Harrison Stetler* – The Nation
As extremist ideas enter the mainstream, “clash of civilizations” rhetoric is crowding out more nuanced approaches to the very real problem of terrorism
“The combined forces of the state will not be able to overcome the Islamist hydra,” French President Emmanuel Macron said at a memorial service on October 8, days after Mickaël Harpon murdered four of his colleagues at the central Paris police prefecture. “What we need,” he continued, “is to construct a vigilant society.”
Like the other acts of terrorism that have struck the country in recent years, the October 3 attack became something of a perverse fuel to French political life. Obligatory rituals of national unity gave way instantaneously to a now habitual back-and-forth. Newspapers, magazines, and television networks clear their schedule and op-ed pages for the parade of experts—among whom the Islamologue reigns supreme—who explain how a particular reading of the Qur’an led such and such a man to murder. The right-wing sphere stamps its feet and calls for the country to take up arms, enforce obligatory pork meals in school cafeterias, and realize that the victims of terrorism are in fact the casualties of multiculturalism. The veil and other public displays of Islam become the battleground for media theatrics and outright displays of demagoguery, such as when one elected representative of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party harassed a Muslim woman chaperoning her child’s elementary school class on a field trip to the regional counsel seat in Besançon on October 11. Talk-radio devotes hours to the specter of “radicalization,” the seemingly intractable phenomenon leading a portion of the nation’s young men, of primarily immigrant origins, to recoil from republican values and turn to the messianism of political Islam.
Then comes the counterattack. A different roster of cultural personalities, intellectuals, and political figures—dwindling, regrettably, in audibility—pleads for nuance and restraint, warning us not to blame a religion for what is in fact a social problem. Political violence, or even self-appointed martyrdom, they remind us, is not new. Calling murder the cry of the oppressed is one thing—and whiffs of it lead to the charge of apology for terror, which is a punishable offense in France. But one doesn’t need to be an apologist to see that a person who will get behind the wheel of a van to drive through a crowd of innocent people, or who stabs his coworkers at the office as Mickaël Harpon did, is first and foremost a deeply troubled and hopeless person. Let’s put aside the incoherent stream of ideas strung together to justify the act, this second group argues: It’s that primal misery which ought to occupy our attention and be the principal target of public action. This group calls for therapy, and a good dose of it. They cite the statistics of unemployment in the poorest areas of France. They point to the virtual, and in some cases literal, wall traced around all French cities, between the cultured and prosperous centers and the abandoned and derelict outer suburbs, known for their large-scale housing projects enmeshed in a dense network of highways.
Vénissieux, a suburb southeast of Lyon, France’s third-largest city, saw some of the first large-scale riots in the early 1980s, in a disproportionately immigrant community. Unemployment in Vénissieux, according to the latest figures released by the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies in 2016, is 24.6 percent—well over twice the national average of roughly 10 percent that same year. In the media and in political discourse, “93,” the departmental area code for Seine-Saint-Denis, just north of Paris, has become shorthand for the failure of integration. To judge by around-the-clock cable news, or the myopic bunker mentality of Left Bank conservatism, it refers to a teeming mass of resentful young brown and black men waiting to attack French city centers. Seine-Saint-Denis is the poorest department in metropolitan France.
There was reason to believe that Emmanuel Macron would be sympathetic to a more nuanced understanding of the wave of terrorism that continues to strike France. As a minister in François Hollande’s Socialist government, he had sought to distance himself from the law-and-order stance pursued by Hollande’s prime minister, Manuel Valls. Acknowledging in 2015 that French society bears a “share of responsibility” for the acts of terror being committed, Macron explained that “someone simply because he has a beard or a name that sounds vaguely Muslim has four times less of a chance of receiving a job interview than someone else.”
In his speech on October 8, Macron affirmed that the “vigilant society” must be supplemented by state efforts to attack the origins of terrorism. But he has dismissed the very tangible initiatives that would go in just that direction. In October 2017, months after his election, a bipartisan assembly of mayors from suburban townships signed a joint declaration in Grigny, a commune south of Paris. They called for massive investments in education, infrastructure, job training, and cultural activities in their communities. Even more ambitiously, a 2018 state report conducted by Jean-Pierre Borloo confirmed the anxiety of the authors of the Grigny declaration and accused the French state of abandoning its fragile and largely immigrant-populated suburbs. In his report, Borloo, a veteran centrist politician, noted the inaccessibility of public transportation, the lack of access to sporting facilities and other cultural centers such as libraries and cinemas, an overstretched medical infrastructure, and an unemployment level often three times the national average. Ultimately, Borloo affirmed that upward of €48 billion would need to be budgeted for the revitalization of these areas and for their integration within the fabric of French society.
The Borloo report, though commissioned by Macron in response to the Grigny declaration, was dead on arrival. In line with the government’s stance on public services, which has seen access to public universities tightened and critical infrastructure such as the Paris airports offered up for privatization, the policies advocated by Borloo smacked too much of an activist conception of government. Misguided policies designed from the “top down” were a thing of the past, Macron said.
The rejection of the Borloo report was an early sign of a trend that has only continued as Macron arrives at the midpoint of his presidency. The belief that the ostracization of France’s immigrant communities is a result of state abandonment and neglect, to say nothing of everyday racism and police violence, has ceded ground to the bellicose law-and-order language of the French right. Embattled by a variety of social movements contesting the government’s attack on public services and his largely pro-business policies, Macron has sought to deflect criticism by suggesting that social tension is an expression of white working-class anxiety about multiculturalism and immigration. In his ongoing attempt to regain control since the Yellow Vest revolt, Macron has talked up the need to repair and strengthen French national identity.
The October 3 attack had the unfortunate coincidence of coming on the heels of a string of events symbolizing the far right’s increasing hold on French political life. The barrier between the country’s traditional center-right parties and the more hard-line fringe, gathered historically around Marine Le Pen, became even more vague with the inaugural “Convention of the Right,” held in Paris in late September. The instigator of the convention was Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal, who left her aunt’s party—and dropped her last name—in order to fight the cultural battle of cementing far-right ideas in the political mainstream. The marquee speaker at the event was the ultra-reactionary essayist and polemicist Éric Zemmour. In a fire-and-brimstone 30-minute speech, broadcast live on French television, Zemmour lamented what he saw as an active plot to destroy the “white heterosexual male” by cosmopolitan liberals seeking to supplant Europe’s native population through mass migration. The tacit pact between progressive cosmopolitanism and radical Islam, Zemmour claimed, was the contemporary equivalent of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact.
As these ideas enter the political mainstream, the rhetoric of a “clash of civilizations” is crowding out more nuanced approaches to the very real problem of terrorism, delegitimizing along the way those who point to the deep racial tensions that divide French society. Marianne, a weekly magazine that claims to advance a vaguely left-wing brand of nationalism, devoted a full issue this spring to sounding the alarm on what it sees as the corrupting “obsession” with race among left-wing university students and activists. In mid-September, a group of 80 psychoanalysts signed a collective editorial in Le Monde denouncing the “totalitarian” and “narcissistic” nature of postcolonial thought and the most vocal critics of French racism.
“Vigilance, and not corrupting suspicion,” Macron maintained in his October 8 memorial speech. Five days later, professors at a university in Cergy-Pontoise, a town northwest of Paris, were horrified to find that their school’s administration had distributed a spreadsheet designed to help detect and record “discreet signals” of radicalization among the student body. Among the tell-tale signs: “recurring absenteeism during the hours of prayer… pants cut off mid-calf… change of facial appearance, a beard without a mustache… cessation of alcohol consumption… recent consumption of halal products… sudden interest in religion…”
But would these signs have alerted us to the risks posed by an individual like Claude Sinké? On Monday, October 28, the 84-year-old former National Front candidate shot and injured two elderly Muslim worshipers as he was attempting to set fire to a mosque in Bayonne, in southwest France. Rather than a serious response to a very real spiral of violence, the “vigilant society” seems to be yet another symptom of the far right’s creeping, hydra-like advance.
*Harrison Stetler is a freelance journalist based in Paris.