PARIS — One former neighbor described Chérif Kouachi as a kid like any other, easily excitable at the prospect of going to Euro Disney. Two decades later, Chérif and his older brother Saïd would carry out the bloodiest attack France has seen in recent history, killing 12 people in a shooting spree in satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters. An alleged accomplice would gun down a policewoman and take customers at a kosher supermarket hostage, bringing the total death toll of that bloody week to 17.
Nearly 4 million went out on the street after the attacks, united by grief at a national rally. But “how did this happen?” soon gave way to “who is to blame?” and the French government appears to be responding with measures that cater to a new wave of terror paranoia.
Though France does not yet have a U.S.-style Patriot Act, new measures pitched by President François Hollande’s government have up until now focused almost exclusively on security, prompting progressive commentators to worry that Hollande is combating the symptoms of “evil” without addressing its roots, as far left paper L’Humanité put it on January 22.
The attacks in Paris shocked the nation. But how surprising were they exactly? In a climate where Islamophobia is common currency, France’s Muslim minority is at worst reviled and at best ignored, unemployment reaches unprecedented heights in certain areas and people feel alienated by both the state and the media, is it all that unexpected that homegrown extremism finds a place? It’s the most shocking expression of a social disenchantment that everyone is aware of but that the government rarely likes to face.
On January 20, Prime Minister Manuel Valls talked of a social and ethnic “apartheid” that has spread throughout the country, acknowledging that tensions are deeply rooted. The analogy between modern-day France and pre-1994 South Africa is sensationalist at best, but Valls admitted his government needed to do more to build cohesion in intercity suburbs — areas where dysfunctional schools, petty crime and unemployment have contributed to citizens feeling abandoned by their government.
The Kouachi brothers, along with their suspected ally Amedy Coulibaly, came from such areas. Unlike their parents, from Algeria and Mali, respectively, they were French. They had been to French school, made French friends and rapped, dreamed and cursed in French. And yet, they felt out of place.
As one social worker from Clichy-sous-Bois put it, “The children feel more foreign than their parents did.” Migrants from the former French colonies came to France for better prospects at a time when jobs were not as scarce as now. They made it a point of pride to feel French — but their children, born in France, are often frustrated by the discrimination their families face and the double standards they perceive in French secularism and freedom of speech laws.
Conservative voices, including former President Nicolas Sarkozy, have pointed to immigration as the driving force behind domestic extremism, suggesting dual nationals promoting terrorism should be stripped of their French papers. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation. Homegrown extremism is just that — homegrown.
Foreign terror plots involving hijacked flights and sophisticated explosives have given way, at least in Europe, to loners claiming to be acting in the name of Islam, shooting with eyes closed at close range. Around 1,200 French citizens are believed to have left to fight in Syria. About 50 of them are believed to have died and French intelligence is increasingly concerned about those returning from war zones.
According to anthropologist Dounia Bouzar, many of those most recently converted to Islamist extremism come from French families that do not practice Islam at all. In fact, Bouzar says, “The less they knew about Islam to begin with, the easier it was to radicalize them.” She heads a help center for radicalized youth, and says the people she sees come from a diverse range of backgrounds: middle-class as well as lower-class families, rural France as well as the suburbs of major cities. They are recruited mostly through social media and their ranks include a growing number of girls, persuaded that they can help the humanitarian cause in Syria by marrying a jihadist.
Faced with the complexity of the phenomenon, France’s government appears to have opted for a simple, blunt approach: boost security. On January 21, Valls announced new funding and nearly 3,000 new jobs in intelligence and the police forces. In the wake of the attacks, the government has gone back on planned budget cuts to the military and says it needs to increase staffing to monitor for suspected jihadist activities. The Socialist Party is now also pushing for a new counter-terrorism bill in Parliament that would grant the executive more power to tap phones, monitor communications and block websites seen as promoting terrorism.
France already has a robust counter-terrorism apparatus, admired by U.S. intelligence agencies in the past and criticized by rights groups for infringing on freedom of speech and movement. France already has an extensive — and potentially repressive — legislative arsenal to fight terror. One law in particular, strengthened as recently as November, allows the French state to prosecute for promoting terrorism or inciting to hatred. More than 50 people, including infamously anti-Semitic stand-up comedian Dieudonné, were arrested in the wake of the attacks for alleged hate speech, with some speedily sentenced to more than a year in jail.
And once behind bars, they are all the more likely to meet the likes of Chérif Kouachi and Coulibaly, who became friends in Fleury-Mérogis, Europe’s largest prison. There they also met Djamel Beghal, who “recruited” them into his cell of religious extremists. Police suspect Beghal of having played a role in orchestrating January’s shootings.
France’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded and have proven to be a stepping-stone toward extremism. In the southern city of Nîmes, inmates are three to a cell roughly the area of a yellow taxi cab. Though the United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world, France holds that dubious distinction at the European level. A recent parliamentary report, meanwhile, found that up to 60 percent of inmates in France were Muslim — a grossly disproportionate number, as they make up no more than 12 percent of the population. The report also set distant 2020 as a feasible deadline for meeting European norms.
Change may now be sped up by security concerns. Valls promised to address the issue of space in prisons — a long overdue step that is so far unpopular with the country’s leaders. He has also promised to recruit additional Muslim chaplains, who are seen as able to stem the spread of extremist ideology by raising awareness about moderate practices of Islam.
But this shows just how far the debate has drifted: Does easing overcrowding and enlisting mild-mannered imams in prisons address the deep-rooted and systemic reasons people might be compelled to commit acts of terror?
Intent on identifying potential suspects before they launch attacks, the French government is faced with the quandary of how to know exactly who they are looking for. As progressive judge Laurence Blisson pointed out in a magazine interview published January 22, security forces will be monitoring those they believe practice a militant version of Islam. New measures are likely to further criminalize a minority already marginalized by take-it-or-leave-it assimilationist demands and rampant Islamophobia.
To add fuel to the fire, France’s government is now considering restoring the legal concept of “national unworthiness” in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Under a law passed after World War II, those prosecuted for collaboration with the Nazis essentially became second-class citizens, as they were stripped of the right to vote, join unions or hold state-funded jobs. The law was scrapped in 1951, but the Socialist prime minister called on Parliament to examine its potential restoration.
The Socialist government, in catering to conservative demands for more state surveillance and security, is losing ground with its electorate, and fast. According to leading security analyst Philippe Moreau Chevrolet, it’s making a big political mistake. “These measures will scare people and ultimately benefit the right…rival parties like the conservative UMP and the far-right National Front,” he said.
It is convenient to frame the question of homegrown extremism as purely an issue of security. Recognizing it as symptomatic of more widespread systemic disenfranchisement begs the question of change, and with it responsibility: To what extent are we to blame? This is not just a question for the government. If so many were ready to say “Je suis Charlie,” we can also have the courage to say “Nous sommes tous Kouachis et Coulibalys.”
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