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France: Repression is not the answer

Jonah Levy, associate professor of political science | January 9, 2015

France has suffered a terrible trauma. On Wednesday, 12 employees of the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo were massacred by two French-born Islamic militants, brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, who claimed to be avenging the publication by Charlie Hebdo of a series of cartoons mocking Islam and the prophet Mohammed. The next day, a police officer was killed by an accomplice of the perpetrators, Amedy Coulilaby. Today, there were two hostage situations: the Kouachi brothers were killed by police with no loss of life at a printing plant, but at least four people died at a kosher market before the police killed Coulilaby. The choice of a kosher market, like that of Charlie Hebdo, attests to the radical Islamic agenda of the perpetrators, at least one of whom appears to have received training by Al Qaeda in Yemen.

nighttime memorial to Charlie Hebdo

From a nighttime rally in Toulon, France in response to the shootings at Charlie Hebdo (Yves Tennevin via Wikimedia Commons)

French President François Hollande will come under tremendous pressure to bolster police powers and tighten controls over France’s Muslim community — the largest in Europe, with some 5-6 million faithful. The perpetrators of the massacre were known to the French police, yet were not closely monitored; there will be demands for increased surveillance. The perpetrators were Muslim, like Mohammend Merah, who killed seven people in southwestern France last year, including three children at a Jewish school, and like the estimated 1,000 French-born Muslims, who have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight on behalf of jihadist causes.

There will be demands to muzzle dangerous Muslim preachers and to prevent terrorists from using French mosques as recruiting grounds or shelters. These demands for repressive action will come from the general citizenry, of course. Traumatized by three days of unchecked terror, the French will be looking for signals from the government that it will do a better job of protecting them. The demands will also come from political elites, concerned that the far-right, xenophobic National Front of Marine Le Pen Marine — which has hammered away at the threat posed by Muslim immigrants — will ride the wave of fear and anger over the attacks to victory in the 2017 elections.

Understandable, but wrong

While the desire to lash out in anger is understandable, it would be the wrong response for three reasons. First, the repressive police strategy has already been deployed in France. The French police are well equipped with sophisticated weapons; they are authorized to demand identity papers from people more or less at will; and they can jail suspects for several days without charging them. It is hard to see how greater police powers will significantly change the situation. A repressive turn could also reinforce the inclination of French citizens to vilify the Muslim community. In the past two nights, a number of mosques have been attacked or defaced in France, while no movement has emerged to defend the French Muslim community in the manner of the “I’ll ride with you” campaign in Australia following the Sydney attack.

Marine Le Penn

Marine Le Pen at National Front event (via Wikimedia Commons)

Second, the roots of France’s radical Islamic problem lie elsewhere. Economic and social exclusion, marked by unemployment rates of 20 or 30 percent in many North African communities, have created a widespread sense of hopelessness and anomie. Discrimination and police harassment have fueled the sense that people of North African descent are second-class citizens, who will never be truly accepted as French. These grievances in no way justify the horrific acts of the past few days, but they provide fertile ground for Islamic terrorists to recruit fragile, impoverished, disoriented youths with the promise of a heroic crusade.

Third, a pure law-and-order response will feed the narrative of the selective application, or even invention, of Republican principles as a means of discriminating against and persecuting Muslims — and not for the first time. The well-publicized French bans on the wearing of headscarves in public schools or burqas in public, while framed in universal terms, were clearly aimed at Muslim practices. Catholic children had worn crucifixes and Jewish students yamulkes for a century without anyone voicing concern that such behavior threatened the secular character of French public schools. It was only when Muslim girls donned headscarves that secularism was claimed to be in danger.

Free expression

A similar reinvention of Republican principles appears to be occurring around Charlie Hebdo. The cry has gone out that the sacred right of free expression is in danger. Yet French authorities have regularly clamped down on controversial or hateful speech. The comedian Dieudonné has been convicted eight times by French courts for such crimes as defamation, fomenting of anti-Semitism, and Holocaust denial. In January, then-Minister of the Interior and now Prime Minister, Manuel Valls issued a circular calling on local authorities to ban Dieudonné’s performances — on the grounds that Dieudonné is “no longer a comedian” but rather “an anti-Semite and a racist” — and many localities, including the city of Paris, did just that.

Dieudonné’s acts are indeed odious, but it is hard to square the treatment of Dieudonné and others with the claim that unrestricted free speech is a core French value. The fact that this core French value is being evoked in defense of a magazine that published highly offensive cartoons about Islam and the prophet Mohammed, while fomenters of hate against Jews have been prosecuted and shut down, can only reinforce the sentiment of victimization and unequal treatment among French Muslims.

Obviously, President Hollande will have to address concerns about security, and improvements in policing and surveillance may be part of the response. More arrests will not solve the problem, however. The fundamental challenge is to drain the reservoir of alienated North African youths by providing economic opportunity, equal treatment under the law, and a respectful, even-handed public discourse.

In other words, what is needed is to make those most quintessentially French values of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity a reality for France’s Muslim community.

Comments to “France: Repression is not the answer

  1. “Understandable, but wrong.” I, and a few others, do not understand you and think that it is you that is wrong.

    First: Please, let us not engage in hysteria and conjecture. You are speculating that the police response will be more repressive. It will not be for the overwhelming majority of French or foreign Muslims and other French citizens or residents. Most of the immediate (short term) targets are known and will now be prosecuted because the level of tolerance for hateful speech THAT targets specific groups FOR the purpose of inciting violence or discrimination has been greatly reduced.

    Second: If you think that there are explanations but no excuses (“grievances in no way justify the horrific acts…, BUT…”), there are also explanations for the economic and social exclusions. My life is representative and not anecdotal. I am from Guatemala and have spend my entire life as an adult in France and here in the USA working at the type of jobs reserved to poor immigrants. Although in 15 years here I have rarely made enough money to be above the Federal Poverty guidelines, I have never entertained nor even considered victimizing or robbing somebody else for material gain or to blame somebody for my struggles (although I am aware how my people have and continue to be short handed in my own country and outside). There are millions like me that do not have much in common with recent second or third generation descendants of immigrants. WE, that came or still reside in the third world, understand that we are on OUR OWN.

    I am 38 now and after getting an Engineering degree (just transferred from a community college) I will go back to Latin America to hopefully help my kids or grandkids have a better life. I do not understand what is wrong my modest “glass”as being “half full” and be content with a modest life, not dreaming with “bling” and easy money.

    So there is generational explanation, just like there is with some Latinos here in this country that choose (of course I am not referring to the ones forced into) gangs over a slow and ant like path of upward mobility despite the racism here or in France.

    Third: You do not understand how crucifixes and yarmulkes differ from burqas? Your comparison is a valid one when you compare crucifixes and yarmulkes and headscarves for children INSIDE SCHOOLS. I have believed for years now that if there was a precedent with crucifixes and yarmulkes, headscarves should not have been banned. But burqas in the PUBLIC REALM (that is: not in domestic quarters) cover the whole identity (and gender) of the wearer creating all kind of difficulties and documented abuse.

    Please compare apples with apples in future and give some credit to most of French society, secular, Christian, and Jewish, that they are not and will never be interested in a “crusade” on Islam nor impose changes outside France.

    • Jose Orellana’s eloquent description of his firsthand experiences and observations and resulting conclusions as a worker and student who has dealt with basic multinational reality for several decades contrasts sharply and refreshingly with strident polemicism from those with hefty six-figure incomes in ivory towers far from the fray.

      i would like to encourage Mr Orellana to combine his 2 Berkeley Blog posts into a standalone essay and share with a wider audience … such as the editorial page of a major newspaper … e.g. SF Chronicle/SJ MercuryNews/LA Times, plus major French newspapers … via convenient electronic submission links at each of these media

      • Thank you for your comments about my posts and your suggestion. I found your own thoughts about this issue insightful and succinct.

        I do not know if what I say could be interesting enough be published or released outside the comment boxes of blogs. In addition, I am also very self-conscious about my skills in this language (a third language for me and learned as an adult).

        Anyways, thank you, and I will think about it.

  2. It would be more logical than repressive to say, “If you go to Yemen, Syria, etc., we are going to assume that you are a threat, and we will not allow you back into the country.” That policy would have saved lives in France and it will save lives in the USA. Why has no one suggested this?

  3. I think it is very hard for those of us who are not Muslim to truly understand the offensiveness of cartoons using images of Mohammed.

    I can only conclude that respect and civility do not seem to be values alongside free speech.

  4. Thanks for this, especially the part about Dieudonné! Claire forwarded it to me after I wrote an email to some friends expressing similar ideas (less eloquently and learnedly of course :-).

  5. I agree with you Jonah that there “appears” to be a double-standard when it comes to free speech in France. Why condemn, both legally and socially, Dieudonné, and let Charlie Hebdo off the hook for publishing “highly offensive cartoons about Islam and the prophet Mohammed”? But are these the same things?

    France is very sensitive to anti-Semitism because it fears a recurrence of the dark days of the Dreyfus Affair and it is still struggling with its complicity (or I should say the complicity of some in France) in the Holocaust. Dieudonné’s speech, if what I read is true, is one of hatred – hatred of a community that has faced extinction in Europe. If we were Europeans, would we be prepared to allow the persistence of this kind of speech knowing what it has led to in the past?

    The history of the Muslim community in France is different. That it is a community that suffers discrimination cannot be doubted. But many French Muslims have made it into the power structure: into the government, into the police, academia, etc. Of course, this is no guarantee against a backlash – as French Jews can attest.

    Does Charlie Hebdo discriminate in the way it pokes fun? If its only focus of “satire” is Islam, then that’s a problem. But if it lampoons all and sundry, it’s another matter. Do you not think so? Is Charlie Hebdo’s discourse one of hatred? Does it promote Islamophobia? Where is the line that separates satire from hate speech? Perhaps, Charlie Hebdo should learn from satirists in the Arab world who, I would hope, make fun of all sorts of things that are part of their lives, including religion and religious figures, but do not cross certain lines – they self-censor themselves. European satirists also do not cross certain lines.

    All these are complex issues and I certainly don’t have the answers. But what matters is dialogue. Are French citizens of all backgrounds ready to dialogue? I hope for France’s sake. Are we ready to dialogue? As there is much to do in our own country.

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