After the Paris killings
Le Monde Diplomatique
The guys from the ghetto
Once people are over the shock of the killings, once the feelings of indignation and powerlessness have dissipated and the only people still hurting are the victims’ immediate circle, the question remains — how, in a time of peace, can young Frenchmen have carried out such violent acts, choosing targets for their opinions, presumed religion or uniform? From the murders by Mohamed Merah in 2012 and the attack by Mehdi Nemmouche on the Jewish museum in Brussels last May, to the killings this January by Said and Cherif Kouachi, and Amedy Coulibaly, 28 people have been shot dead.
The sketchy information the press has gleaned about the killers gives some idea of lives in which social services and the juvenile justice system intervened early on, when family environments were judged inappropriate or inadequate; most spent time in hostels and foster families. Their education was of a pattern common among the least skilled of the working class: they gravitated towards technical courses (CAP, BEP, vocational baccalaureate) — which they did not always complete — though the general baccalaureate is now recognised as a minimum qualification.
To compensate for this educational relegation, some joined street gangs and got involved in their petty disorder. Stealing cars or scooters, driving without a licence, physical assault, verbal abuse, burglary and robbery with violence drew the attention of the police and courts, and Merah, Coulibaly and Nemmouche all went to prison for the first time when they were 19. Fresh offences after release led to the revocation of suspended sentences and longer prison terms; they spent a good part of their twenties in jail. The Kouachi brothers, who grew up in a village in the department of Corrèze, seem to have come only later to delinquency (receiving stolen goods or selling drugs, combined with precarious or black-market employment), when they moved to the Paris area in the early 2000s. Cherif went to prison in 2005-06 at the age of 23 for his involvement in an organisation sending volunteers to fight in Iraq.
All five espoused a vision of an Islam of heroic warriors (mujahideen), grand exploits and distant theatres of war. Some travelled to Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan or Yemen. Propaganda, preaching and initiation camps gave them a relatively simple worldview that made a coherent whole of their own experience of subjugation and that of other peoples (in Mali, Chechnya, Palestine), and a civilisational narrative blaming Jews and unbelievers for these ills. This idea of religion was attractive because it both made them aware of their situation and offered liberation from it, giving their lives a “higher” purpose.
The similarity of the killers’ lives has already prompted experts to try to classify their actions as “lumpen-terrorism” and “gangster-terrorism”. But the characteristics of those lives do not seem unusual, corresponding to those of the “suburban ghetto generation” to which the killers belong (they were all born in the 1980s), marked by exclusion, harder access to unskilled jobs, spatial segregation and police checks, social relations limited to their own ethnic group and diminishing interest in the political commitments of their elders.
What surprises is not so much the decision to commit such acts of violence as its rarity. “If radicalisation is a process,” write political sociologist Annie Collovald and political scientist Brigitte Gaïti, “we must trace it before we can explain it. That means moving away from why and asking how” (1). The exhortations of jihadist leaders to strike at France, the West or the Jewish community may have inspired those aspiring to rebellion, but did not trigger their actions. Sociologist Howard S Becker points out that the final decision to act is the last in a long series of decisions, none of which, in isolation, seem strange (2). Like historian Christopher Browning, who shows by what mechanisms (group conformity, depersonalisation of victims) the “ordinary men” of Germany’s 101st reserve police battalion were transformed into cold-blooded killers between July 1942 and November 1943 (3), we need to reconstruct the experiences particular to the lives of those who carried out the attacks and to the world they live in.
The attacks used skills these individuals had already learned: how to steal a car or procure, handle and use firearms is transferable knowledge. The method also reflected habits formed when they were mere delinquents: the reconnoitring was rough, the getaway plans only covered getting home, and when that was not possible, they wandered aimlessly. The only real requirements seemed to be the composure necessary to attack and the ability to drive fast. Even seeking a martyr’s death by firing at police was like the fate of Scarface in the Brian de Palma film, an idol of young ghetto-dwellers; or that of armed robber Jacques Mesrine, whose biography Merah was reading a few weeks before his death. Understanding the familiarity of these modes of action and their legitimacy in the eyes of those who use them is a major step towards understanding how they can be transferred to other targets, though it is not enough. Coulibaly’s desire to “get the police”, while the Kouachi brothers were attacking Charlie Hebdo, relates to his hatred for the organisation that killed his best friend, Ali Rezgui, in front of him in 2000, when the two men were loading a van with stolen motorbikes.
This political violence can be traced back to the Algerian civil war. The conflict triggered in 1991 by the cancellation of a general election in which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) had won the first round was extremely violent. By the early 2000s, clashes between the army and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) had killed tens of thousands and led to mass displacement. The war also affected Algerian families living in France, to which Merah, Nemmouche and the Kouachi brothers belonged. Abdelghani Merah, Mohammed’s elder brother, has written a book in which he describes holidays at Oued Bezzaz where their father’s family, who supported the GIA, showed off firearms and sometimes “a gendarme or a civilian with his head cut off”. He also describes pressure from an uncle in Toulouse for his sisters to “leave school, put on the Islamic veil and stay at home” (4). In France, religious injunctions can be at once a way of bringing children who are too liberated (in where they go, their choice of friends or the way they dress) back into line, and an expression of political support for armed groups, such as that of Djamel Beghal, whom Cherif Kouachi and Coulibaly met at the Fleury-Mérogis remand centre in 2005; he is said to have been their mentor. Born in 1965, Beghal was a member of the GIA’s support network in France, and was arrested for this in 1994. With Coulibaly and Cherif Kouachi, he was one of 14 suspected of having planned the failed prison escape in 2010 of Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, a munitions expert behind the 1995 Paris metro bombing. While in prison, Kouachi also met Farid Melouk, serving a sentence for providing logistical support to that attack.
To the lands of jihad
These meetings link the different generations of Islamic political militants, and make their choices part of a longer history of feats of arms, defeats and changes of direction (5). In 1995 the GIA hoped for military and political victory in Algeria. The bombing of public transport in Paris was intended to force the French government to reduce its support for the military regime. A few years later, the situation had changed. The GIA was defeated and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, founded in 1998, was weakening under the onslaught of the Algerian army — a political and territorial decline that explains its decision to merge with Al-Qaida in 2007, under the name Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and to change its strategy. It now focuses on operations in the Sahara, and Mali or Niger, such as the abduction of westerners. For militants living in France or other European countries, the cause has survived but takes a different route, with a shift to (or sometimes departure for) the “lands of jihad” or a switch to the “propaganda of the deed”.
The anarchists at the London conference of 1881 took this approach. The principle was simple: insurrectional acts (bombings, assassinations, sabotage, robbery) “are the most effective form of propaganda, and the only one capable of … penetrating the deepest layers of society” (6). It was used in Europe, the US and Russia to target government figures, police, judges, religious, political opponents and anonymous “bourgeois”. It aimed to punish those responsible (for judgments, torture) and to avenge fallen comrades or destroy symbols so as to awaken the masses. Some 130 years before Inspire, the magazine published by Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, called for the death of Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier, La Révolution sociale, La Lutte and Le Drapeau Noir published columns dedicated to bomb-making. In 1884 Le Droit Social launched an appeal for funds “for the purchase of a revolver to avenge the death of comrade Louis Chaves”, killed by French gendarmes.
Propaganda of the deed did not rouse the masses. Some acts were perceived favourably but failed to mobilise, and even distanced the working class from anarchist movements at a time when these were mercilessly repressed. The approach was abandoned in the early 20th century in favour of more collective action. It was later used with a similar lack of success by far-left movements (Action Directe in France, Red Army Faction in Germany, Red Brigades in Italy), and by supporters of the far right (Organisation Armée Secrète in France, Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber in the US in 1995, and Anders Behring Breivik, responsible for the Utøya massacre in Norway in 2011).
The attacks in France confirm the pattern. Despite Coulibaly’s exhortations in a posthumous video (“What do you do when they continue to insult the Prophet? What do you do when you see your brothers and your sisters starving?”), his “Muslim brothers” have overwhelmingly rejected his acts; subsequent attacks on mosques and physical assaults have made them collateral victims.
Not a war
Politicians forget the lessons of history when they adopt a warlike stance, as did France’s prime minister Manuel Valls, who told the National Assembly on 13 January: “France is at war with terrorism, jihadism and radical Islam.” Though tragic, the situation is not a war. It remains under the control of the police and judiciary. The perpetrators and accomplices were quickly neutralised or arrested, and it is reasonable to suppose that the same will happen if other acts of terrorism follow. There has never been a time when the risk was zero — even in the harshest police states, such as Pinochet’s Chile or Franco’s Spain.
Warlike talk assumes polarisation, since it rests on popular mobilisation against a common enemy. Though it can resonate when foreign armies attack national borders, it does not do so in times of peace. The difficulty some teachers in France had in making their pupils observe a minute’s silence on 8 January, and the social makeup of the huge demonstrations the following Sunday, show that the population was not unanimous. This is not surprising: the experience of the working class, particularly the young, is far closer to that of the killers than that of the politicians, or of the educated middle class who demonstrate. Discrimination (social, religious, racial or chauvinistic), social and spatial relegation, and police checks make it unlikely that a single movement will unite those who experience them, those who organise them and those who deplore them without worrying about it too much. Disruptive schoolchildren in Germany have claimed to be Nazis to shock their teachers; verbal support for the January attacks has given their French counterparts an excuse to protest against an educational and social order that excludes them.
Polarisation is counterproductive. There are two opposing discourses: that of the authorities (you’re either with us or with the “terrorists”) and that of the perpetrators of political violence (you’re either with us or you’re a bad Muslim/nationalist/revolutionary). But the “terrorist relationship” implies three participants: the clash between the first two takes place in front of the (often indifferent) majority, who become spectators thanks to the media. This distancing prevents the violence from spreading, especially when radical groups do not have a strong social or territorial base. Yet pressure to express unanimous condemnation can, by reaction, encourage a minority of spectators to sympathise with the objectives of the organisations targeted, or even join them. The risk increases if the exhortation is backed by legal or administrative measures to punish those who refuse.
(1) Annie Collovald and Brigitte Gaïti (eds), La Démocratie aux extremes: Sur la radicalisation politique, La Dispute, Paris, 2006.
(2) See Howard S Becker, Tricks of the Trade, University of Chicago Press, 1998.
(3) See Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, HarperCollins, New York, 1992.
(4) Abdelghani Merah with Mohamed Sifaoui, Mon frère, ce terroriste (My Brother the Terrorist), Calmann-Lévy, Paris, 2012.
(5) Similar mechanisms can be seen at work in other clandestine movements. See Laurent Bonelli, “The secret lives of terrorists”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, October 2011.
(6) Letter from Carlo Cafiero to Errico Malatesta, quoted in Bulletin de la Fédération jurassienne, no 49, Sonvillier, Switzerland, 3 December 1876.
Are you Charlie or not?
Everyone feared, but nobody imagined, events would turn out as they did: on 9 January, footballer Abdelhamid el-Kaoutari, who plays for Montpellier, did not wear a “Je suis Charlie” top for the warm-up before the match against Olympique de Marseille. The social networks buzzed. Montpellier’s trainer Rolland Courbis was summoned to explain on Canal Plus television a couple of days later, and then three Valenciennes players said they would only wear the top if they could cover up the words “Je suis”. On the Afterfoot show on RMC, presenter Gilbert Brisbois said: “We’ve been fighting for freedom of speech for a week. Let them speak, and let’s hear what they have to say.” Journalist Daniel Riolo blurted out: “All the idiots will be using freedom of speech as an excuse for all kinds of stupid things.”
To be or not to be Charlie? In the week after the Paris killings, that was the question on everyone’s lips. Le Monde headlined “Suburbs split between ‘Charlie’ and ‘Not Charlie'”. The cover of Aujourd’hui en France had a torn “Je suis Charlie” placard, warning of the risk of division. We were not only being told to choose a side, but also to accept the existence of this dividing line. Journalist Nathalie Saint-Cricq said on France 2: “It’s those who are ‘not Charlie’ whom we must … identify, treat and integrate or reintegrate into the national community”. They will avoid Guantanamo, she said, but not the summons to take sides, either “with us or with the terrorists”: slogans of this kind tend to foster extravagant confrontations and explosive debates.
Takfirist ideologues dream of dividing the populations of European countries into “whites” living in fear of Islamism and a “Muslim” fringe, radicalised by racism and western interventions. The foundations have long been laid for society to reorganise according to “values” and identities rather than social forces and interests; for a widening divide to separate the victims of austerity according to their beliefs (see Where do you come from?). Yet a few obstacles remain. If politics is to be replaced by a clash of cultures, the intellectual petty bourgeoisie (sitting on the fence, as it often does) must go over to the reactionary camp. This social group has an ambiguous relationship with the immigrant proletariat: it combines a desire for cultural cross-fertilisation with social domination, it loves urban diversity but prefers residential segregation, it claims to be anti-racist but is ethnocentrist, it is against exclusion but affirms intransigent secularism. As a pillar of the artistic and cultural world, it plays a key role in framing public tastes and opinions, so its involvement in the clash of civilisations would be decisive.
This strategy of tension is unintentionally maintained by the media and by those obsessed with re-centring the public debate on a choice between “Charlie” or “Not Charlie” — we are told freedom of speech, democracy, tolerance and courage are “Charlie”; barbarism, terror, fanaticism and intolerance are “Not Charlie” — no “yes, buts”. “This relativist discourse, this petty cowardice, of ‘buts’, is what we have been fighting for years,” said Richard Malka, Charlie Hebdo‘s lawyer. “And this is what we must no longer tolerate, as of today.” Let those who raise the embarrassing question of double standards on the freedom of communication of ideas and opinions beware. Journalist Thomas Legrand said on France Inter: “Should we condemn Dieudonné when that would risk making him a victim?” (The comedian was arrested and is to be tried for glorifying terrorism because of a bad joke.) Such a question was in the spirit of Munich — weakness, culpable negligence, self-abasement, he added, referring to the 1938 Daladier/Chamberlain agreement with Hitler.
Marchers more nuanced
It is a safe bet that the millions of people angered and shocked by the killings did not recognise themselves in this divide, and whether they had a “Je suis Charlie” placard or not, whether they took part in the huge demonstrations of 11 January or not, many will have experienced an organic feeling of fraternity, without being deceived by the images of crowds with tricolour flags, singing the Marseillaise and cheering the police, broadcast on a loop. The marchers’ convictions were less homogeneous than those of the tearful guests appearing on television. It was clear that the crowd had different interpretations of the meaning of “being Charlie” — universal harmony for some, “Arabs out!” for (a few) others.
The information levels peaked. On 9 January, the mainstream television channel TF1 was indistinguishable from BFM TV, the 24-hour news channel. TF1 abandoned its regular programming and broadcast live all day. Europe 1’s special edition lasted for four days. Some hours after the killings, a France 2 anchorman started the evening news programme: “History will record that…” In a 24-hours news regime, the struggle to interpret events began during those events. The news media were quick to fill the screen with the spontaneous philosophising of their editorial teams. They demonstrated their instinct for order and decorum with images of 44 heads of state and government marching shoulder to shoulder. France 2 felt it was crucial to replay the footage in slow motion, to syrupy music, with a freeze frame of German chancellor Angela Merkel leaning on the shoulder of France’s president François Hollande.
Depicted as vulgar when they demonstrate for social rights, the crowds were glamorised on the cover of the Nouvel Observateur in an updated version of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. Libération showed a young black boy with a sad face and a “Je suis Charlie” sticker on his cheek watching the crowds from atop the Statue of the Republic, a Potemkin choice of image given the under-representation of this entire section of the population in the Paris marches. Reporting live on France Info, Etienne Monin said: “In the midst of this demonstration, we have a moment of grace, a shining image of… er… spontaneous beauty — a young couple, a girl with sad blue eyes, and a good-looking mixed race boy.”
The media’s tributes to themselves turned everything upside down. “People are celebrating the memory of Charb, of Tignous, Cabu, Honoré and Wolinski: they wouldn’t have given a shit,” wrote cartoonist Luz, a surviving member of the Charlie Hebdo team (www.lesinrocks.com). French commentators honoured bad taste with fine sentiments, mourning the anarchist cartoonists with a march organised by the interior minister and blessed by the Pope, NATO, the French Football Federation and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Forty-eight hours later, the media reported, without questioning them, the prison sentences of teenagers, a drunk and a man suffering from mental illness, found guilty of verbal misdemeanours under recently tightened legislation. (What would have happened if prime minister Manuel Valls had seen the cover of Charlie Hebdo‘s 18 December 1975 issue, which celebrated Christmas by exhorting its readers to “shit in the crèches, put the handicapped out of their misery, shoot the soldiers, strangle the priests, flatten the cops and burn the banks”?)
The regional press seemed less inspired. On 9 January, ten papers carried the headline “The manhunt”; on 12 January, eight had “Historic” (of the marches). This celebration of pluralism within unanimity was given spice by media events on 7 January, when the “community of [newspaper] publishers” (10 employers’ associations) declared it would “never give in to threats and intimidation over the inviolable principles of freedom of speech”, while billionaire Patrick Drahi, co-owner of Libération, confirmed his intention of buying the magazines L’Express and L’Expansion.
While Libération was striving to “bandage the Republic” with fine concepts — citizenship, secularism, education, justice — but without spending any money, neoliberal economist Nicolas Baverez was repeating that “national unity must be prolonged to combat Islamism, but also to allow the implementation of economic and social reforms,” which include “the liberalisation of the labour market.” Freedom of speech is definitely unharmed.
Where do you come from?
The day after the Paris murders, some secondary school students refused to observe a minute of silence for the victims, arguing that there are double standards about freedom of expression in France. Why did this attack get so much attention when people were dying unreported in the Middle East? Why was Charlie Hebdo free to insult a figure sacred in Islam, when the comedian Dieudonné is not allowed to criticise Jews? The French government took these questions so seriously that on 15 January the education minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, announced it would train teachers to help them reply.
That training may use the argument developed by media and political parties since the early cartoons: there is a difference between blasphemous drawings that insult the divine, and anti-Semitic remarks that constitute a criminal offence because they “infringe personal dignity”. That probably won’t satisfy all the rebels, for the cases of Dieudonné and the cartoons mask a deeper problem: columnists and intellectuals such as Alain Finkielkraut, Eric Zemmour and Philippe Tesson, and newspapers and magazines including Le Point, L’Express, Valeurs actuelles and Le Figaro, are able to loudly reject Islam, either as a backward belief or a “threat to our nation’s identity” (to quote a survey by the rightwing news website Atlantico.fr, which it is hard to imagine discussing any other religion in the same terms). The ethnologist Jean-Loup Amselle says: “Dieudonné is popular because he claims you can say anything about blacks, Arabs and Muslims — ‘inferiors’ — but it’s almost impossible … to touch a single hair on the head of a Jew or criticise Israel without immediately being labelled anti-Semitic” (1).
This inequality in freedom of speech is understood in different ways. For some people, the need to guard against the holocaust and anti-Semitism comes first. For others, the inequality reflects an Islamophobia deeply rooted in the colonial past, which makes anti-Muslim comments seem acceptable. Conspiracy theorists see a supposed Jewish control over the media and politics: by encouraging hatred of Islam, the “Jewish lobby” legitimises western intervention in the Arab world to help Israel or the US. That line (published on the websites of Alain Soral and Thierry Meyssan) is ever more popular. It fills the theoretical and political vacuum left by the decline of progressive parties.
These interpretations, however dissimilar, are based on a single ethno-cultural approach that defines social groups according to their origin or religion (Jews, Muslims, Arabs, etc). Yet the double standards on freedom of speech are quite different, and essentially societal. There have been Jews in France since the first centuries of the Christian era; many more settled between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the second world war, fleeing the pogroms and then the rise of Nazism. After 1945 a new wave followed the decolonisation of North Africa. The Jews who arrived between the wars were workers, artisans or small shopkeepers, and often lived in run-down areas where they faced racism. Like many political refugees, they had an above-average education (as do refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and Africa). Over the decades, some of their descendants rose to positions of power in journalism, politics and academia — the circles that produce, guide and control public discourse.
Waves of incomers
Muslim immigrants arrived in France after the second world war, mostly in the 1960s, first from North Africa and then from sub-Saharan Africa (sometimes recruited by industry according to physical criteria). Their children and grandchildren grew up in a society hit by mass unemployment and lack of job security of which they were the first victims, reducing their chances of upward mobility. While some have succeeded in reaching the middle, or even upper classes, they are poorly represented at the top. Foreigners and French Muslims are often attacked in the media or by political leaders; and their inability to defend themselves publicly allows xenophobic discourse to go unchecked. It’s not by chance that the Roma, the group with the fewest resources, are the subject of the most virulent attacks by everybody from the former far-right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who talked of their “odorous and irritating presence”, to prime minister Manuel Valls, who has said that “the majority of Roma cannot fit in, in France” and should “go home”.
The present situation of Jews and Muslims echoes that of Russian and Armenian immigrants between the wars. Russians migrated to France after the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, and by 1931 there were 72,000. Most had jobs in the car industry or as taxi drivers, and were working-class, but there was an elite (often from the nobility or the bourgeoisie) that included painters, journalists, publishers and writers, who became so well integrated into the Parisian cultural scene that there was a “Russian fashion” in the 1920s. All Russian immigrants benefitted from this, with preferential treatment that sheltered them from the disdain towards other immigrants.
Armenians arrived in France after the 1915 genocide and almost all took unqualified jobs. There were only 17,000 in 1931, and they were seen as “impossible to assimilate”. “The Russians may be very different from the French in many respects, but they generally have a level of culture that permits contact. However, with Armenians even that contact is difficult,” said Georges Mauco, the brains behind French immigration policy during the 1930s and under the Vichy regime (2). Social status is a powerful determinant in the perception of migrants and their descendants. And yet in the past 30 years, this has given way to a cultural analysis, which examines immigration according to origin.
The turning point was between 1977 and 1984. People talked about immigration during the three previous decades, and the media mentioned foreigners when discussing housing, employment or the economy (not the same as the media attitude of the 1930s when the right welcomed the contribution of foreign workers). When five African workers were asphyxiated in their sleep by smoke in their hostel in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers, Le Figaro asked, in a compassionate tone it has long since lost, “Who is caring for the health of these unfortunate migrants? They sweep our streets when the gutters are frozen, and then are sapped by tuberculosis, or carbon monoxide… We must urgently find a solution.”
The ‘Muslim problem’
The situation changed with the 1975 economic crisis, and even more with François Mitterrand’s election. In three years “immigrant workers” gave way to “the Arab problem” and the “second generation”, and by extension, Muslims. Events previously analysed in social terms were now analysed from an ethnic angle.
In July 1981, young people clashed with the police in the Lyon suburbs. There had been incidents in 1976 and in 1979, which the local press had relegated to miscellaneous news. In 1981 the right was in opposition, and capitalised on the event to weaken the leftwing government, which had just granted legal status to 100,000 illegal immigrants. The right turned the clashes into a social issue and a sign of the “immigration problem” even though the incident was a result of the physical and social deterioration of housing estates and the enforced idleness of young people during a time of high unemployment and massive lay-offs of manual workers. According to Le Figaro, “The situation is becoming explosive in neighbourhoods with a high population density of North Africans. By ceasing to deport doubtful individuals, the government is encouraging delinquency” (7 July 1981). From then on, Le Figaro exploited what the historian Gérard Noiriel calls “the national security theme”, denouncing the legalisation of illegal immigrants for “leaving our country wide open to invasion and risk” (22 September 1981), the “bands of hooligans … mainly of North African origin” or “the immigrants’ law” that supposedly reigned in the neighbourhood.
Religion was added to the mix during the strikes in the car industry — a sector badly hit by the economic crisis, where foreign labour made up more than half the workforce. The strike movement began in 1981 and peaked in 1983-84. It started as a labour conflict, not unlike the spontaneous strike movement after the victory of the Popular Front leftwing alliance in 1936, but then started to be seen as a clash of cultures. On the pretext that the strikers were demanding places of worship in the factories — encouraged by employers in the 1970s, who saw it as a way of achieving social harmony — the government and the press accused the strikers of being manipulated by Iranian ayatollahs. The workers “are agitated by religious and political groups, whose motives have little to do with French social realities,” said the Socialist prime minister Pierre Mauroy in 1983. Le Figaro added: “The more optimistic among us are counting on the foreigners’ capacity to be assimilated, as in the past with the Italian and Portuguese communities. Unfortunately that example is no longer valid because the cultural origins of these new immigrants are a difficult obstacle to overcome.” The Portuguese hadn’t always had such a good press, as their conspicuous religious practices were held against them; between the wars they were described as “an exotic race”, harder to integrate than the Italians — who were deemed to be less easy to integrate than the Belgians.
In 1980 the left responded to attacks on North African immigrants by emphasising “beur culture” (beur is non-racist slang for Arab, describing second-generation North Africans), inverting rightwing culturalist discourse. Libération, which played an active role, launched a “Beur” column in 1982, with information about cultural events supposedly of interest to this “community”. It actively supported the March for Equality and against Racism — which it renamed the Beur March, distorting its meaning — and supported the establishment of the anti-racist organisation SOS Racisme by sympathisers of the Socialist Party, replacing the fight for equality with the fight against discrimination. Le Monde was delighted in July 1983 that “the children of second generation of immigrants are taking possession of music, cinema and the theatre”, while the magazine Marie-Claire celebrated the “Best of the Beurs” in April 1984. But while beur elite culture gained legitimacy, the people at the bottom, whose living conditions were deteriorating with de-industrialisation, remained stigmatised.
In less than three years, the debate about immigration was rid of social content. Since then, foreigners and their descendants have been reminded of their “community” and their religion, deepening the gulf between them and “native” French people. Subjects directly related to immigration (such as racism or discrimination) are treated as cultural issues, fuelling prejudices, the illusion of the “clash of civilisations” and the surge in support for the far right. Any geopolitical, social or even sporting event involving a majority of Arabs or Muslims revives the debate about Islam, immigration and immigrants’ role in the Republic, whether it is the Gulf war, 9/11, the Israel-Palestine conflict, clashes between young people and police in the suburbs, or football players of Algerian origin not singing the Marseillaise.
A constructed community
But the feeling of belonging to an Arab or Muslim “community” is not natural. It emerged as public policy developed (with the creation of organisations such as the Union of Islamic Organisations of France, in 1983, the public financing of Islamic associations) and as a result of events that took immigrants back to their origins. The Gulf war (1990-91) was key: as the allied bombers took off for Baghdad, a few secondary school students denounced the West and asserted their solidarity with the Arab world. “Saddam is an Arab and being ostracised by everyone, like we are on our housing estates,” said one. Such minority reactions provoked a debate about the loyalty of children of immigrants. Le Figaro Magazine wrote: “The beur from Saint-Denis will always feel closer to his brothers who boo the French in the streets of Algiers and Tunis” (25 January 1991). The children of immigrants reacted by flaunting their disparaged origins and religion. According to sociologists Stéphane Beaud and Olivier Masclet, the Gulf war “played an important role in the construction of a more ‘radical’ rather than ‘social’ awareness in the children of North African immigrants, especially since they are more inclined to view society as a series of opposites: them/us, westerners/Arabs, French/immigrants, rich/poor, etc, because they are marked by their experience of being typecast” (3).
The idea that black and Arab populations are a new problem in the history of immigration has permeated the political spectrum. It even divides the radical left, where some see “post-colonial” immigrants as a unique group including in the way they are perceived by “whites”. The “Appel des Indigènes de la République” (Call to the natives of the Republic) appeal in 2005 said that “the treatment of people from the former French colonies is an extension of colonial policy.” Sadri Khiari, a founder, said: “It’s as Arabs, blacks or Muslims that people from the former colonies are discriminated against … the specific violence targeting black people and Arabs, or which they carry in their collective memory as descendants of colonised peoples and emigrants/immigrants … determines the nature of their specific demands, like those relating to racial discrimination, respect for their parents, the repeal of the double punishment law [foreign offenders may be expelled after serving their sentence], and, for Muslims, the right to have dignified places of worship and to wear the veil. Even when their demands are identical to those of their white neighbours, they’ll be considered different” (4).
This makes for competition among legitimate causes (of the “whites” and of the “minorities”). Is discrimination against black people and Arabs because of their colour, or because they are poor? Racial bias in checking IDs, the cause of frequent clashes between young people and the police, sheds light on this. In 2007-08, two sociologists followed police patrols at the Gare du Nord and Châtelet-les-Halles metro stations in Paris. They examined 525 ID checks and observed that people identified as “black” or “Arab” were respectively 6 and 7.8 times more likely to be checked than whites. There was another important variable: clothing. People dressed counter-culturally, especially those with a “hip-hop appearance”, were 11.4 times more likely to have their papers checked than those in city or casual clothes. A white male in a hoodie and baseball cap (the uniform of working class suburban youth) was more likely to be harassed than a black man in a suit.
The borderline between these variables is far from static. Young people of immigrant origin are over-represented in the “hip-hop” category. Racial discrimination is added to social inequality, reinforcing it until they become impossible to dissociate. The decision to emphasise any criterion (skin colour or class) is both political and strategic. It helps define the divisions in French society. Stressing the social components of inequality would combat the idea that people of North African or African origin create a specific problem that has nothing to do with previous waves of immigration or the working class as a whole.
Myth and reality
French Jews were shocked when Amedy Coulibaly murdered four hostages in a Parisian kosher supermarket. After the kidnapping and murder of Ilan Halimi in 2006 by Youssouf Fofana, and the killings by Mohamed Merah at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, many see this as a new wave of anti-Semitism sweeping across France.
It is understandable that emotions may obstruct reason. Less understandable is that many analysts are misinterpreting the evidence. It is necessary to distinguish between anti-Semitic opinions and anti-Semitic acts, and there is nothing to show that such opinions have significantly increased. All the serious surveys — especially the annual one by France’s National Human Rights Consultative Committee (CNCDH) for its report on racism and anti-Semitism — reveal a marginal phenomenon, unlike that against the Roma, and Islamophobia, which have both become rampant. The CNCDH’s latest report concludes that “Jews are by far the best accepted minority in France today”. Although their acceptance index has fallen six points since 2009, when it reached a record 85 out of 100, it is still far above levels for all other groups, six points above that for black people, 21 above immigrants of North African origin and 28 points above Muslims.
Anti-Jewish sentiment is unevenly spread across the population. The French thinktank Fondapol (Fondation pour l’Innovation Politique) published a survey last November claiming that Muslims are more inclined towards anti-Semitism than the rest of the population. But the sample only had 575 respondents, and it is questionable to have assessed them according to six “prejudices”: “Jews today are exploiting their status as second world war Nazi genocide victims”; “Jews have too much power in the economy and in the financial sector”; “Jews have too much power in the media”; “Jews have too much power in politics”; “There is a world-wide Zionist plot”; and “Jews are responsible for the current economic crisis”.
But though anti-Semitic opinion is not widespread, the rise in anti-Semitic acts since 2000 is undeniable. French interior ministry statistics show the first wave was in 2002, when racist violence increased four-fold, and specifically anti-Semitic violence rose six-fold. Both figures have been up and down since then but have never fallen to 1990s levels; and they have peaked in the last three years. In January-July 2014, the Jewish Community Protection Service (SPCJ) recorded a 91% increase on 2013, with 527 acts of violence as compared with 276.
This chronology shows that the spurts of violence correspond to the worst episodes in the Israel-Palestine conflict. In July and August 2014, as during the second Intifada, a television audience of millions was confronted daily with images of the bombing of the Gaza Strip and crimes by Israeli soldiers. One might rightly say those had nothing to do with French Jews. But the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) fully supports the Israeli government, and so contributes to further confusing Israelis with Jews in public perception. Worse, François Hollande’s early alignment with Binyamin Netanyahu lent credence to the idea of a “Jewish lobby” powerful enough to shift French foreign policy.
The Middle East isn’t the only thing inciting attacks on Jews. There is also the role of, among others, the comedian Dieudonné and the polemicist Alain Soral, whose anti-Semitism is more virulent for being cloaked by their own “persecution”, which helps cover their collusion with the far right.
Even if the fears of French Jews are not real, they weigh heavily, as proved by the number of emigrants to Israel, which has trebled in recent years. For a long time numbers stood at about 1,500 a year but they rose to 7,000 in 2014, which is more than 1% of the estimated number of Jews in France. The Israeli government claims that 10,000 are expected this year. Like Ariel Sharon before him, Netanyahu has exhorted his “brothers” to leave France and come to Israel, going as far as to compare their situation to that of the Jews in Spain on the eve of their expulsion in 1492 (1).
Emotion and fear are driving some to leave, but this aliyah (“ascent” in Hebrew) is deeply paradoxical; they are leaving the first country in history to emancipate Jews, for a country where the danger to them is omnipresent.
(1) The Times of Israel, 15 January 2015.
The new Arab cold war
Hicham Ben Abdallah El Alaoui
All across the Middle East, political regimes are inflaming regional tensions to deflect attention from their own domestic problems. Motivated, as always, by the imperatives of their own security and survival, they have fuelled escalating tensions and conflicts while ignoring the fundamental demands of their own citizens and their desire for dignity. It was those demands which ignited the Arab Spring that began in December 2010.
The Middle East is experiencing what many have dubbed a new regional cold war, with sometimes contradictory fronts. The first conflict is being waged over the Muslim Brotherhood and the transnational scope of its Islamist ideology; the second takes the form of a struggle between Sunni and Shia. It is not the first time such conflicts have incited carnage, but this is certainly the deadliest.
The states engaged in this new regional cold war fall into two categories. Countries such as Jordan, Iran and Egypt have put a stop to political reforms, either promised or underway, which would have increased popular participation and put their regimes further down the road to democracy. States such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have simply deferred any project for structural reform.
Unlike in the cold war of the 20th century, few if any of these states have a viable ideology or blueprint for the future. Their only aim is to survive, by keeping their existing structures of domestic power intact. There is, of course, another way these regimes could survive. They could draw on their traditional legitimacy, and their human and financial resources, to respond to the popular aspirations of their societies. Four years ago, it was their deafness to those aspirations that sparked the Arab Spring across much of the region. But rather than pay the steep costs of such reform, their reflex is to focus on flashpoints of regional tension and conflict in the region. This has resulted in the violent conflagrations witnessed in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
Egypt’s problems worsen
The Sissi government in Egypt is not just perpetuating the authoritarian system of Hosni Mubarak; it is making it worse. If Abdel Fattah Sissi’s desire to increase his power mirrors his predecessor’s, so too do the economic and social problems he faces — problems that toppled his predecessor in January 2011. The only winner of Egypt’s stalled transition is the military. The Arab world’s largest country remains far from settled, since the siege mentality of the Egyptian state makes it incapable of detecting the social currents rumbling beneath the surface, ready to mobilise again.
Widespread joblessness, poverty and inequality, combined with a bulging youth demographic, helped spark the popular protests that overturned Mubarak’s rule four years ago. These problems remain. The state-driven development strategy envisioned by Sissi may have populist overtones, but it cannot succeed as long as the army remains a leading economic force with its own financial and political interests. Large-scale projects like the new Suez Canal seem impressive on paper, but they are no panacea for what Egypt has needed for decades — a thriving private-sector economy that coexists with a more efficient public sector, underpinned by an upgraded educational system and better infrastructure.
The closed political system has not improved matters. The Egyptian state has become Balkanised. Without a unified apparatus, pockets of autonomy are appearing that affect the security and judicial organs. This state of affairs has been to Sissi’s advantage as it has allowed legal and police institutions to invade the public sphere, repress the media and eviscerate civil society, discouraging a truly national opposition movement. It has also distanced society from the state, which sees the people not as a constituency to serve and protect, but as a threat requiring constant supervision. This does not bode well for the future.
On coming to power Sissi enjoyed some popularity among secular Egyptians afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood. But that does not mean he has a popular social base that will support him during any new crisis. Mubarak relied on the hegemonic National Democratic Party (NDP) to help keep him in power for nearly three decades — though in the end even the NDP could not prevent the January revolution. Sissi has not created any organisational infrastructure of that sort, relying instead on the bunker mentality of the authoritarian state.
In this situation, the regime prefers to engage in regional battles. Since the July 2013 coup against Mohammed Morsi, Egypt has led neighbouring countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan in a sustained campaign to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, starting with its own Egyptian organisation. This hasn’t been so violently suppressed since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-70): most of its leaders have now either fled the country or languish in jail, thousands of its activists have been killed by security forces, and tens of thousands are still detained, awaiting mass show trials. While Qatar has attempted to support the Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates (UAE) see it as a threat; they have given billions of dollars in economic aid since the coup to alleviate Egypt’s financial crisis, despite growing friction with Qatar. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has reacted much as it did in the 1960s, when it felt surrounded by the twin forces of Nasserism and Baathism. The Saudi regime sees the Brotherhood as a transnational threat that could overtake the Gulf.
Influxes of Gulf aid are not the solution however, not least because they create more regional tension in the Arabian peninsula. Within Egypt, such immense cash handouts result in higher inflation. They also worsen the regime’s rentier dependency, discouraging it from making necessary, and costly, economic reforms.
Rival claims in Yemen
As Egypt slides into authoritarianism, Syria, Iraq and Yemen are suffering from the traumatic effects of violence and war. Vicious contestation in these countries involves other regional actors who would rather fuel regional conflict than deal with their domestic problems.
In Yemen, Ansar Allah, which represents the Houthi insurgent movement, overcame all resistance and last September gained control of the capital, Sanaa (1). The Houthis are aligned with the Zaydi faith, an early offshoot of Shia Islam. The military from the old authoritarian order deliberately opened the way to militia offensives, and put up no resistance. Established opposition forces, such as the Islah Party, were quickly outmanoeuvred by the Houthi leaders. Meanwhile, centrifugal forces have been tearing the state apart in other parts of the country, such as the separatist conflicts in the Hadramaut and the south. With ongoing street protests, the political situation remains uncertain.
The Houthis barely registered on the western radar until a few years ago. And many Sunnis considered the Zaydi faith so close to Sunni doctrine that they called it the fifth school of Islamic jurisprudence. Yet the Houthis have received steady support and legitimation from Iran, which sees Yemen as an arena of competition with Saudi Arabia, which has traditionally considered Yemen as an extension of its own territory.
This has resulted in a transnational alliance of religious minorities, much as happened in Lebanon and Syria. The Alawites of Syria are now considered part of the Shia landscape, and so warrant Hizbullah’s intervention on behalf of the Assad regime. In a similar way, Iranian patronage has given Ansar Allah Shia credentials that place it squarely on the Iranian side of the regional sectarian conflict. Iran has also provided the financial and military resources to make the Zaydi movement a state actor, much like Hizbullah.
Syria’s scorched earth
Syria was among the first countries to see peaceful protests during the Arab Spring. That moment of democratic possibility is long gone, replaced by civil war, humanitarian disaster and a wartime economy. The Assad regime now has only a semblance of sovereignty, controlling the territory it still holds outside Damascus through military checkpoints, rather than any proper legal and civil presence. Unable to provide social and economic services at the most basic level of governance, the Syrian state has lost much of its infrastructure. On the other side, foreign opposition groups have been transformed into military occupation forces. These armed forces are extremely diverse (something the western media often overlooks). IS (Islamic State) is not Al-Nusra.
These actors are not unified. In Syria, IS is not so much a united organisation aspiring to be a formal state as a jihadist confederation attempting to become an empire. Much like the Ottomans, IS administers its territory by outsourcing the functions of governance to local actors. Its functional capability has proved limited in terms of a centralised state. The gruesome beheadings seen in the news are not the product of any new sharia legal system implemented as a sign of a new political order. Rather, they are a carefully managed public relations campaign to gain new recruits.
Herein lies IS’s fundamental flaw. Because of its quasi-imperial framework, it lacks the institutional capacity to function like a state, such as institutional organisation and taxation. Its model is one of bounties, in which combatants compete for spoils. This works well in the countryside, but cannot run cities.
In this chaos, the Assad regime has adopted a simple strategy — to exist. It does not need to conquer territory back to win this war. Having lost all credibility, it cannot now change course by pursuing the political reforms demanded of it earlier. But as long as it does not collapse, it can claim a perverse victory. This explains its scorched earth policy. No longer intent on preserving the old Syria, regime forces now simply destroy cities and towns where opposition groups dominate, on the premise that if Damascus cannot have it, nor can anyone else.
This slaughterhouse is largely the product of external aggravation: the regional interventions in Syria are well known. The US leads a coalition of western and Arab partners to bomb IS, which in turn helps the same autocratic regimes it declares to be illegitimate. Among those partners are Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. For its part, Assad’s regime relies on economic and military assistance from Hizbullah and Iran, and the complicity of Russia.
Before the rise of IS and Al-Nusra, these Sunni Arab states associated Syria with a “Shia crescent” extending from Lebanon to Iran, and sought to dislodge Bashar al-Assad, fuelling sectarian prejudice among their own populations. Now they have been forced to change course and deal with the jihadist problem. Only Iran has maintained a consistent position in supporting the Syrian regime. This shows the evolution of its revolutionary imperative: unable to spread their own revolution of 1979, Iranian leaders have penetrated the Middle East scene through geopolitics, taking advantage of regional tensions during this new cold war.
This sectarian discourse must, however, be treated with prudence. IS is not the product of any Sunni-Shia divide, even though its fighters have declared a campaign against Shia Muslims. Many of the youth drawn to fight in Syria are the products not of religious indoctrination, but of disastrous policies in which social inequalities, economic lethargy and political impasse work together to rob ordinary people of their dignity.
Almost every Arab country has contributed volunteers to IS, with Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt leading the way. Ironically, some of these countries are the ones that most want to wipe out IS. This domestic lesson upends the conventional wisdom on terror and extremism: it has long been held that radical terrorists can be held in check by reducing their manpower, financing and sanctuaries. IS proves this is not so: violent extremism can emerge from almost nothing. Years after the West believed it had beaten Al-Qaida, it now confronts an Al-Qaida Mark 2, more centred on territory.
Iraq: Sunni versus Shia
IS is of course active in Iraq too, but its rise there is obscuring more elementary issues of social dislocation and political inequality. IS is part of a broader pattern of Sunni resistance and uprising against the abuses of the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad installed by the US after 2003. For many Sunni Iraqis the potential violence of IS seems no greater a threat than the brutalities committed by Shia militias aligned with various political figures, such as the former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Many Sunnis felt betrayed after the sahwa (awakening) and “surge” of supplementary US forces under General David Petraeus, which helped stabilise the country in 2007.
Yet even in Iraq the sectarian element needs to be considered with sensitivity. Iranian connections to Iraq’s post-war government amplified and encouraged sectarian discrimination which the US did little to stop, and which has now reached levels seldom seen in modern Iraqi history. Exploited and exaggerated by the regional climate, the sectarian division in Iraq combines a real social rift with geopolitical meddling, resulting in a far worse outcome.
Syria and Iraq reveal another powerful shift in social realities. Before the Arab Spring, citizens were subjects who were expected to give unconditional allegiance to the state. But with the breakdown of state authority (in both countries and in parts of Egypt and Yemen), ordinary people are now looking for security from local actors, neighbourhoods, militias and movements, rather than the state.
Lessons from the Arab Spring
Different actors are driving regional divisions, but the common thread is clear. The Sunni Arab coalition countries are concerned not just about regional opponents, such as Iran, or ideological threats, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. They see another threat — their own societies — and they treat dissenting domestic voices with suspicion. By ignoring the lessons of the Arab Spring — to look at their own societies and deal with mass demands for freedom and dignity in a meaningful way — these regimes are choosing a path that carries very high political risks in the medium and long term. Their reflex has been to project their problems onto the regional level and ignore structural deficiencies at home.
The recent decline in oil prices shows the shifting fortunes of this regional cold war. Until now, Iran has held the upper hand in the sectarian conflict against Saudi Arabia. It had a more coherent regional policy and intervened more directly in its proxy battles, without intermediaries. Saudi strategy was more fragmented, as multiple actors managed foreign policy — security services, senior princes, the foreign ministry — each with their own favoured intermediaries abroad.
What is more, unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran presents a model of popular sovereignty that, if not fully democratic, allows for regular elections and controlled pluralism, even though the Supreme Guide holds ultimate power. Finally, Iran has unsettled much of the Gulf by courting US interests and pushing them to engage in a nuclear deal, heralding a major diplomatic breakthrough. Falling oil prices are now levelling the playing field. Saudi Arabia has gained from this due to its greater financial reserves. Both states now consider the ultimate battle to be Syria.
The new regional cold war has dramatically changed the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. For the first time in the Middle East’s modern history, Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad are not the regional hegemons: they are victims of the Arab Spring and sites of contestation involving outside actors. The lesson is clear: even the mightiest power brokers cannot be exceptions to history.
Tunisia, in contrast, provides a constructive example for the region in terms of democratic promise. A transition with innovative compromises between Islamist and secularist forces, regular democratic elections and rule of law shows that authoritarian legacies need not dictate the political future. If Tunisian democracy becomes truly established, it will be a symbol of hope for democrats, and a thorn in the side of authoritarian regimes.
It is clear the US can no longer serve as the region’s uncontested hegemonic power. Its gradual disengagement reflects a significant turn in its grand strategy. The US has learned from its failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Also, Asia now carries more strategic importance than the Middle East. Global domination no longer comes through occupying territory but through controlling financial markets and trade. The US will still seek to control the flow of regional oil but by regulating the tap, not the well.
There is one historical legacy that has, however, proved resilient: the geographic boundaries drawn by Sykes-Picot have shown a more enduring relevance than predicted. Rather than fighting to redraw the map, regional actors are struggling for control of existing borders. There is an unspoken, sacrosanct understanding among governments and peoples that those borders serve as the last anchor of Middle East stability. For better or worse, they are a social reality. After all, every refugee created by recent crises is expected to return home. And no matter who the winners are in the civil conflicts in Libya, Syria, Iraq or Yemen, those states are not expected to change shape. The popular expectation is that if existing geographic boundaries dissolve, the present instability would spiral into chaos.
(1) See Laurent Bonnefoy, “Yemen’s new player”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, November 2014.