The sole beneficiary is the far Right leader who helped turn laïcité from a fine democratic value into a justification for prejudice and discrimination.
Murder most foul has never helped humanity surmount complex problems. Back in 1914 one triggered a world war. Earlier, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln opened the door for a US President who actively paved the way for a new form of white supremacy in the South for the following 150 or so years, a domination that continues to plague a USA where Donald Trump asks those imbued with the same ideology to stand by.
In Belfast, the murders of Matilda Gould, John Scullion and Peter Ward in May and June of 1966 by the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force were the first in the 30 plus years of the Troubles. The killers were motivated by the confrontationist bigotry of the self-appointed fundamentalist Protestant pastor Ian Paisley, then a performing flea on the extremes of Northern Irish Unionism, but after the dust settled on the years of conflict, the region’s first minister.
It is easy for those who never lived in Catholic housing areas of Northern Ireland to think that the whole affair of the Troubles was just a matter of the IRA. Those first murders tell us that a very different can of worms was actually involved and that without taking it into account no one can make sense of what followed, of how the gun took over from mass demonstrations for civil rights, an end to discrimination against Catholics and democratic reform of a corrupting system. Violence and the rhetoric of confrontation locked out real change. So the flea became the boss.
Now, in France, the last 30 years have seen 293 deaths at the hands of those motivated one way or another by an Islamist violent ideology, almost all of these deaths having come in the last decade. In addition, 26 of the perpetrators have been killed.
There is no chance of an Islamist ever being elected into the Elysée, but this violence, like that triggered by the UVF, is becoming the fulcrum around which all other politics are constrained to revolve. And there is therefore every chance that either a leader from the far right, such as Marine Le Pen, will get voted in as President, or that the existing President, Emmanuel Macron, will try to out run her when it comes to targeting Islam rather than dealing with Islamist terrorism.
It will not be at all easy to shift the momentum behind this probable trajectory. The Islamist attacks in the 1990s were essentially an offshoot of the civil war in Algeria. In the first half of the last decade the perpetrators were French, born and brought up in France, but at the same time part of the international terrorist networks within which they were trained.
Mohammed Merah killed seven, including three children attending a Jewish school, in 2012. Then came the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the Bataclan slaughter in 2015. Merah was a solo operative. The 2015 killings were carried out by teams that were, like Merah, well armed and well trained. Their allegiance to international networks was clear.
Nearly all the others responsible for a steady trickle of attacks, most with fatal results, do not appear to fall into that description. Even Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, responsible for driving a truck along Nice’s Promenade des Anglais in 2016 and killing 86 people out on the 14 July holiday, seems to have been a lone wolf.
This makes identifying possible assailants much more difficult. The organised killers came out of the world of lost teenagers, petty drug dealers and criminals failed by the school system and the labour market who had “found” the Islamist world when in prison. The others are not dissimilar, some with an added history of psychiatric or relational problems for whom violent ideas were a refuge and a source of identity, like the killer of the teacher Samuel Paty, Abdoullakh Anzorov, who was an active practitioner of mixed martial arts.
The French authorities have talked a lot about working out how to predict who will become “radicalised” in order to head off attacks. At times this has got a bit ridiculous with ministers talking about a perpetrator “radicalising suddenly” to explain away the failure to spot them in advance. It is also the case that most of the Islamist terrorists have been somewhere or other in the intelligence and police records before they actually acted.
Some of the security gaffs have been gross. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s large lorry was seen on Nice’s CCTV repeatedly entering areas forbidden to such vehicles in a couple of days before 14 July 2016. As the latest round of gruesome murders has been playing out, we have also had the trial in Paris of the alleged associates of the Charlie Hebdo killers. One of those in the dock has been a sinister figure who combined in his life far right politics, crime, undercover arms dealing and working as a police informer.
No society can do without effective security against terrorism. But that is not what France has. Its intelligence services are divided. Its police forces are uncoordinated and their relationships with the communities from which these killers have emerged is, in any case, one of confrontation not one of cooperation.
But effective security is never about upping the ante when it comes to police and military action or yet more draconian laws. It is about the combination that enables a physical security and intelligence system to be part of a democracy in which the operation of the law and policing can be both accepted by all in the society and involve them actively in its workings.
No gendarme, however vigilant, will be able to spot from a fast moving patrol car the next suspect likely to “radicalise suddenly”. But a society in which that gendarme is not seen as a threat but an ally, is one where community intelligence can be formed and shared.
Of course, that is a long term change which the dominant politics in France set its face against at the start of this millennium when Nicolas Sarkozy decided that his best bet in a race for the presidency was to outpace the Front National of Jean-Marie Le Pen and dispense with any remnants of community policing still present in France and target immigrants as the greatest problem facing the country.
It is as long term as the restoration of the vital public, social and psychiatric services that would create positive lives for the young or repair those that have been damaged. All the perpetrators fall one way or the other into that bracket. The lesson one needs to draw from their histories is that these longer-term democratic and social actions to head off such life trajectories need to be started sooner rather than later.
Racism and laïcité
Two additional intertwined themes have to be addressed if one wants to get a handle on what is going on and why things are steadily going downhill at this particular moment in France. The first is the all-pervasive racism in France that has increasingly taken on the form of demonization of Muslims while never abandoning its traditional racist roots. The second is the problem of laïcité. One has to use the French word rather than the translation ‘secularism’ because what most English speakers understand by secularism is not what is currently meant by those brandishing laïcité in France.
One could argue that these have been brought together because, cynically, Macron sees it as a good way to get re-elected. There is a clear element of truth in this. Half way through his presidency he switched gear early in the summer, bringing in a new prime minister and reshuffling ministerial portfolios declaring they had 600 days to get things done before the next presidential poll.
A key figure in the changes is the Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin, someone for whom the issue of Islam is personal. His grandfather was what the French termed a harki, one of the locally recruited troops used by the French in the Algerian war. Many were killed in the aftermath of the French withdrawal. Tens of thousands fled to France where for decades they lived harassed lives in refugee camps, not wanted by any side, neither the victors nor the vanquished.
He has been given free rein by Macron to talk up confrontation, not just with a tiny Islamist terrorist fringe but with the Muslim community in France as a whole. He had always, he told us after Paty was beheaded, disagreed with the presence of halal food sections in French supermarkets.
What relevance the one had for the other is impossible to understand unless you take those two intertwined strands in French life.
The most recent survey of the experiences of those confronted by racist prejudice and discrimination, Racismes de France, was published just this October. The different authors draw together the evidence of the way discrimination and prejudice are at work across French life whether at school, in where you live, the work and pay you get or how the police treat you.
The most troubling evidence offered is the way in which the public authorities may accuse those who seek to point up these facts of being anti-Republican or in league with extremists, exactly the argument used these last few weeks against organisations that have criticised the pervasive Islamophobia in the country and the public practices that discriminate against Muslims.
A forceful essay on Communitarism: A spectre that haunts France argues that “The transformation of the victims of these social inequalities into the guilty party helps to obscure the development of a pyramidical society” in which the rich at the top live their separate lives in gated communities or Caribbean isles while the objective reality of social and racial segregation at the bottom of the pile is seized upon for a discourse about “the danger of communitarism” creating “a fantasm based upon fear” as in the term “the Republic’s lost neighbourhoods”.
This is the France in which 44 per cent of respondents in one major survey in 2018 ticked the box for “Islam is a menace for France’s identity”. Which is where the second theme, laïcité comes in.
It has its roots in the late nineteenth century contest against the role of the Catholic hierarchy in French life. Consolidated in a law in 1905, the end result was the exclusion of the Catholic church as an institution from controlling, or trying to control, everyone’s lives. The target was not individual Catholics, but the institution of power represented by the church and its hierarchy.
To grasp why this has gone wrong in modern France and its conflicts another good book to plunge into is La laïcité falsifiée, Laïcité falsified, by Jean Bauberot, one of the main established authors on the general topic. Published just before the terror attacks in 2015, its argument is direct.
He opens immediately with the statement: “The secular left finds itself put to the test. Laïcité, which seemed to constitute an essential element of its identity, is today brandished as a beacon by the hard right and the extreme right . . . Between the winter of 2010 and the autumn of 2011 the nature of laïcité profoundly changed. Marine Le Pen proclaimed herself champion of laïcité and played at rushing to rescue the law separating religion and the state.”
I remember watching the live broadcast of the speech she gave to a Front National conference at which she was declared leader, replacing her father Jean-Marie. She adopted a series of policy points that were of the left – playing Tony Blair’s triangulation game with deft swiftness – and then took on Islam. Its very presence appeared to be an affront to laïcité.
As Bauberot notes, the response of the ruling Gaullist Party of Sarkozy was to propose a “new laïcité” that trailed behind on the road Le Pen had carved out. Since then much of the traditional centre left has been dragged into line.
Let’s just take two moments to compare this “new laïcité”, now shared across much of the political spectrum from the far right to the centre left, with the old.
The starting point for the modern contest with the life of Muslims in France is usually taken as the decision over 30 years ago by two young students to go to school in their town of Creil to the north of Paris wearing hijabs. As the row over this developed, the then government sought the advice of the Council of State, the highest court when it comes to interpreting the law. For the council, the action by the two students was quite compatible with laïcité. In 2004 the matter was resolved by a law banning such things.
Fast forward to today. On 2 November, school students across France returned to their classrooms, despite the Covid lockdown, for lessons marked by what the Education minister calls a “reinforcement of the values of the Republic”. In supposed honour of a teacher, murdered because he showed the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Mohammed to his pupils, all school students will now be shown them.
What would Jean Jaurès say?
They were all given a reading from the writings of Jean Jaurès, one of the great founding figures of the modern left in France and himself a victim of murder most foul at the hands of a right wing nationalist as the war clouds were gathering in late July, 1914. The text was about education, but a crucial passage had been cut out by the Ministry of Education. No wonder when you look at the educational policies being enforced under Macron.
Jaurès’ censored passage, censored by a regime prating its undying commitment to freedom of speech, was this: “What a deplorable system we have in France with these exams at every turn that suppress the initiative of the teacher and the real content of teaching by sacrificing the reality for the appearance.”
Amid the calls for “war-time laws” (that’s from Marine Le Pen), for a new punishable offence of “separatism” (that’s from Macron) or a ban on “Islamo-Leftism” (that’s from possible presidential candidate for the mainstream right, Xavier Bertrand) Olivier Faure, the Socialist Party leader, offered this thought for those students and the Republican values they are to be taught:
“We need to be clear. For example all those who give themselves the right to contest a teaching or teaching in general must be taken before the courts every time. We, the left, have sometimes considered that toleration in respect of the weakest should also lead us to a form of toleration in respect of that which was intolerable. We are at a turning point. Too many arsonists are disguising themselves as fire fighters.”
Personally, I have never ceased to criticise religion. I did so at an English school in the days when the Bible was taught by the head teacher. But I do not want to insult and offend those individuals who hold religious beliefs. The two things seem necessarily separate to me. No one offended ever listens properly to criticism. What is happening now in France amounts to a hijacking of freedom of speech – a fundamental value for any just and democratic society – to make its defining purpose not just the possibility of provoking anger in others, but the necessity of doing so.
Just as the Islamist terrorists have been hijacking a religion in their pursuit of violence, domination and power. Their murders are making a complex catastrophe almost impossible to resolve. But that is no reason for others in France to join them in stoking the flames of conflict or for politicians to play with that fire in the hope of electoral dividends. For the only one who will benefit is that Far Right leader who completed the transformation of laïcité from a fine democratic value into a justification for prejudice and discrimination.