How the French Face Terror

A demonstrator with an issue of Charlie Hebdo at the march against terrorism, Paris, January 11, 2015. The cartoon on the cover shows a Jew, a Catholic, and a Muslim demanding that ‘“Charlie Hebdo” must be veiled!’
Abbas/Magnum Photos
A demonstrator with an issue of Charlie Hebdo at the march against terrorism, Paris, January 11, 2015. The cartoon on the cover shows a Jew, a Catholic, and a Muslim demanding that ‘“Charlie Hebdo” must be veiled!’

Intellectuals, no less than politicians, respond to crises based on what they think they learned from earlier ones. It is difficult to see what is genuinely new in an emergency, harder still to admit ignorance in the face of it. Our instinct is to assume that the unforeseen confirms our picture of the world rather than the necessity of altering it. The temptation to settle old scores is particularly hard to resist. The response of American intellectuals to the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the wars that followed was a case in point. Looking back, one senses that the arguments between neoconservatives, liberal hawks, and the wars’ opponents were more about what lessons were to be drawn from the Vietnam War than about understanding the novel challenges posed by al-Qaeda and potential repercussions for the region.

The immediate response of French intellectuals to the January 2015 Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris was similar.1 For decades they had waged a bitter argument, occasioned by the growing Muslim presence in the country, about what kind of society France should be: a classic republic based on a strict separation between religion and the public sphere, or a more multicultural society that recognized, if not celebrated, “difference.” The mass killings by French-born Muslims of Jews and journalists were immediately framed in these terms, as the consequence either of abandoning the principle of laicity or of the social exclusion of Muslims. It is significant that the books that best captured the mood in the months after the attacks had been written well before them: Éric Zemmour’s scathing polemic The French Suicide and Michel Houellebecq’s best-selling novel Submission, which was published the day of the Charlie Hebdo killings.

The highly coordinated massacres this past November by a team of European terrorists inspired by ISIS have shifted the debate radically. It is simply no longer possible to ignore the fact that international jihadism is a phenomenon in its own right, not the spontaneous result of abandoning secularism or religious prejudice. Nor is it possible to act as if France’s continuing integration into a European Union with weak external border controls and nonexistent internal ones has not increased the threat of attacks. Nor can it be denied, for that matter, that the sudden, enormous immigration from Muslim countries as a result of the Syrian civil war and the military advance of ISIS further increases the risk. While there are sharp political arguments today over the security measures the French government has taken since the attacks, the nature of the threat is no longer in question.

From January until November 2015 France lived in a kind of twilight, aware of something new but incapable of staring it in the face. This is what makes the books published in this period so interesting and revealing. They provide a record of a country going through the classic stages of trauma: denial, anger, negotiation, and depression. Only now are there beginning to be signs of acceptance of the new French reality and of the need for fresh thinking. Four books that appeared last year show how hard the transition has been.

Charb was the nom de plume of Stéphane Charbonnier, a journalist and graphic artist born just outside of Paris in 1967. He began working for Charlie Hebdo in the 1990s and took over the directorship in 2009. His politics were eclectic. An anarchist libertarian who supported the French Communist Party and antiracism groups, he was also an absolutist on free speech and loathed organized religion in the old Voltairean tradition. He drew caricatures of Catholic bishops, Jewish rabbis, Muslim imams, and, when the need presented itself, of God.

In 2006, the year of the controversy over caricatures of Muhammad that appeared in a Danish newspaper, Charlie published them and from that point on was in the sights of Islamic jihadists. In 2011 the paper’s offices were firebombed, in 2012 Charb started getting death threats, and in 2013 al-Qaeda put him on its most-wanted list. None of this seemed to faze Charb; in fact he became more combative and provocative in editing the paper. In 2014 he decided to write a short book defending his views on freedom and religion, and turned in the manuscript two days before he was assassinated.

The righteous anger radiating from it is bracing even when Charb’s arguments are weak. The French title, lamentably bowdlerized by his timid American publisher, reads: “Letter to the Con Artists of ‘Islamophobia’ Who Play into the Hands of Racists.” It begins with an address to the reader:

If you think criticizing religion is an expression of racism,

If you think “Islam” is the name of a people…

If you think someone with Muslim parents must also be a Muslim…

If you think popularizing the concept of Islamophobia is the best way to defend Islam,

If you think defending Islam is the best way to defend Muslims…

If you think the Zionists who run the world have paid a stooge to write this book,

Well, happy reading, because this letter is for you.

Charb’s is the voice of a classic French republicanism willing to grant everything to individuals as individuals and nothing to groups as groups. He rejects the term “Islamophobia” because those who use it practice the soft racism of seeing individual Muslims (and only Muslims) as representatives of their religious group, and seeing those who pretend to speak for the group as representatives of individual Muslims. When a veiled woman is insulted, he insists, she must be defended as a citizen and for no other reason. The concept of Islamophobia also minimizes the significance of racism by conflating it with religious affiliation. If a white convert to Islam applies for a job, Charb asks, as does an equally qualified Arab Muslim, who do you think will get it? The only effective and honest way for the left to help French Muslims is to focus exclusively on racial and economic justice and the rights of individuals.

A world where these distinctions were as clear as Charb takes them to be would be an easier one to live in than ours. It is one thing—a very brave and necessary thing—to stand up to apologists for jihadism and the blasphemy police who would censor opinion and artistic expression. It is another to deny the reality of ordinary Muslims’ feelings of solidarity, no matter how deep their shame and sense of responsibility in the face of fundamentalism. Charb and the radical French republicans keep restaging the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century battles against the Catholic Church, which was a powerful religious institution wielding authority. There is no such institution in Islam, just a community of communities of believers bound together in a collective relationship with God. One cannot help fellow Muslim citizens—or anyone for that matter—if one does not accept them as they see themselves. Unless, at some level, you are hoping for a miracle of transubstantiation that would transform them into people like yourself. That is political narcissism, which is what the heroic and tragic Charb succumbed to.

A different kind of narcissism is at work in Emmanuel Todd’s flimsy book Who Is Charlie? Todd first came to public attention in the 1970s when he used demographic data to predict the coming collapse of the Soviet Union. He has never gotten over winning the lottery. And like many lottery winners he has invested his capital foolishly ever since, producing books that announce attention-grabbing, counterintuitive theses that his research cannot possibly support.

Who Is Charlie? seeks to shock by reworking some of his recent work on the geography of French politics into an indictment of the millions across the country who marched under the banner Je Suis Charlie just days after the terrorist attacks. His great demographic discovery, he thinks, is that the areas of France that have historically been the most religious, inegalitarian, and politically reactionary have now given birth to a secularized “zombie Catholicism” that blocks any meaningful political change and feeds off of hatred of Muslims. This Key To Understanding Everything supposedly reveals that the marches had nothing to do with mourning the victims or defending free speech. It was a saturnalia of zombie Catholicism staged to strike fear in Muslims. This is typical Todd:

Everywhere, Charlie rules, but he does not know where he is going…. In January 2015 France succumbed to an attack of hysteria…a collective reaction unprecedented in our country’s history…. [The demonstration] aimed first and foremost at a social power, a form of domination…. Millions of French people came out onto the streets to define, as a priority of their society, the right to pour scorn on the religion of the weak…. To be French meant not that you had the right to blaspheme, but that it was your duty…. We must not go too far in absolving people because they were unconscious of what was driving them….

It is certainly true, and psychologically hardly surprisingly, that Muslims were underrepresented at the demonstrations, given that the murders were wrapped up with the offensive caricatures. But what to make of the many thousands of Muslims who were there, as I myself witnessed? They could be seen walking in groups holding aloft the flags of France and of their ancestral homelands, just as some Jews flew the flag of Israel alongside the tricolore. These groups marched side by side. Todd, I suppose, would have to include them, too, among the zombies. As the only person in France to see through the false consciousness of everyone else, he must carry a heavy burden. Perhaps that explains the tone of his book, which is like the rant of a disheveled man buttonholing pedestrians at a busy intersection.

The books by Charb and Todd are not really about French Muslims or terrorism. They address the tired, self-referential question: What does it mean to be on the left? This is why they contribute so little to clarifying the present. France’s Situation by the philosopher Pierre Manent is a very different sort of work. Manent is neither on the left nor easily classifiable on the right, a Catholic with equal debts to the great French liberal Raymond Aron and to the political philosopher Leo Strauss. His independence from conventional categories is what frees him up to ask what is in the French situation a very unconventional question: Practically speaking, what entente might be imagined between Islam and the French republic today, taking Islam as it is, and France as it is?

Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb, the editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo from 2005 until his death in 2015, at the magazine’s office in Paris, September 2012
Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images
Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb, the editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo from 2005 until his death in 2015, at the magazine’s office in Paris, September 2012

Manent’s analysis rests on the distinction, inherited from Montesquieu, between a society’s explicit formal legal order (les lois) and the implicit mores, habits, and beliefs that bind it together (les moeurs). This distinction, he believes, helps us to understand why the integration of Muslims in Europe has proved so difficult. Secular Europeans today think largely in terms of the principle of individual rights and no longer accept the authority of social moeurs. They would prefer to forget their continuing debt to Christian cultural assumptions, such as the autonomy of individuals and the moral priority of inner experience.

According to Manent, Muslims, on the other hand, assume the priority of communal morality over individual liberty, an assumption most societies in most times and places have also made throughout history. He therefore finds it understandable that Muslims see modern ideas of freedom as just another set of cultural moeurs, and feel condescended to by Westerners delivering lectures on human rights.

Taking these two incompatible perspectives as given, Manent thinks that the practical challenge European countries face today is to find ways to maintain the independence of law while also recognizing the moeurs that Muslims consider legitimate. He proposes what would be for the French a radically new approach to the problem:

Our regime should quite simply cede, and openly accept Muslims’ moeurs. Muslims are our fellow citizens. We didn’t set any conditions when they arrived and they haven’t infringed any. Having been accepted in equality they have every reason to assume that they were accepted “as they are.” …Our Muslim fellow citizens are sufficiently numerous, sufficiently assured of their rightness, and sufficiently attached to their beliefs and moeurs that our polity has been substantially, if not essentially, transformed by their presence. We have no choice but to accept this.

These sentences have shocked people across the political spectrum. But Manent’s concrete proposals for adapting to the Muslim presence are modest and most are commonsensical, such as offering food in school cafeterias that conforms to religious practice; setting separate swimming hours for girls and boys in municipal pools (which was once standard practice); and allowing religious garb like the headscarf in schools and public buildings. (He rejects full covering of the female face as an affront to basic sociability, noting that in the West only executioners were ever forced to cover theirs.)2

So much for les moeurs. Regarding les lois Manent insists that rights to free speech remain untouched. He also calls on Muslims to declare their independence from foreign countries that fund mosques and supply imams, and to become more politically active as citizens. This, he reasonably suggests, would send a message to the French nation—and to the entire Muslim world—that communal attachment to Islam is compatible with democratic citizenship.

Had Manent simply wanted to convince readers of the prudence of adaptation, France’s Situation would have been a powerful pamphlet. Unfortunately it is collated with what seems like a second tract focused on the past, a bitter rumination on the decline of France from a virile republic undergirded with Catholic moeurs into a depoliticized, individualistic secular society intent on disappearing into the formless morass of the European Union. Since Islam arose in a Europe that had psychologically “emptied itself of its old nations and religion,” according to Manent, Europeans assumed that Muslims would abandon their moeurs, too, and gratefully embrace the modern ideology of human rights.

Nothing of the kind took place because, in Manent’s view, Muslims understand something secular Europe doesn’t: strong moeurs binding a community trump abstract political principles held by unconnected individuals. (This was also the fundamental thesis of Houellebecq’s Submission.) Had France retained a sense of itself as a sovereign nation-state with a Christian moral legacy and common political purpose, assimilation might have been easier, paradoxically, since then Muslims would have been trading one sense of deep belonging for another. But in a vacuum it was inevitable that the side offering meaning, collective attachment, even global ambition would dominate. That is why “an islamicization by default is now the hidden truth of our condition.” The scent of schadenfreude wafts through these pages, as if Manent is straining not to say openly that contemporary Europe had it coming.

Manent has written some thoughtful books on the rise of modern individualism and the fate of Europe. But France’s Situation is a very moody and in the end incoherent book. On one page the author is the engaged spectator trying, as Aron did in his wise writings on the Algerian War, to offer a realistic assessment of the present crisis and a way forward. On the next, he falls into the reactionary rhetoric of cultural war, resistance, reanimation, and national reawakening. The reader comes away thinking that the problems of Muslim integration and jihadism are for Manent, as for Charb and Todd, mainly occasions for settling old scores.

Gilles Kepel, one of the leading experts on French Muslims, and on the Muslim world generally, has called France’s Situation “the most structured, painful, and paradoxical” book to be written following the January massacres. His own recent book takes a very different and much more fruitful approach. He indulges in no ruminations on the ideal libertarian society or the gestation of zombies or the course of modern history or the closing of the European soul. Kepel wants to know one thing: What developments over the past few decades prepared the way for the terrorist attacks of 2015? His modesty and single-mindedness make Terror in the Hexagon the most essential book to read about France today.

Kepel has two virtues as a writer on this subject. The first is that he is so aware of the many factors contributing to the present crisis, having devoted several books to them, that he is immune to treating any one as paramount. He gives equal weight to social and economic conditions in France, religious developments in the wider Muslim world, domestic and international political factors, and even popular culture and technology. He doesn’t treat French Muslims as a perfectly homogeneous group, and he is particularly alert to generational differences, which are central to his story.

The second virtue is that he has the sensibility of a historian, not a social scientist or philosopher. Kepel knows that social conditions and moeurs alone can never explain political phenomena, that events in real time are what cause them to be acutely felt and then motivate action. His decision to organize Terror in the Hexagon as a loose (sometimes too loose) chronicle, focusing largely on developments during the decade between 2005 and the 2015 attacks, was a wise one. Reading it is like watching those time-lapse weather maps on the nightly news that show different cold and warm fronts, high and low pressure systems, coming into contact and producing a storm.

Kepel begins in 1983. In October of that year a nonviolent march took place in Marseilles to protest police intimidation and the killing of an Arab Muslim activist. Afterward the marchers kept on marching, slowly making their way up through the country, finally arriving in Paris where they were greeted by a demonstration of over 100,000 sympathizers. In Kepel’s view this March for Equality and Against Racism marked a generational break and the birth of a new political self-consciousness among French Muslims. This second generation had, unlike their parents, largely been born in France, educated in its schools, and had adopted its language. They seemed on a path to assimilation into the French republican order and became a political force on the left, particularly at the local level. To the extent that anyone appeared to represent French Muslims over the next two decades, they did.

But during those same decades the wider Muslim world was being turned upside down. International jihadism, born in the successful war to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, established beachheads across the region. Fundamentalist theological movements—the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the South Asian Tablighi Jamaat, Saudi-funded Salafists—were also making inroads within Muslim populations around the globe. That included France, though only specialists like Kepel were tracking their growing influence in increasingly poor Muslim areas. There were a handful of Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris in the mid-1990s, but they were spillover from the civil war in Algeria, not domestic operations. Certainly in the two decades after the march there was little sense of any change in ordinary French Muslims’ attitudes toward France or of the prospect of homegrown terror.

This changed in 2005, the pivotal year in Kepel’s story. That was when riots in poor and heavily Muslim suburbs broke out across the country, bringing the problem of the banlieues to public attention and provoking the first state of emergency in continental France since the Algerian war. (The second was declared after the Bataclan killings last year.) The clashes were set off by a seemingly minor incident in Clichy-sur-Bois, just outside of Paris. That October Nicolas Sarkozy, then minister of the interior and preparing a presidential campaign that he hoped would attract National Front voters, visited a largely Muslim suburb nearby and promised to “hose out” the “band of scum” committing crimes.

The next day two young Muslims from Clichy, innocent of any crime, hid in an electrical transformer while fleeing the police and were electrocuted, setting off a riot. A few days later the local police used tear gas outside the local mosque that was full for Friday Ramadan prayers, further inflaming the situation, which could now be portrayed as an attack on Islam itself. Nightly disturbances then rocked suburbs across the country for the next three weeks, leaving nine thousand torched cars and property damage in excess of €200 million.

In Kepel’s view it was these events that crystalized a new consciousness among the third political generation of young French Muslims, who have become susceptible to the allure of fundamentalism in a way previous generations never were. Though in language, education, and pop culture they are highly assimilated, they are disengaged from domestic politics and identify increasingly with the conditions, real and imagined, of Muslims worldwide. A demonstration against the National Front will not bring them into the streets but one in opposition to Israeli bombing of Gaza will. They see themselves less as Muslims of France than as part of a global religious proletariat suffering from Islamophobia and colonialism.

There has been, in other words, a perceptible change in political sensibility. But for a fraction of this generation something more seemed required and they began to be “re-Islamicized,” as Kepel puts it—though “Islamicized” is more precise since most have no Muslim education and maintain their distance from established institutions. Keeping halal, wearing headscarves, and growing beards have become superficial badges of identity. Theirs is a complex psychology. When young women who wear headscarves are interviewed by the press, it is not uncommon to hear them say that they do so for two, basically incompatible, reasons: that the Koran requires it, and that it is their individual right to do so.

A large chunk of Terrorism in the Hexagon documents in detail how international jihadists—aided immeasurably by the Internet (YouTube was also founded in 2005)—began fishing for recruits within this subgroup, and how autonomous domestic cells focused on attacking France began to form. Even more fascinating, though, is Kepel’s analysis of the parallel development of homegrown French Islamism and the nativist radical right in this period. As working-class solidarity declined it was replaced, he suggests, by two very different pictures of the world. Marginalized whites began to see themselves as part of the struggle between the “native” French and “immigrants,” meaning all Muslims. And marginalized Muslims began to accept the fundamentalists’ picture of an eternal struggle between Islam and the infidels. He pursues this comparison throughout the book, noting how over the past decade the Internet nursed the development of both an online right-wing “fachosphere,” expressing nationalist anger, and a mirror-image Muslim “jihadosphere,” websites that are astonishingly similar, down to the expressions of vicious hatred of Jews.

Gilles Kepel’s important book is the best account we have of all the factors and events that helped create the current situation. It is also the most recently published, having been rushed out just after the Bataclan attacks of last November. Still, it necessarily leaves out two new factors: the public’s heightened fear of new attacks and the government’s efforts to relieve that fear. As I reported here recently, these include a state of emergency that for now gives the police and courts extraordinary powers to operate without warrants and other legal formalities.3 And it may also include a constitutional change that would allow the government to strip the citizenship of convicted terrorists, a highly controversial move with potentially explosive repercussions. Muslim commentators are already complaining that such a policy could provide a propaganda coup to radical Islamists trying to persuade young people that France is not their home and must be treated as enemy territory. The great value of Kepel’s book is that it acquaints us with France’s political weather map and helps us to understand why more storms are on the way.

—February 25, 2016; this is the second of two articles.

  1. 1

    See my “France on Fire,” The New York Review, March 5, 2015, and “France: A Strange Defeat,” The New York Review, March 19, 2015. 

  2. 2

    Manent admits that the subordination of Muslim women poses the most serious challenge to his approach of accepting the moeurs of immigrants admitted to France. He maintains that polygamy is explicitly ruled out by law, so must be rejected, but that immigrants’ other customs regarding gender, sexuality, or marriage were tacitly accepted when they were welcomed in, and so should be explicitly accepted now. But he doesn’t address whether the implicit acceptance of one generation’s customs should extend to later generations—for example, whether immigrant parents should have the right to force an arranged marriage on their children or practice genital circumcision. 

  3. 3

    See my “France: Is There a Way Out?,” The New York Review, March 10, 2016.