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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.