On the Paris Attacks
We are all still under the shock of the murderous attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher (kosher) supermarket in Paris in which 17 French citizens died. Other attacks had been planned in Belgium but were prevented by police action, with the loss of two lives.
On the positive side, there have been massive demonstrations of unity in France. The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, declared on 13 January: ‘France is at war with terrorism, jihadism and radical Islamism’ but not with ordinary Muslims and their religion. He said that Islam was the country’s second most common religion after Catholicism, and that it ‘had its place in France.’ He also said that France would not be France without its Jews. This kind of language has not been heard from a French Prime Minister before.
On the positive side too was the presence of European leaders at the Paris demonstration, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and President of the European Council Donald Tusk.
There needs to be a sustained response in France and other European countries after the immediate emotions of the attacks and the street demonstrations has passed.
Too often, after past attacks, there have been enquiries and recommendations, a muted reaction by the press, and little effective follow-up. The shock of the January attacks should at last induce French and European political leaders to act decisively. Early signs, including a meeting of the EU Council of Ministers, point to a new sense of urgency.
This response should have three broad dimensions.
The first is security. People in Europe should be able to go about their daily lives in safety. Prime Minister Valls has promised firm action. President Francois Hollande is reconsidering planned cuts to the military budget. The deployment of additional police and military will provide reassurance, even if ways and means for this need to be clarified.
Europeans countries must step up anti-terrorist cooperation both at home and in the countries where terrorists are trained.
The United States needs to go beyond a commitment in principle “to degrade and ultimately destroy” the so-called “Islamic State,” also known as ISIL or ISIS, to take decisive, concerted action along with allies and with countries in the Persian Gulf.
France has promised to share passenger name data that could help to identify suspected terrorists. To be fully effective this needs to be implemented at European level, a measure blocked until now by some groups in the European Parliament. Chancellor Merkel has called for swift action at the EU level on sharing such data.
The exchange of information between EU police bodies and those in the Western Balkans and Turkey (and in some Southern Mediterranean countries) needs to be significantly stepped up. Europol provides a potential platform for this and is already active.
Intelligence co-operation between Israel and Turkey was previously highly effective. The United States and EU should make further efforts to promote reconciliation between them, however difficult.
Prisons in France, Belgium, and other European countries must be reorganized to prevent them being used as radicalization boot camps. Many of today’s terrorists have a background of delinquency and, indeed, first met in prison. The separation in prisons of religious radicals, and those suspected of terrorism, from common delinquents would be a positive move. The number of chaplains, Muslim as well as Catholic, needs to be increased.
Governments need to implement and not just proclaim a “zero tolerance” policy towards anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts of violence and vandalism. Closer surveillance of suspect websites and suspect individuals is needed. Two of the terrorists responsible for January’s attacks were well known to the police.
Security is necessary but not sufficient. There are limits on how far this can go in an open society. The idea of a “Patriot Act” which would polarize society has been rejected by most French political leaders.
The second and even more important area for action concerns France’s immigrant population. France is home to almost 5 million Muslims, 7.5 percent of the country’s population, the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.
Most are well-integrated. But the inhabitants of France’s depressed urban areas, thebanlieues are not. Thebanlieues are home to large, poorly integrated first, second and third-generation immigrants, many from Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, as well as other North African and sub-Saharan African countries.
France integrated more immigrants than any other European country during the 20th century (including those from Spain, Portugal, Vietnam, Eastern Europe, South America, and indeed North Africa, notably pieds noirsfrom Algeria). The classic social mechanisms for their integration were the army (through obligatory military service), education, the labor market, including the trade unions, especially the General Confederation of Labor (CGL) and, indeed, the Communist Party, as well as the Church (especially for those from Spain, Portugal, and Poland).
These mechanisms for integration are not available to the present population of thebanlieues. Conscription has been abolished. Schools face problems of violence and are unable to transmit “Republican values” – the minute of silence in memory of the victims of last week’s attacks was not observed in some 70 schools, maybe more, and was explicitly rejected by some Muslim pupils.
The banlieues are hard hit by chronic unemployment, exacerbated by Europe’s persistent economic and financial crisis. The youth unemployment rate in France is around 24 percent, and much higher in the toughest banlieues.
Some second generation immigrants have never worked. Third generation immigrants have few positive role models. Delinquency is frequent; all three of the Charlie Hebdoattackers had a history of delinquency. Unemployed and delinquent youth are exposed to radicalization; many have only a vague idea of what Islam is and have not read the Koran, they are easy prey for radical propaganda.
Some 1,200 French jihadists are reported to have travelled to Syria, Iraq, and Yemen (probably an underestimate); Sweden, Belgium, the UK, and the Netherlands are also among the major source of jihadists, some of whom return home bent on violent action.
These dangers and the need for action were recognized in the past. President Francois Mitterand appointed a minister for the banlieues more than thirty years ago. President Jacques Chirac was well aware of the problem even if he appointed as his interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, whose solution was mainly repression. But few concrete measures have been taken.
A major new initiative that I am tempted to call a Marshall Plan for the banlieues cannot wait any longer, however challenging in today’s straitened economic circumstances.
It should cover training, jobs, better education, better housing, smarter policing, as well as support for community associations and for moderate religious organizations. The government needs to get the private sector involved in providing training and work opportunities in the banlieues. Diversity training is needed for all French youth, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, and secular.
The European Commission and European Central Bank are effectively making fiscal space for such an initiative by relaxing some of the conditions of the Stability Pact and by launching a program of quantitative easing.
Above all, France needs to re-examine its assimilation model, acknowledging that the French may be diverse not only in their “origines” but in their present identities. This will involve a revolution in the French conception of national identity. But without acceptance that different “hyphenated” identities are compatible with French citizenship, the alienation of those with a strong sense of their religious or ethnic background will continue.
Reflection is also needed on the uneven structure of existing laws in France and other European countries limiting the freedom of speech. There are clear historical reasons for this but it creates a feeling of double standards among alienated youth. Some observers now advocate an approach similar to that prevailing in the United States in which restrictions on freedom of speech mainly concern incitements to violence.
At the same time, the EU needs to use its “privileged relationship” with countries in North Africa and the Levant to tackle income inequality and exclusion there. These are among the main reasons for the radicalization of youth there and for emigration to Europe.
Disillusioned young people from these countries reinforce the Islamic State fighters and function as a pull-factor for similarly disillusioned youth in Europe.
The third area where action is needed concerns relations between France (and other European states) and wealthy countries in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.
European countries, with U.S. support, must persuade Gulf countries to which they are close to prevent the financing of militant groups by their citizens. They must also persuade allies, like Turkey, not to provide logistics or to facilitate transit for suspected militants.
The EU should try to leverage the presence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the Paris demonstrations, which France sought to avoid, to tell them they have a responsibility for linking arms back home and not just on the streets of Paris. Progress towards Israeli-Palestinian peace would not end alienation and radicalization in Europe, but it would help pull the rug out from under radical Islamists who draw much undeserved sympathy by playing on solidarity with Palestinian victims of Israeli occupation and settlements.
The tragedies of Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher are a wake-up call. It is vital not to let the problem slide, to do everything to prevent the politicization of the issue, its exploitation by populist parties, and the spread of anti-Semitism and hatred of Muslims, and to build non-partisan consensus on the necessary measures.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.