and as Sarkozy labours in his comeback to frontline politics, the rise and rise of Marine Le Pen and her party is, as my own research documents, the most ominous political symptom of France’s current malaise, even if they remain contained for now by a political system that greatly restricts their access to power.

In such a context, what hope for tolerance, diversity and social harmony in France? The answer would seem to be: little. Yet recent findings provide us with some reason not to be overly pessimistic. As polling by the Pew Research Center in spring 2016 shows, France is among the countries of Western Europe with the highest tolerance towards minorities and Muslims notably, with 29% of French respondents declaring a negative view of Muslims against 67% declaring a positive view. The same polling found that only 24% of respondents thought diversity made France a worse place to live, while Muslims have claimed to feel better integrated in France than in other European countries. Even the notion of multiculturalism – long dismissed as a misguided policy in assimilationist France – has gained new ground among researchers and policy-makers.

These findings need to be set against other social science research showing that Muslims face exceptional levels of discrimination in the French jobs market, or that they make up a disproportionately high percentage of the prison population. France upholds a strict public ban on Islamic face veils and, as the recent controversy over the “burkini” illustrates, a principle as central to the French Republic as “laïcité” (secularism) can be easily instrumentalised against Muslims in particular.

These complexities take us to the heart of a very French paradox: that this land of Equality is home to one of the most deeply unequal of societies. Much of that inequality is lived beyond the realm of public acknowledgement. France is a multi-ethnic society but it maintains a public policy model that is blind to ethnic diversity. The French state forbids the collection of ethnic – or religious – data from its citizens, and refuses to recognise the claims of ethnic or religious minorities, upholding instead a Republican assimilationist model as a guarantor of national unity. Under the “one and indivisible Republic,” there is only one national identity, one version of Frenchness. As a result, French officialdom turns a blind eye to the widely reported practice of ethnic discrimination in jobs, housing and other areas of service provision.

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, estimated at some 5-6 million or close to 10 percent of the population. Many North and sub-Saharan African immigrants and their children have become perennial residents of dilapidated housing estates erected around the ring roads of French towns in the 1960s, when large numbers of migrants arrived from the Maghreb mainly as manual labour for industry. With the onset of industrial recession, labour migration gave way in the 1970s and 1980s to family migration without the necessary infrastructural adjustments or investment. Behind the Republican ideal of assimilation lie concentrations of graffiti-defaced tower blocks where unemployment, economic hardship, crime and alienation are rife.

These bleak “banlieues” are seen as breeding grounds for Islamist radicalisation, home to many of those young Frenchmen who have travelled to Syria to fight for IS and to some of those responsible for recent terrorist atrocities in France. And here we return to the dilemma confronting the French state and security services. While whole sections of French society remain beyond the pale (“banlieue” in its original sense meaning “place of banishment”), while injustice, inequality and exclusion are so acutely felt, and while normal forms of authority are replaced in these enclaves by different social forces and codes, how does the French state begin to offer a vision to vie with that held out to some by recruiting sergeants for extremism?

The discussion in France today cannot be about combating terrorism through a simple law-and-order crackdown. It must be much wider. How can France sustain its Republican ideal of unity while addressing the realities of a multicultural, ethnically and religiously diverse population? And what role should this post-imperial power play in the geopolitics of its former spheres of influence in Africa and the Middle East notably? These questions cut across still unresolved debates about citizenship, immigration, national identity, multiculturalism, colonial memory and France’s place in the world today. And any answers to them must embrace complexities that are lost in easy references to waging war on terror.

News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.