France: Is There a Way Out?

Actors from the Globe Theatre performing Hamlet for refugees and migrants in the Jungle refugee camp, Calais, France, February 2016
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Actors from the Globe Theatre performing Hamlet for refugees and migrants in the Jungle refugee camp, Calais, France, February 2016

On the morning of Thursday, January 7, French President François Hollande made his way in the rain to the Paris police headquarters on the Île de la Cité, just two months after the coordinated Islamist attacks of November 13, 2015, that killed 130 people and wounded over 350 at the Bataclan concert hall and several restaurants and cafés. He was there to commemorate the anniversary of last January’s terrorist operation that left dead twelve people at the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, one policewoman near a Jewish school in a Parisian suburb, and four others in a kosher market near the Porte de Vincennes. The commemoration was not about moving on. Hollande thanked the police and fire departments for their sacrifices in the fight against terrorism, and explained that the end was not in sight. He then placed a large wreath at the monument for fallen officers in the building’s grim courtyard.

While he was speaking, a young Tunisian man named Tarek Belgacem approached the local police station in the gritty immigrant neighborhood La Goutte d’Or. As he was about to reach the guard he shouted “Allahu Akbar” and drew out a meat cleaver. When he ignored orders to halt, he was shot dead. Officers noticed wires coming out from his coat and found that he was wearing a fake explosive vest. In his pocket was a rambling testament, with a drawing of an ISIS flag, pledging allegiance to the caliphate. In subsequent days it was revealed that he had been crisscrossing Europe for years committing petty crimes. Most recently he had been living under one of his many pseudonyms in a German refugee asylum where he drew attention for painting an ISIS insignia on his wall and taking photos of himself with an ISIS flag.

The following day, a Friday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls made a moving speech at the kosher market, declaring that “without the Jews of France, France would not be France” and deploring the fact that a small but growing number of them are leaving the country out of fear. On Monday, as if in response to his statement, a fifteen-year-old Turkish Kurd living in Marseille attacked with a knife a Jewish teacher wearing a kippa, who was on his way to work, apparently trying to decapitate him. The student told police that he had committed the act in the name of Allah and ISIS and then made threatening statements against the French army for “protecting the Jews.” The next day the leader of Marseille’s largest Jewish organization urged Jewish men to “hide a little” and not wear their kippas until “better days” arrive.

No one in France expects them soon.

Until the November Bataclan massacre it appeared superficially that French life was getting back to normal after the shock of last January.

There were partisan polemics in the months after the Charlie Hebdo attacks but they were not about security. One focused on the national school curriculum, a fetish object the French rub whenever they feel unsafe. To the question “Who lost French Muslim youth?” the instinctive response of many was the educational system, and they pointed to everything from the declining number of hours students study French history to the deemphasis on Greek and Latin. Articles were even written on the epidemic of orthographic mistakes on student exams as a sign of civilizational decline.1

Another polemic was over the left-libertarian philosopher Michel Onfray, who told the conservative paper Le Figaro that he held the left responsible for taboos against addressing public concerns about Islamism, immigration, and refugees, which in his view only hastened the shift of working-class and rural voters to the National Front.

This provocation reanimated a bitter quarrel among France’s intellectuals over who was guilty of la trahison des clercs in the face of terrorism: the traditional left that blamed “Islamophobia” and social marginalization, or the growing number of former leftists who point to political Islamism and the abandonment of the principles of laicity. In the face of “media hysteria,” Onfray temporarily withdrew his book on Islam that was already in press, stopped giving interviews, and shut down his Twitter account.

These sideshows apart, French political life reverted to the state it was in in 2014, which is to say morose and petty. Confidence in François Hollande, which rocketed up due to his handling of the crisis, soon crept back down to abysmal pre-Charlie levels. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, eyeing another run in 2017, succeeded in changing the name of his conservative party to Les Républicains without changing anything else about it, or about himself, his worst enemy. The genial former prime minister Alain Juppé, his old rival, leads him in the polls.

The National Front, which hoped to capitalize quickly on security concerns and present itself as a strong but responsible alternative to the Socialists and Republicans, was instead plunged into a civil war last April. In two interviews the party’s retired founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, repeated his infamous line about the gas chambers being a mere “detail” in history, and added kind words about Pétain. His daughter Marine, the current president of the party, who is intent on “de-diabolizing” it, immediately expelled him. What followed resembled an inept college production of King Lear. The old man disowned his daughter and blamed the break on her vice-president, Florian Philippot, a young graduate of the grandes écoles widely detested on the far right for being gay, who was assigned the role of Edmund. Marine, playing Regan and Goneril, stuck to her guns in meetings and several court battles, eventually ousting her father, but was left exposed as the leader of an eerie clan, not a transparent democratic party.

While the political class fumbled, the French economy remained dangerously stalled. At 10 percent, the unemployment rate is the highest in twenty years and one of the highest in Europe. (The German unemployment rate is 6 percent, the lowest in twenty years.) Half of those out of work have been so for at least a year. The Hollande government recognizes that structural reforms (such as changes in working hours) are needed but is stymied by the opposition of unions, Socialist members of Parliament, and the wider public, which is economically conservative, attached to its suffocating web of small privileges, and ready to resist forcibly if provoked. (It must be added that EU debt policies have exacerbated the problem by preventing the government from further stimulating growth and investing in public works.)

In October Air France employees protesting a company plan to reduce its workforce broke into negotiations and attacked two company officials, who were saved by their union counterparts. Pictures of fleeing businessmen with their clothes in shreds were on every front page. In June taxi drivers with medallions shut down parts of Paris and the airport in protests against nonunionized drivers for Uber, beating several up and smashing a number of their cars. Under this pressure the Constitutional Court shortly thereafter ruled illegal one of Uber’s most popular services.

The forward-looking finance minister, Emmanuel Macron, fully measures the cost of France’s economic failure and has called for major reforms. All he has been able to obtain, though, is an absurdly modest package that could be passed only by using a complicated constitutional maneuver that obviated the need for a parliamentary vote. The law increases slightly the number of Sundays that stores can open and the evening hours workers can work, and simplifies the labyrinthine process for getting a driver’s license so that young people can get to jobs. Long-distance bus companies can finally compete with the national train system on major routes, and some closed, archaic legal professions that date to the ancien régime will be opened up.

After months of hysterical doomsaying, these were the only changes. The psychological barriers to further change—such as extending the standard thirty-five hour workweek or simplifying the country’s labor code that makes hiring and firing a nightmare—are high. A poll last year found that over two thirds of the French support allowing more stores to open on Sundays. Less than half, though, say they would be willing to work on those days.

Perversely, this paralysis swells the ranks of potential National Front voters, even though the party has no economic policy to speak of. So does perceived paralysis in dealing with immigration and refugee issues. In fact, France has accepted relatively few asylum-seekers from Syria and Iraq, and rejects their applications at nearly three times the rate of other European nations. But this is not the public perception. One reason is the long-festering situation in the so-called “jungle” of Calais. For a decade and a half now France has had to deal with large waves of illegal migrants, from Albanians to Kuwaiti Bedouins, who are trying to make their way to Britain and find employment. (Given the dire economic situation, they have no interest in remaining in France.) Several large encampments have grown up near the Calais Chunnel entrance and every night anywhere from a dozen to a thousand of the mainly young men try to sneak through on foot or hide in the trucks in line. Some die trying. It’s a police nightmare and a humanitarian disaster.

The shantytown complex now houses around six thousand; the population of Calais is only 72,000. It is for all intents and purposes a small town, with a hospital, schools, library, entertainment center, restaurants, and cafés. Not long ago a British businessman opened a shop there offering women’s products catering to the migrants, and some evangelicals founded the Life in Jesus Church. The French government has little room to maneuver since Britain resists admitting these people and EU rules require France to offer them basic sustenance. These subtleties are lost on those living near the camps, who feel besieged and unprotected. Working-class Calais used to be a bastion of the French Communist Party. In the first round of recent regional elections 49 percent of the vote went to the National Front, which promised to stop giving aid or even medicine to the migrants.

The regional elections were held in December, just a few weeks after the Bataclan attacks, and there was general alarm that the National Front would capture control of two or more of the twelve newly consolidated metropolitan regions. And indeed at 28 percent it did receive slightly more votes than any other party, allowing it to claim once again to be “the first party of France.” But as is so often the case, its slight lead in polls and raw votes was not translated into electoral victory because its support is so spread out geographically. And in regions where Socialist candidates ran third behind the National Front and the Republicans, they were instructed by the party to withdraw. (The favor was not returned by Republicans.) As a result, though the National Front won roughly the same percentage of votes in the second round, it did not gain control of a single region.

Every time the National Front vote rises, the rest of France panics, and rival parties are not above exploiting this fear. François Mitterrand was a master of the art. In 1985 he introduced proportional representation in parliament simply to draw votes away from his conservative rivals, even though it meant that the National Front won thirty-five seats and, more importantly, legitimacy. At the moment, this kind of cynical jockeying in what has become a three-party system is a more immediate problem than the prospect of a National Front government or presidency. The Socialists and Republicans can mask the vacuity of their electoral programs by focusing on blocking the National Front, which in turn can hide its lack of a program behind demagoguery about the other two parties’ failures. (And since the National Front governs only a handful of towns it is protected from failing.)

The attention of the political class is now focused almost exclusively on the presidential elections of 2017, not on France’s long-term challenges. The chances of Marine Le Pen winning one of the top two spots in the first round are high, which would mean a repeat of the 2002 election when her father came in second, forcing the parties of the left to throw their support behind the conservative Jacques Chirac in the second round. Any president, Socialist or Republican, elected under such circumstances would be in no better a position to act decisively than François Hollande is in right now.

Marine Le Pen speaking to supporters at the end of the second round of regional elections, Hénin-Beaumont, France, December 2015
Jerome Sessini/Magnum Photos
Marine Le Pen speaking to supporters at the end of the second round of regional elections, Hénin-Beaumont, France, December 2015

Economic stagnation, political stalemate, rising right-wing populism—this has been France’s condition for a decade or more. So has nothing changed since the Charlie Hebdo killings? Yes it has, and not simply because of the Bataclan massacre. Since 2012 France has suffered a steady series of Islamist terrorist attacks, some dramatic, some less so, that have changed the political psychology of the country.2 Intellectuals and politicians have been arguing about the causes of le malaise français for decades, calling on the French to change their policies and thinking, on the assumption that their destiny was in their hands. That assumption no longer holds. The globalization of economic activity, including the American financial crisis and the transfer of decision-making to the opaque institutions of the European Union, has been eroding the sense of national self-determination for some time. And now the refugee crisis and international jihadist networks are eroding confidence that the state, which the French expect to be strong, can protect its citizens.

Though there were no major successful terrorist attacks on French soil between January and November 2015, there were enough small or unsuccessful ones in the news to keep the public on edge. In February, just weeks after the Charlie murders, three soldiers defending a Jewish center in Nice were stabbed by a Muslim man, and in November a jihadist network in Saint-Denis and Lyon was discovered and dismantled. In June another Muslim man whose name was in a police terrorist database decapitated his employer at a delivery company near Lyon, and before trying to blow up the building planted the man’s head on the building’s gate next to two banners, one referring to ISIS and the other with the Muslim shahada written on it (“There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is Allah’s messenger”). He then took some photos.

In August a young Moroccan living in Spain, who was also in a European police database, boarded a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris with a Kalashnikov and a Lugar pistol; he wounded five people before his guns jammed and he was wrestled down by two vacationing American soldiers. In October and November French police foiled what would have been two major attacks against naval installations in Toulon and Orléans by French Muslims with Syrian connections. And in December police investigating a recent female convert found in her apartment the hollowed-out mold of a pregnant woman’s belly, presumably intended to hide explosives. The French government now has a policy of publicizing its antiterrorism operations, which keeps the public alert but can also leave it with the jitters. In September the minister of the interior announced that over 1,800 French citizens had been identified as belonging to jihadist networks, triple the number recorded in January 2014.

The gruesome Bataclan attacks were the most dramatic and deadly in this series. Most disturbing was the discovery that it was an international operation organized in Belgium where several of the killers lived, and planned by ISIS in Syria where some had trained. At least two had reentered Europe through Greece by pretending to be refugees. This is the first terrorist operation in Europe for which ISIS has taken public responsibility, and its statement was nothing less than a declaration of war:

Let France and all nations following its path know that they will continue to be at the top of the target list for the Islamic State and that the scent of death will not leave their nostrils as long as they partake in the crusader campaign….This is just the beginning.

The Hollande government responded in kind, immediately putting ten thousand troops on Parisian streets and declaring a state of emergency, giving the police extraordinary powers to conduct searches without warrants, detain suspects, and impose temporary house arrest. Speaking before a joint session of the National Assembly and the Senate, the president then declared that France was at war with ISIS and would be stepping up its bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq, not withdrawing. Most controversially he called for binationals convicted of terrorist crimes to be stripped of French nationality, a proposal that runs up against current constitutional and European jurisprudence but has been Hollande’s most popular move since being elected. (The government has subsequently removed any reference to binationals from the proposal.) According to a national poll taken a few days after the attacks, a large majority of the public would like to go even further by detaining all those who have been identified as potential terrorist threats by the police.

With less fanfare the Hollande government has also accelerated plans to reform French Muslim institutions, something unimaginable under the American or British political systems. In 1808 Napoleon set up a system of local and national Jewish “consistories” made up of rabbis and laymen whose task was double: to represent the community before the government and to carry out its directives regarding civic education, synagogue governance, military service, and other matters. The consistories still exist and have moral authority within the French Jewish community but no longer serve as semi-state institutions. Until quite recently no such institution existed for French Muslims. In the 1980s the Mitterrand government reached out to private Muslim organizations about some sort of pact regarding Islam and the principles of laicity, and such an agreement was reached in 2000. In 2003 a French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) was created, loosely modeled on the Jewish consistories.

The CFCM has not been a great success, mainly because there are sharp divisions and turf battles among Muslim leaders with strong attachments to religious authorities in their home countries, who in turn fund French mosques. But the Hollande government is committed to reducing and monitoring those ties and encouraging the development of a French Islam that would be friendly to the republic.

Most significantly it has gotten the CFCM to set up a certification program for imams that will require them to get an acceptable theological and especially civic education. Today only a fifth of French imams are native Frenchmen and only a third master the language; most preaching is in Arabic. They are said not to be very learned, having on average ten years’ less education than French rabbis, ministers, and priests.3 To professionalize and modernize this class the state is also setting up programs in Muslim theology and religious studies in the universities, which the latter have until now resisted on the grounds that the long-fought-for French tradition of laicity in education should prevail.

As welcome as these reforms may be, it is hard to imagine that they can do much to help stem radicalization. Olivier Roy, a somewhat idiosyncratic French specialist on Islam, published a much-discussed article shortly after the Bataclan massacres arguing that jihadism has nothing to do with Muslim institutions and little to do with Muslim life. He noted that the large majority of French jihadists are second-generation Muslims who, unlike their parents, speak French, grew up with little to no contact with mosques or Muslim organizations, and before their conversions drank, took drugs, and had girlfriends. They are estranged from their parents and don’t know where to fit in. Or they are recent converts, largely from rural areas and many from divorced families. Why is that, Roy asks? If Islam or social conditions are essentially to blame for breeding terrorism, why do such structural problems affect only this very narrowly defined group? Why does it not attract first- or third-generation French Muslims, or those whose Islamic culture is the deepest? And why does its appeal extend to children of the successful middle class? His answer: jihadism is a nihilistic generational revolt, not a religiously inspired utopianism.

Roy is being provocative. And hardly realistic when he concludes that crushing ISIS “will do nothing” to affect this revolt. Strained parent–child relations in the face of modernization are nothing new, and neither is political revolt growing out of them. In Fathers and Sons Turgenev explored these psychological dynamics that were at work already in mid-nineteenth-century Russia. But it took the rise of revolutionary Marxism and fascism, first as ideologies, then as foundations of state and military power, to transform those intimate dynamics into world-historical ones, with bloody results. Islamic jihadism, whose advance has accelerated since the Arab Spring turned to winter, remains a dangerous threat in its own right.

But the most disturbing implication of Roy’s argument, in the French setting, is that the state can do nothing to deal with the sources of this revolt. The French react to terrorism much differently than Americans do. The victims’ families do not appear weeping on television or get book contracts, conspiracy theories have little traction, and even the National Front does not engage in the hysterical demagoguery that has become standard in the Republican presidential campaign. (After the November killings Marine Le Pen was a model of composure compared to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.) Nor do the French suffer from a pathological distrust of the state. They like to be governed, as long as they are governed well. Accordingly, if public officials look responsible and show sangfroid they will be left alone to do their jobs, as long as they make evident progress.

At the moment, though, the French state looks dangerously weak: on the one side economic stagnation and political paralysis, on the other international terrorism and an enormous number of migrants in a border-free Europe, with little sense of how to deal with any of this. The savvy conservative Alain Juppé seems to have understood that the coming presidential election will be about relieving public anxieties on these two fronts. To inaugurate his campaign he has just published a book titled For a Strong State. It would be suicide for an American politician to use such a title, but if Juppé makes strength the theme of his campaign he may very well end up in the Elysée Palace. If he doesn’t, and no other candidates persuade the public that they can control France’s destiny, that will leave only Marine Le Pen and her eerie clan to turn to. I will discuss these prospects in a second article.

—February 10, 2016; this is the first of two articles.

  1. 1

    See my “France on Fire,” The New York Review, March 5, 2015. 

  2. 2

    See my “France: A Strange Defeat,” The New York Review, March 19, 2015. 

  3. 3

    See the interview with Henry Laurens, “L’Europe et l’Islam: actions et réactions,” Le Débat, May–August 2015, p. 61.