In the past year Europe has seen consistent terrorist attacks in Germany, Russia, Sweden, Belgium and Great Britain. It would seem that France has been assigned a special place on the hit list of terrorists and Islamic extremists in recent years. Although only a fraction of these attacks are featured in American news media, smaller incidents are occurring with increasing regularity. Yesterday’s attack in Paris was only the most recent.
In January 2015 the Charlie Hebdo attacks brought this reality to the world’s attention in a sensational demonstration of terror and violence. In the month before Charlie Hebdo however two separate incidents involved men ramming their vehicles into crowds of pedestrians and yelling “allah akbar,” a dark foreshadowing of things to come. The November 2015 Paris attacks at various venues and events throughout the city resulted in the largest terrorist attack in French history with 130 killed and more than 350 injured. In July 2016 we saw the Nice attacks where a deranged Islamic extremist plowed through a parade of people with a twenty-ton truck, injuring more than 400 and killing 86. In that same month two terrorists attacked a church in Normandy killing an 86 year old priest while another attack while a mother and her three daughters were stabbed to death while on vacation by an Islamic extremist in Garda-Colombe.
August 2016 featured two more terrorist incidents in France, September no less than four and then a pause held until February of this year when a man tried to enter the Louvre Museum in Paris carrying a machete and yelling “allah akbar.”
As a result of these terrorist attacks French leaders and policy makers have been caught between the ideals of liberal democracy and a growing pressure for higher security measures that often come at a cost to those ideals. A series of laws and proposals that specifically target traditional Islamic cultures living among the immigrants of France have not only reached the highest levels of the government but in some instances have entered into law. A ban on religious symbols and apparel such as the burqa was instituted in direct violation to liberal democratic values but helped in tightening security measures for the government and police force.
Why France though? Why do they keep hitting a nation that holds no geographic convenience? Most of these terrorists attacks in recent years are originating or inspired by ISIS located in the Middle East and North Africa. If the terrorists are simply looking to shake the security of Europe they are leapfrogging over several European jurisdictions to get to France. There is more to it than that and understanding this helps us grasp why the terror attacks we are experiencing in France today are far from over.
The Muslim Minority
France has the largest Muslim minority population in Europe at 7.5%. The majority of this population has migrated from North Africa, at one time a key French colonial holding. Of the 15 million Muslims living in the European Union, more than a third reside in France and the bulk of these make their homes in the major cities of Paris, Lyon, and Marseille.
Among this minority population, growth is occurring fast. According to the Pew Research Center these numbers have grown from a French population of only 568,000 in 1990. Higher birth rates among the Muslim immigrant population has resulted in an ever widening gap between French citizens who are aging and French Muslims who are coming to dominate the demographic trends of France’s young people. In France at least 25% of French teenagers are Muslims and at least half of the Muslim population itself is under 24 years of age. Because the bulk of the Muslim immigrants are so young, many anticipate these figures to only accelerate upwards in the coming decades as young Muslims come of age and start families of their own.
This demographic shift has taken shape at a rate two to six times faster than the average French population growth. (The variance depends upon which study of this issue is relied upon. Those studies are difficult because French law does not allow institutions to classify people by religion.) As this minority group has surged in growth it has done so at a pace faster than the French social, economic and political systems can facilitate their successful navigation in the world around them.
2. The Systems
The unique French economic system is designed to protect those who have jobs but is less open or beneficial to those who do not. As a result, many of the suburbs of the major cities where Muslim immigrants arrive to have become modern day ghettos. Unemployment here runs at a 20% average but as high as 40% for those young people under age twenty-four. It is no surprise that in such an environment crime thrives and as a result these are the locales that French police are most fearful to confront. A large proportion of French Muslim immigrants are therefore living in poverty, isolation and cut off from the promises of western liberal society. Many of those who are taken off the streets of France are simply relocated to the French prison system. Among the 67,500 people imprisoned in France 60-70% are estimated to be Muslims.
(Once again, these numbers are estimates because French laws will not allow for counting prisoners based upon their religion. In spite of such laws, those suspected of being Muslims are often housed together in these prisons, separate from the non-Muslim population. Ironically, this is the same model that led to the radicalization and organization of prisoners in Iraq who formed the origins of ISIS.)
3. A Dark French History
It is not difficult for North African immigrant to find a history of resentment toward their French neighbors, government and policies when their personal situations are encountering hardship and struggle. The French colonial policy was less than responsible and far from humanitarian especially in its collapse after World War II. Regions like Algeria where many of the Muslim immigrants of France have migrated from are notorious for the bloody struggle known as the Algerian War for Independence. More than 30,000 French and half a million Algerians were killed during the war which lasted from 1954 to 1962. Included among French atrocities during this fight was a long list of methods of torture, sexual assault and various abuses of the local population.
Even in other areas outside of Algeria where the departure of French imperialists was more civilized compared to Algeria, the former colonizers maintained a deliberate strategy in which the native governments they left behind would be weak and fragile. It was thought that such governments would be more likely to continue their reliance upon the French even after they were gone. Instead these regions were plunged into violent wars of sectarian conflict ever since. The violence of Lebanon and Syria can be traced to his reality which the French left in their wake after independence.
It is therefore easy for frustrated, struggling, minority populations to find just grievances against the French not only in their current predicament but in the historical relations of the French toward the Muslims of North Africa and the Middle East.
4. The French Ideals
Since the French Revolution in the early 19th century the French identity has been deliberately unique from its European neighbors. This uniqueness is at the same time both a slap in the face to religiously devoted Muslim immigrants and a blatant hypocrisy to those same people when they feel disenfranchised by the French systems.
Religion is a strictly personal affair according to French values. There are as many French people who describe themselves as non-religious as those who profess a specific religion or faith. Christianity is the largest religion in the country, most being Catholic, but among those who profess Christianity only a slim minority believe their faith has a part to play in their daily life. Meanwhile, Islam represents the second largest religion yet 40% of those who profess Islam believe it plays an important part in their daily lives. (A report from the International Business Times earlier this year highlighted this shifting trend among France’s religiously devoted with a story about famous synagogues being converted to mosques in Marseille.)
Religion may be a private affair but insult and abuse to religion is a very public one in the eyes of the religiously devoted in France. Thus the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in 2015 was only after a long series of episodes in which the magazine had made public enjoyment in the abuse of what was considered sacred by both Muslims and Catholics. Last summer’s laws against Muslim women wearing the so-called burkini stood in contrast to the nude beaches of southern France. Modest apparel in the name of religious conviction was fair game for policy makers and scoffers while nudity in the name of freedom was an untouchable right.
In its fear and valid need for security the French ideals of individual freedom and privacy have been compromised by a surveillance state that is currently accommodating house detentions of those Muslims suspected of involvement in terrorist activity merely on the basis of their religion. Liberty, liberalism, and individualism are being usurped by the need for national security against an enemy that the laws of France do not even allow the government and its institutions to deliberately profile.
5. A Convergence of Failures
Today many commentators are suggesting in the near future we can expect at least portions of France to be moving into a permanent state of war against Islamic terrorism. Models of security such as the formerly mentioned war in Algeria as well Israel-Palestine are being considered for how the French government and security apparatus might respond to this threat. Already French soldiers are patrolling French beaches during the holidays. The Prime Minister has suggested ending foreign funding of Islamic mosques. Increasingly the idea of Guantanamo Bay type holding centers being constructed on the outskirts of Paris has been mentioned. These would be used to separate suspects from the general population.
France and the rising threat of terrorism demonstrates the failure of many things all converging into one great present crisis.
It is a symptom of a failed French system of economy and culture that accommodates the older generation at the expense of the younger generation.
It is a failure of the ideas of not only French but also western liberalism and its values in the face of pragmatic realities brought about by increasing global disparity.
Finally, it is a failure of modern history in its effort to merely bury the sins and crimes of the past. The laws of reaping and sowing are not avoidable. The seeds which were sown in violence, oppression and injustice are in many ways coming to fruition in France and the west today.
- Islamization and Demographic Denialism in France
- France, Islam, Terrorism and the Challenges of Integration
- France’s Alienated Muslims
- France’s Brutal Colonial War
- 5 Facts About Muslim Populations in Europe
- Jihad and the French Exception
If you enjoy learning about terrorism in the world today from a bias free perspective check out the Terrorism section of our web site. You will find several podcasts and frequent articles on terrorism from JB Shreve and the End of History. Also, check out JB Shreve’s Intelligence Brief Series available at Amazon.com.