Hope and clarity in Paris

The French will hopefully find positive ways to understand what has just happened to them. A history of racism has not stopped France from becoming a multicultural society. Despite Islamophobia, the French have welcomed and lived with Europe’s largest Muslim population

November 16, 2015 12:48 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:33 pm IST

"For better or for worse, Paris has become another site in a global conflict that stretches from Mumbai and Peshawar to Bali and Beirut."

"For better or for worse, Paris has become another site in a global conflict that stretches from Mumbai and Peshawar to Bali and Beirut."

Parisians are no strangers to violence. During the French Revolution in late 1793, the Reign of Terror swept across the city, killing more than 2,000 supposed ‘enemies of the revolution’. In 1871, the city played host to the largest European urban insurrection of the nineteenth century — the Paris Commune — in which nearly 10,000 Parisians were slaughtered.

A little less than a century later, at the height of the Algerian War in 1961, terrorism returned with a vengeance. In June that year, the pro-colonial militants of the Organisation Armée Secrète planted a bomb on a Strasbourg-Paris train, killing 28. And, in October, the brutal police repression of a pro-nationalist demonstration left up to 50 dead and bodies floating in the Seine.

This violent history has continued in more recent times, with terrorist bomb attacks by Hizbollah and Lebanese Islamists in 1986 and Algerian Islamists in 1995 during the Algerian Civil War. Most recently, of course, Paris endured the >massacre of Charlie Hebdo journalists , and shoppers in a Jewish superstore, in January 2015.

Another site in a global conflict None of this should take away from the shock that greeted the appalling >coordinated attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015 . The death toll and the scale make the latest events some of the bloodiest examples of terrorism in Europe, along with the Madrid bombings in 2004. For better or for worse, Paris has become another site in a global conflict that stretches from Mumbai and Peshawar to Bali and Beirut.

Nevertheless, the long history of violence in France can offer some clues into how an already fragile country might approach another shock to its social and political identity. In particular, three areas should hold our attention over the coming days and weeks: the implications of the attack for counter-terrorism in France; the impact on foreign and immigration policy; and the potential for a sharp rightward shift in French politics.

First, the question of counter-terrorism. It may come as a surprise to some, but France was long held up as a model of counter-terrorist and counter-insurgency strategy. The ruthless treatment meted out to anti-colonial activists in Indo-China and Algeria in the mid-twentieth century made the French army, police and intelligence services a model of how to root out ‘terrorism’. So much so that the torture of suspected political dissidents during the Algerian War in the 1950s and 1960s became a permanent blot on France’s reputation (and an inspiration for America’s War on Terror after 9/11).

And yet, if there is one thing that the Paris attacks show, it is that the only way to thwart Islamist terrorism in the short term is through old-fashioned intelligence and infiltration work. Ever since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the French intelligence services have been expecting a major attack. The French government has strengthened the means and allocated a much larger number of police to counter-terrorism operations.

Strengthening the responses But how much more can realistically be done? And how do democratic governments work within the constraints of Constitutions that are designed to protect citizens? Security services at major ports of entry in France are overwhelmed and the number of possible ‘suspects’ continues to grow. The suggestions by some right-wing politicians that the French police simply detain the 5,000 or more French citizens who are under surveillance (those in the so-called ‘fichiers S’ files) are neither legal nor workable. Worse, it is precisely this kind of profiling that stokes community, racial and religious tensions.

This problem of how to build an effective counter-terrorism strategy is directly connected to France’s foreign policy. France may be a fading, post-imperial power, but it is still more involved in global conflicts than almost any other European country. In recent years, French forces have fought Islamist movements in Mali, Libya and Syria. French security services have also been used across the Sahel to protect France’s significant natural resource extraction operations from Islamist militant groups who have repeatedly kidnapped or killed French workers.

France’s immigration policy is similarly intertwined with its foreign policy. Whether or not the November 13 attacks were committed by French citizens, foreigners or militants posing as refugees, the events will inevitably raise serious questions about France’s attitude to immigration and its participation in Europe’s Schengen free-movement zone.

This is in addition to long-standing problems relating to the treatment of postcolonial immigrant populations in France who have not been afraid to express their anger towards the French state (most recently, in the riots in France in 2005).

It is hard to say at this stage whether Friday’s attacks will signal a retreat from France’s global engagement and a closing of the borders. Or, on the contrary, whether the French will demand stronger action against Islamist militant groups abroad, a strategy that risks getting the French armed forces embroiled in new conflicts in West Asia and Africa.

Much of this will depend on the country’s political configuration, and it is here that the effects of the attacks will truly be felt. As has always been the case after events like this, once the dust has settled, the political battle will begin — and all the evidence suggests that it will be an ugly one.

Assertion from the right Already, François Hollande is France’s most unpopular President, with approval ratings in recent polls that have oscillated around 15-20 per cent. He will have to face an emboldened centre-right under former President Nicolas Sarkozy that is looking for any opportunity to lampoon his — and the Socialist Party’s — supposedly ‘soft’ attitude to law and order.

More ominously, France faces the imminent threat of the Front National (FN), the country’s buoyant far-right party. Polls predicted that the FN would make big gains in next month’s regional elections, but there is every chance that last weekend’s events will swell the party’s ranks. Less than 24 hours after the attacks, the party’s leader Marine Le Pen was beginning her campaign by proclaiming that “France must rearm itself”. Her message will undoubtedly prove popular, and represents a real threat to France’s fragile political landscape.

Beyond party politics, however, there are reasons to think that the French will find more positive ways to understand or explain what has just happened to them. After all, a history of racism and inequality has not stopped France from becoming a complex, multicultural and mixed society. Likewise, the French have repeatedly found ways of discussing their bloody revolutionary and colonial histories despite the enormous controversy it has provoked.

And, for all the intolerance, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, the vast majority of French people since the 1980s have learnt to live with Europe’s largest Muslim population and become more open to foreigners in their midst.

This is not just starry-eyed utopianism. The most reliable tolerance index we have for France showed a notable increase in tolerant attitudes towards racial and religious minorities after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, exactly the opposite to what most people expected. There is plenty to be concerned about — not least widespread intolerance towards the Roma people in France and towards Muslims in general — but the figures give us a much more mixed picture of French attitudes than political rhetoric would suggest.

So which will it be? A France that moves on from this tragedy and accepts the de facto multiculturalism that is the reality of all European countries? Or a France that allows its intolerant minority to be politicised, polarised and amplified? It is still too early to know, but now that the French are firmly at the heart of a global conflict, the answer to this question should concern us all.

Emile Chabal is a Chancellor's Fellow in History at the University of Edinburgh and the author of A Divided Republic: nation, state and citizenship in contemporary France (Cambridge University Press, 2015) E-mail: emile.chabal@ed.ac.uk.

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