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7 August 2023

The Islamist roots of French disorder

The country’s riots cannot be explained away by socio-economic woes alone.

By Liam Duffy

The most destructive, spectacular and costly riots in France’s recent history, surpassing even the infamous unrest of 2005, are over. To the Anglophone media and its audiences they were an expression of the anger felt among the children of France’s former overseas possessions – a generational resentment fuelled by experiences of poverty, discrimination and painful colonial legacies.

Others have noted the opportunistic, even recreational quality of rioting, but the anger – the rage – against France among parts of its youth is real and goes deeper than one specific event.

Socio-economic woes are crucial in explaining this tide of feeling. Yet any analysis which takes this into account but omits the specific and sustained delegitimisation of France contained within that feeling is incomplete. There are political currents busily undermining the republic’s foundations, all combining with very real structural failings to create a fragile and combustible atmosphere.

Much of that atmosphere is generated within France’s banlieues and the cités. These social housing complexes are heavily caricatured, supposedly designed to banish the poor and the undesirable to isolated slums out of sight for the creative and professional classes inside each city’s périphérique.

Yet there was a degree of utopian naivety in their creation. Class and ethnic discrimination was not necessarily the aim of these environments. As the scholar Hugo Micheron explains, the enormous Mirail housing complex erected in Toulouse in the 1970s was dreamt of by architects as a self-contained haven for the working classes, a mirror to the pink city’s historic centre ville. Over the decades though, projects like Mirail only exacerbated feelings of alienation. Today Mirail is a symbol of the most visceral expression of the rage against France: jihadism.

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France has been hit harder by jihadism than any European state. The Mirail alone provided dozens to France’s Isis exodus – the largest contingent of any Western country. As with last month’s rioting, the allure of jihadism among some French Muslims was put down to socio-economic marginalisation and the rigid demands of laïcité (state secularism). France holds a special place in the jihadist imagination, which demands that it be targeted for both atrocities and recruitment. The movement’s origins in Europe stem in large part from the overspill of Algeria’s bloody civil war, while Andrew Hussey notes how the former al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri loathed France both for the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt and for providing Israel’s nuclear reactor. Later, in 2016, the official Isis spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, instructed followers to kill the “spiteful and filthy French” however they could.

For European jihadists, France is the country that most closely resembles all they reject: the birthplace of enlightenment ideas, the home of secularism. For some, the objections are a matter of moral taste: it is a land of seduction, of bon vivants, a place where pornstars become celebrities and where breasts are visible from beaches to newsstands. Even the very personification of the Republic, Marianne, bears her flesh. It is no coincidence that the deadly attacks of November 2015 explicitly targeted places of life, enjoyment and mingling between sexes and creeds.

Then there is the puzzle of Marseille, the Mediterranean metropolis which is synonymous with socio-economic woes and risks becoming Europe’s first “narco-city”. Despite these challenges, the eccentric port city was largely unaffected by Isis radicalisation. This is because to the extent that jihadists were able to recruit in France, it was not necessarily poverty or discrimination that was decisive, but whether a neighbourhood had been targeted and ideologically prepared over the course of decades by other Islamist movements. Marseille’s quartiers were not.

[See also: France’s forces of law and disorder]

Islamism is absent from much of the international coverage about the serious problems faced by the French state. Yet it plays a pivotal role in the French domestic debate on the left and right, particularly when it comes to the European offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood. Unlike al-Qaeda or Isis, this Islamist group’s strategy does not involve recruiting large numbers of people – it can take years to actually be inducted into the elite circles of “Brothers”. Instead, a small but influential cadre of educated and professional activists uses terrestrial and social media, and political platforms, to disseminate a message which is not necessarily openly Islamist, but which conforms to the Brothers’ view of the world. One of the results has been to foster a kind of siege mentality in the hopes of shielding Muslims from the supposed corruption of Western societies. More radical Brotherhood activists have compared the plight of French Muslims to that of Jews in 1930s Europe or, more recently, to the Srebrenica massacre.

Unlike Islamists in other European contexts, French Islamists demonise the entire foundations of the state and society as irretrievably hostile and Islamophobic. This rhetoric filters out to audiences well beyond Islamist sympathisers, but its impact can also be seen among jihadists: one French Isis recruit was surprised to learn that his British counterparts didn’t seem to hate their country of origin as much, putting it down to the perceived humiliation inflicted by universalism and laïcité, while the ringleader of the 2015 Paris attacks (a Belgian) had content on his phone from a legal NGO presenting France as persecuting Islam.

This campaign has been reinforced by a more fundamentalist brand of Islamism, in France’s growing Salafist population. Salafism is a rigid brand of Islam whose followers live their lives according to the example of the first generations of Muslims. Salafi activists employ the principle of loyalty and disavowal, encouraging complete rupture with surrounding unbelief. These are by no means austere religious quietists – in certain neighbourhoods, like Trappes, west of Paris, or again, in Toulouse, Salafi activists muscled out drug gangs, in others they absorbed them. These activists vilify “man-made” French law and institutions, but they also intensely delegitimise other interpretations of Islam.

In 2018 the Salafist following was thought to be up to 50,000 strong, a figure which had grown exponentially in the preceding decade but which does not account for the social control this milieu is able to exercise over countless others in certain neighbourhoods, potentially preventing them from accessing the rights every citizen is afforded by the republic.

Online, Salafi activists are approaching something like hegemony. Young people looking for guidance on their religion are less likely to find the Islam of their parents or grandparents, but they will probably run into Salafism. A leaked government briefing detailed how Salafist and Islamist “influencers” are operating on mainstream social media platforms actively encouraging young people to violate school rules and confront teachers, particularly on matters of secularism and school uniform. Other research shows how Whatsapp chain messages are broadcast to followers to dictate every detail of their day, in particular for women and girls. For the Islamist-Salafist scene, the classroom is a key battleground in their offensive against France, evident in the increasing threats against schoolteachers, and the daylight decapitation of one in October 2020.

There is another movement joining the chorus of delegitimisation of France. This is the decolonial thought which intensely divides the French left, most of whom remain attached to republican principles inherited from revolution. Sometimes derided as “woke” and attributed to cultural pollution emanating from American campuses, activists associated with the Indigénistes of the Republic political party in fact make claims about France for which it is hard to find an analogue in Anglo-American discourse: that the French state’s treatment of its non-white contingent is a continuation of colonial policy in Algeria and elsewhere. Hence the term “indigéniste” (native). Colonialism never ended, they claim, it continues today inside metropolitan France. 

Shortly after the delinquent jihadist Mohamed Merah’s murderous rampage against soldiers and Jewish schoolchildren in 2012, one leading indigéniste activist, Houria Bouteldja, implied the attack was a false flag by the state, or at least comprehensible as a response to the daily humiliation of being a Muslim in France. An example of such humiliation Merah endured was alleged to have endured was the imposition of a moment’s silence for the victims of 9/11 in school.

There are obviously significant distinctions between these disparate currents, but the internal borders between them can be porous in ideas and personnel. In different places and different contexts, they have sidelined ideological differences and collaborated. They also converge on common enemies, and their list of grievances against France strongly overlaps: the country’s colonial past, universalism and laïcité as thin veneers for oppression, and the even thinner veneer for hate speech represented by freedom of expression – under which Charlie Hebdo’s blasphemous cartoons are permitted.

Alienated young people do not need to have accepted the core tenets of Islamism, Salafism or decolonial thought to have been exposed to and absorbed these grievances. There are unquestionably failures of state and society when it comes to integration, but there are also organised and influential movements actively working against integration and against the existing social contract, a fact which features prominently in French media but is mostly absent in international commentary. We owe it to our neighbour to better understand the complexities of its current malaise – something which cannot be done without accounting for a kind of generational revolt, not just against liberal values and French republican institutions, but against mainstream Muslim institutions too.

[See also: How Michel Houellebecq diminished himself]

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