France's clampdown on radical Muslims could be storing up trouble

Radicalisation is still happening—but out of sight
March 22, 2016

The southern French commune of Lunel, which was crowned by the international media in 2014 as the capital of French jihad (it has since been overtaken by Trappes), is worth a look. Known in medieval times for its Jewish population, a legacy of which is the surviving synagogue, and later for the manly pursuits of eeling and bull-running, the town declined in the 1960s along with the local viticulture. Encircled with housing estates, it became a down-at-heel dormitory town for nearby Montpellier. Among its attractions is a bronze statue of a local lad, Charles Ménard, who met his death at the hands of the Muslim resistance in Ivory Coast in 1892. Ménard holds a pistol, aimed resolutely towards what is now the North African part of town.

To the new estates came first the Algerians, then the Moroccans. Lunel’s Muslims make up anything from a quarter to a third of the population of around 25,000, and unemployment among young Muslims is around 40 per cent. The cannabis sold in the parks of Lunel is high-quality Moroccan. “On average,” a local magistrate told Libération last year, “one young person from Lunel is banged up each week for burglary, dealing, or repeatedly driving without a licence.”

The fissure between Muslims and Français de souche—those of “native stock,” in the rather agricultural phrase—has become much worse since November’s terrorist attacks in Paris. The attacks claimed 130 lives and were carried out by mainly Belgian and French Muslims. The French President François Hollande reacted by declaring a state of emergency, still ongoing, which allows the authorities to search properties and close down websites with greater freedom. The crackdown has caused upset among French Muslims, some of whom feel even more alienated from the values of the Republic than they did before. There is an irreconcilable tension between the short-term imperative of preventing terrorism and the long-term need to integrate Muslims into a society from which many of them feel virulently estranged.

The national divide has been growing for years and is reflected even in small towns like Lunel. In the 2015 departmental elections, the Front National took 48 per cent of the vote in the second round, a shade less than the Socialists; apart from the Harkis (Algerians whose forefathers collaborated with colonisation) the Muslims of Lunel largely abstained. When Bernard Cazeneuve, France’s Interior Minister, visited in the same year, he was nonplussed to find that among the local worthies who greeted him only one person was of North African origin.

Headscarves are forbidden under the 2004 law banning conspicuous religious symbols in schools and the Lycée Louis-Feuillade is about the only public place in town where Muslim girls do not wear them. But the campus isn’t serene. The canteen (not halal) is boycotted by some, while in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings of January 2015, pupils countered the hashtag #jesuisCharlie with #jesuisCoulibaly, a reference to Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four people and held 15 others hostage in a kosher supermarket. The Front National, declared unwelcome at the Je Suis Charlie rallies, replied in Lunel as elsewhere with #jesuischarliemartel, after Charles Martel, the French ruler who defeated Muslim forces in battle at Poitiers in 732.

The question of who, if anyone, speaks for France’s Muslims is as disputed in Lunel as it is nationally, especially after the opening of a big mosque in 2010, which made the town a magnet for the faithful. In December 2014, Lahoucine Goumri, the mosque president, rejected demands that he condemn the 20-odd members of his congregation who had gone to Syria, saying that, “only God will judge them… why condemn these youngsters who left in the name of justice in Syria and not those Frenchmen who left and killed Palestinian babies with the IDF [Israeli Defence Force]?” Those comments had been prompted by reports in the media of several French Jews who had joined the Israeli armed forces. Goumri left his post in the subsequent media storm; the mosque imam, who openly criticised the jihadis, received death threats and went to Mecca.

Lunel is the subject of Terreur dans l’Hexagone: Genèse du djihad français (Terror in the Hexagon: Genesis of the French Jihad), a new book by Gilles Kepel, the scholar of Islam, and academic Antoine Jardin. This riveting exposé shows how a mix of local and international, actual and historical causes célèbres, fertilised in the dung of economic and social failure, has led to radicalisation and jihadi recruits. It is also clear that scores of Lunels have come into existence across continental France, the “hexagon” of the book’s title. How this happened is the subject of Kepel’s judicious, wide-ranging, pessimistic work.

The story begins in the 1980s with the Machiavellian President François Mitterrand, who used the first, strenuously loyalist assertions of Muslim identity as a means for distracting the right wing. Both sides of the political spectrum showed what now seems like a remarkable indifference to the country’s immigrant population and problems of assimilation. Perhaps, as France appeared immune to the Islamist terrorism that went on to strike the United States, Spain and Britain in the 2000s, inertia and wisdom were easily confused. As Kepel shows, the country’s demographic and political balances were changing profoundly.

The big warning came in the autumn of 2005 and took the form of several weeks of rioting in the suburbs of Paris and other cities. Through an auto-da-fé of cars and municipal facilities, France’s second generation of immigrants showed that the state could not count on their continued docility. Nicolas Sarkozy, then Interior Minister and a rising star of the centre right, notoriously called the rioters racaille (rabble), complaining “25 or 30 years ago you didn’t go around burning your neighbour’s car.”

"There is an irreconcilable tension between the short-term imperative of preventing terrorism and the long-term need to integrate Muslims into society"
The riots might have ended earlier had not the police used tear gas on the packed Bilal Mosque in Clichy-sous-Bois, sparking more fury. Then the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated umbrella organisation Union des Organisations Islamiques de France, whose authority had already been damaged by its failure to stop the anti-veiling law, issued a fatwa declaring vandalism to be “haram,” or illicit. This misplaced assertion of authority only confirmed many young Muslims in their rejection of established community leaders. The following day saw the destruction of more than 1,000 vehicles.

It was not by chance that the violence came a year after the anti-veiling law, and a few weeks after caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad were published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, to massive outcry. Such images were taken up with (as it later turned out) lethal solidarity by Charlie Hebdo.

After the riots, the political establishment rolled over and went back to sleep, while France carried on changing. A cohort of second-generation immigrants came of age in the late 2000s, demanding jobs and recognition, and the indices of tolerance on which the country had prided itself dropped sharply. The old alliance of Muslims and the left weakened as the Front National made inroads among the white working class, including former Communists. Then came the economic crisis.

Sarkozy, elected president in 2007, stole ground from the Front National by speaking of immigration and then in 2009, starting a national debate on what it meant to be French. The French were “living in an era when bearings are erased, identity becomes uncertain, when the feeling is born that something essential for our existence is being lost,” he lamented.

A Muslim candidate for political office in Marseilles held up a mirror image of this sentiment: “Today, a lad from the…neighbourhoods, whether his name is Mohamed, Mamadou, or Ismael—the only thing he is sure of is religion. He knows he’s Muslim… apart from that, he doesn’t know what he is.”

The French Republic was dividing. On one side were those who felt that the country had been suckered into complicity in a long surrender to public Islamism, which manifested itself in pupil insurgencies against Darwinism, gender segregation in hospitals and mass prayers in the prison exercise yard. On the other side was a Muslim population that saw a pitiless racism as the reason for its existence on the margins of polite society.

In 2010, Marine Le Pen, soon-to-be president of the Front National, compared scenes of Muslims praying in the streets (which they did when lacking space in mosques) to an invasion: “sections of society have been occupied,” she said. “There may not be tanks or soldiers, but it’s an occupation all the same.” She was put on trial for hate speech, but acquitted.

The journey from first generation, head-below-the-parapet immigrants to strutting third-generation malcontents applauding anything that hurts the French state passes through discrimination, unemployment, family breakdown, domestic violence, crime and (very often) a spell in prison. The result is a chronic identity crisis that hardline Islamist groups encourage.

Responsibility for what has happened, then, is widely spread. The French state is to blame for failing to elaborate a model of laïcité, or secularism, that makes Muslims feel valued. (The headscarf ban in schools and a more recent law on the face-veil in public places have increased alienation.) A lot of Français de souche are to blame for holding fast to old prejudices.

Hovering over all this, however, Kepel identifies a cloud of “Islamophobia”—his use of inverted commas suggesting that the term has a rhetorical as well as an objective reality. Jihadi groups have been able to convince many French citizens that the Republic is inflexibly opposed to the practice of their religion, and that Muslims are condemned from birth to remain second-class citizens. The siren call of Islamophobia, Kepel writes, also has the important internal function of “impeding any critical reflection on Islam… and exonerating any action carried out in its name.”

In other words, Islamist currents have fostered a victimisation complex that forbids self-criticism. This, in turn, has been institutionalised through a form of Salafism, an ultra-conservative Islamic ideology, whose division of the world into licit and illicit builds high walls between the Muslim and the non-Muslim, the pious and the impious—in turn eliciting more Islamophobia among the general French population.

History is involved. To counter the impression, put about by the Front National, that the presence of Islam in France is an aberration, the jihadi propagandists have been rewriting the past, particularly where it concerns Martel. The propaganda film When the Islamic State was in France, available on video-sharing websites, paints a picture of swathes of the medieval south as living intermittently and contentedly under an Islamic state. To a score of sung Islamic prayers, we learn that Poitiers was a skirmish whose importance has been exaggerated. “France and other countries of Europe,” the narration continues, “assiduously removed the traces of the Muslim presence… all French heads of state have dreaded the return of the Islamic state.”

What distinguishes the current campaign is its persuasive ideology of aggression towards the European countries. Muslims used to have to leave them to fight the infidel—but no longer need to. The chief author of the ideology is Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, a Syrian-born, naturalised Spanish veteran of the Afghan jihad, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Musab al-Suri. In 2005, al-Suri published Call to a Global Islamic Resistance, a lengthy online screed that introduced jihad as a sequence of military adventures that will eventually conquer the world. According to his account, the holy war that began with the successful expulsion of the Soviets from Afghanistan, which he termed the “affirmation,” moved to the “near abroad,” (Algeria, Egypt and Bosnia) before suffering a setback with Osama bin Laden’s attacks on “the far abroad.” Al-Suri was scathing about 9/11, finding that it served no purpose except to stroke bin Laden’s ego and provoke America.

The next phase of jihad, announced by al-Suri in that same text (though al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri went on to say something similar) looks a lot like what we have now, with the west being attacked by small, indigenous groups.

The first Frenchman to implement al-Suri’s scheme was Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old Toulousain of Algerian origin. In March 2012, he killed three soldiers, including two Muslims, and four Jews (three of them children) before being shot by police after a long siege. Merah’s attacks marked the return of Islamist terrorism to French soil after a long interval. He had, he boasted in a conversation with anti-terror police shortly before his death, brought France “to its knees.”

Fed by the Syrian war and the rising number of French volunteers, al-Suri’s strategy advanced leaps and bounds last year, when, aside from the outrages of January and November, attacks were only just thwarted on a church and a train. In June, the boss of a transportation company was beheaded by an employee.

In France, the president can impose a state of emergency for 12 days. Yet this current state of emergency, introduced by President François Hollande last November, is now in its fifth month. Parliament has twice extended the presidential decree, on both occasions by three months, and there seems every chance of a further prolongation into the summer, as France is to host this year’s European football championships.

Over five months the interior ministry has had a free rein to order police searches, confine people to their homes, shut mosques and ban assemblies, all without a court order. The prefects have not shied away from using their powers, ordering well over 3,000 searches and up to 400 house arrests. The judicial pickings have been slim, however. Four criminal investigations are under way for terrorism-related offences as a consequence of the raids, and 21 for “apologia for terrorism,” a provision that has in the past been used to lock up jihadi cyber-terrorists as well as a drunk young man who shouted “Long Live the Kalashnikov!”

Anticipating the eventual lifting of emergency powers, the government is now aiming to import some of its provisions into a new law that would allow for a person to be detained or placed under house arrest without a judicial warrant. The same law would broaden the police’s right to stop and search, and authorise it to use weapons to prevent terrorism, not just in self-defence.

Also proposed is a constitutional change that would strip terrorists—though in practice, it would only apply to dual nationals—of their French citizenship. This idea was originally mooted by the Front National (it was previously used under Vichy), but it has now oozed across France’s political centre and into the folds of the left. The bill was approved by the National Assembly in February and is now before the Senate.

According to Manuel Valls, the Prime Minister, the terrorist risk is currently higher than it was before the Paris attacks. In February, he warned of the “certainty of further major attacks… this period of hyper-terrorism is here to stay.” The security services have been ordered to keep no fewer than 11,700 suspected Islamist radicals under close electronic surveillance.

It isn’t just the executive and legislative branches of the state that are toughening up. A person who drives someone to the airport who flew on to Syria can face years in jail for “criminal association in connection with a terrorist enterprise.” Parole and home visits are out of the question for incarcerated radicals, even though reintegrating them into life outside prison is vital if offenders are to shed their radical beliefs and sympathies.
"It is far from certain whether driving radicals underground serves the best interests of the state"
Fear that laxisme will result in another atrocity is the recurring nightmare of every French official with responsibility for public order. Hence the frisks and searches in town centres, the often brutal police raids in the dead of night. During one recent operation, the teeth of a disabled man were smashed in before it emerged that he wasn’t the suspect. Home confinement orders are being served on people who have no link to terrorism. Xavier Nogueras, a lawyer representing Muslims who have received such orders, describes their effect as “catastrophic… people are losing their livelihoods, their reputations, everything.”

In the long game over the fate of France, people are fixated on numbers, even though Islamic radicals are an infinitesimal proportion of the population. In January, the number of French people who have gone to war zones in the Middle East and Africa reached 1,000; of the 250 who have returned, 168 are behind bars. Government figures also show that radicals are much less likely to be male North Africans than they used to be. Of the more than 4,300 tip-offs the government has received since it opened its radicalisation hotline in 2014, 40 per cent have concerned women and almost half have involved converts to Islam.

The security regime established by Hollande enjoys considerable support among the estimated 92 per cent of French people who are non-Muslim. If the president can get through 2016 without another outrage, he will have a chance of being re-elected president in 2017. The real fight will be between him and the candidate of the centre-right to reach the second ballot and face Marine Le Pen, currently France’s most popular political leader.

Until then, at least, official profiling and harassment and unofficial low-level vilification will remain the lot of many French Muslims. “If you and I visit a shopping centre,” a Française de souche and convert told me in February in Paris, “I’ll be the one who gets pulled over for a bag search, because of this”—she pointed to her headscarf. The previous day a man in the street had snarled at her, “You converts are the worst!” In 2015, attacks on Muslims and mosques went up more than 200 per cent.

Also in Paris this winter a terrorism expert told me that so-called radicalisers—those who prey on the vulnerable, in some cases turning them into supporters of jihad against France—have been keeping a low profile since the government toughened its policies and upped surveillance. No longer do easily identifiable proselytisers cruise the housing estates spreading the faith. In the big, Muslim-majority jails that encircle Paris, acts of defiance such as a call to prayer from the cells, or a refusal to address a female warder, are becoming increasingly rare.

This new pattern doesn’t mean that radicalisation isn’t happening, rather that it is happening out of sight. In prisons, for example, rather than approach a suitable candidate for instruction, a caid (leader) will nowadays depute a biddable lieutenant to do the job. If the lieutenant is detected and isolated by the prison authorities, another takes his place.

It is far from certain whether driving radicals underground serves the interests of the French state, particularly if at the same time the security dragnet increases the resentment of ordinary Muslims.

A good start would be for the Français de souche to stop believing that the peril facing the county is from the outside. The men who have struck the hexagon in recent years have been mostly French, and those who laud and lionise them are French too. As Kepel puts it, the terrorists, despite their monstrous crimes against France, are “among its children,” and their acts symptomatic of a “malaise in our civilisation.”

For a book that is so lucid and convincing on the causes of the malaise, Kepel volunteers few solutions beyond stressing the formative character of schools. He is wary of a proposal made by the philosopher Pierre Manent that “Muslim mores” be incorporated into a new national pact, perhaps because Manent lays France’s inability to deal with its Muslims at the door of the European Union that has sapped the nation of its vigour. The debate over Europe seems incidental to the problem. The urgent need is for a community of Musulmans de souche, indifferent to the war cries of the jihadis. And a condition of that is the reform of a model of laïcité that many Muslims believe only exists to attack their beliefs.

Reporting for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Centre for Crisis Reporting