9/11 shook America, 7/7 shook Britain and the past year and a half has shaken France. The Charlie Hebdo shooting, the Paris attacks, the Nice atrocity and most recently the tragic killing of a priest in Normandy. And just as Bush & Blair used 9/11 & the ensuing climate of fear to rationalise their misguided War on Terror, Francois Hollande has reiterated that ‘France is at war’.
But who is France at war with? In a country where nationalist fervour abounds, is a war against ISIS and Islamism construed as such? And is this ‘war’ doing anything to prevent terrorism in France?
Though France’s ‘war’ may target ‘Islamism’, the nuance between Islam and Islamism is lost on many, and French Muslims once again feel alienated in their own country. Since France’s current State of Emergency came into play, security forces have been able to conduct warrantless house raids, seize personal data, and place people on house arrest without authorisation from a judge. By February 2016 over 3200 raids had been conducted on mosques, businesses and homes but only 5 counter-terrorism investigations were being examined by the Paris Prosecutor’s Office.
And who are security forces looking for? Pious, bearded, flag-burners, fresh off the boat from training camps in Libya? If Europe’s attacks have shown us anything, it is that ‘Islamist’ terrorists are not the ‘fanatical zealots’ people anticipate them to be. The two suspects arrested after the Paris attacks drank alcohol, smoked marijuana and had reportedly never read the Qur’an. The el-Bakraoui brothers, who perpetrated the Brussels attacks, were carjackers and bank robbers before they moved on to terrorism. The Nice attacker, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, drank alcohol, took drugs and used online dating sites for casual hook-ups.
This is not to say France should have done nothing in the wake of recent attacks. France, of course, must address how and why it has become a target for ISIS-inspired violence. It must try to prevent further attacks on its territory. However, an amorphous war against the Enemy (alongside aggressive military interventions abroad) appear to have been steps in precisely the wrong direction. ISIS have used Hollande’s declarations of war as a propaganda tool in a country whose Muslim population lack educational opportunity, job prospects and are becoming increasingly stigmatised.
Talking of stigmatisation, in the wake of the Hebdo attacks, France’s Observatory of Islamophobia reported a 500% increase in anti-Muslim physical assaults during the first 6 months of 2015 whilst verbal assaults were said to have risen by 100%. 63 attacks against mosques were recorded in 2015 – in Corsica, around 300 protesters ransacked a Muslim Prayer Hall, smashing the windows and burning copies of the Qur’an. In the meantime, youth unemployment amongst French Muslims is said to have reached 40% and France’s estimated majority-Muslim prison population indicates grave problems of inequality and racial profiling.
In the face of grievous attacks, President Hollande’s declarations of war and repeated emphasis on French values, coupled with Prime Minister Manuel Valls rhetoric against the ‘enemy within’ will speak to people’s fears. They acknowledge the public’s desire for ‘something to be done’. But this divisive rhetoric, instead of curtailing Islamist violence, continues to fuel further discontent and anger against the French state.
This rhetoric cannot be separated from France’s history. Its bloody colonisation of North Africa subjugated the Maghrebins for over 100 years, its rule enacted most oppressively in Algeria. France made Algerian Muslims second-class citizens in their own country, all whilst French feminists forced the country’s women to unveil under the guise of female liberation.
Fast-forward a few decades and once again, you’ll find the same state-sanctioned discrimination and Islamophobia. In 1994, guidance for state schools made clear the difference between acceptable ‘discreet’ religious symbols, like the crucifix and the kippah, and unacceptable ‘ostentatious’ ones, like the hijab. In 2005, a law was passed which required History teachers to acknowledge the positive role ‘of the French presence abroad, especially in North Africa’, ignoring the massive suffering and social degradation French colonialism entailed. In 2010, France banned face-coverings – a law clearly targeted at the 2000 Muslim women in France who then wore the niqab.
France’s current strategy of scapegoating, detaining and stigmatising Muslim bodies only plays into the hands of bigots and terrorists. France must improve the schooling, housing and prospects of its most marginalised communities, it must stop its unfettered and excessive identity checks on non-White citizens and it must stop the creeping tide of state-sanctioned Islamophobia – of burqini bans and house raids. France must acknowledge its history and change its future by embracing its Muslim citizens.