France’s Grand Illusion

Teaching schoolchildren about French greatness can’t save France...

May-June 2015

ARTHUR RIMBAUD’S great 1871 poem, “Morning of Drunkenness,” concludes with a famous prediction: “Now is the time of the assassins.” The poet’s ecstatic vision may have been off by 150 years, but, between them, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, the perpetrators of the mass murders in Paris at Charlie Hebdo’s offices and at a kosher supermarket at the Porte de Vincennes in January of this year, appear to have helped usher in a real time of the assassins, one whose end is nowhere in sight. For the trio had their own ecstatic, murderous visions, ones for which neither the institutions of the French state nor the various strata of French civil society (to the extent they are separable in a France that remains corporatist in a way most of its EU partners do not) seem to have any antidote.

No doubt the immediate response to the killings was impassioned and determined. The passion expressed itself in the masses of people who began using the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie both as an act of solidarity and as a symbolic restatement of France’s commitment to secularism and freedom of expression, as well as in the gigantic demonstration in memory of the victims, a photograph of which the newspaper Libération ran on its front page along with the headline “We Are One People.” The determination came in the form of the commitments made by President François Hollande’s government to crack down much harder on the jihadists in the country’s midst, including in the prisons that are second only to the Internet as a venue for bringing in new recruits to the jihadist cause. And the government backed up these plans with real money, canceling approximately a third of the cuts in the French military that had been scheduled to take effect between 2015 and 2020 and vastly increasing the budget of the security services. The costs of doing this and of maintaining the emergency security plan known as “Vigipirate,” which involves a large number of French soldiers patrolling the streets and providing security for institutions thought to be vulnerable to renewed terrorist attack, above all Jewish schools and synagogues, have been enormous—more than a billion euros in only the first two months after the attacks. In March, the French government also announced that it would recruit eleven thousand additional soldiers, a move necessitated by its plans to keep seven thousand soldiers deployed around the country indefinitely to deal with the threat of terrorism. This is the first time since the end of the Algerian War that the French military’s land forces will grow larger rather than smaller. How effective all of this will prove to be is another matter.

And even if these new measures prove successful, they can only mitigate the threat, not remove it. That is why, quite properly, Manuel Valls, France’s prime minister, also announced the government’s commitment to renewed and greatly expanded efforts to instill the Republic’s secular values into the hearts and minds of the disenfranchised young people in the suburban housing estates that ring every major French city, the so-called cités. These are largely French-born youths of Muslim origin, the children and grandchildren of immigrants from the Maghreb and, more recently, from the Sahel countries that were formerly part of France’s colonial empire. These young men—and, as the key role played in Amedy Coulibaly’s radicalization by his girlfriend Hayat Boumeddiene demonstrated (she is said to have joined the Islamic State immediately after the attacks), an increasing number of women—are perceived as the sea in which the jihadists swim. The importance of this cannot be overstated. For the reaction of many young people in these cités (though it is crucial to bear in mind that they do not constitute more than a tiny minority, even of the disaffected young) to the Charlie Hebdo and HyperCacher market attacks was extremely ominous.

It turned out that in suburban classrooms all over France, and among a population only a small fraction of whom would by any stretch of the imagination consider themselves to be pious Muslims, the sentiments of students were often best expressed by another hashtag, #JeNeSuisPasCharlie, rather than by the mainstream mantra of solidarity and identification with the victims of the attacks. Indeed, some seem to feel that the editors of Charlie Hebdo pretty much had it coming for profaning the Prophet. And even for many young people in the cités who sincerely and unambiguously make it clear that they abhor and fiercely repudiate the crimes of the Kouachi brothers, identifying with the victims is a bridge too far.

A common justification these young people offer for their stance goes as follows: Since no one with any power in France seems to have any sympathy for the sufferings of the Palestinian people, why should they care about some cartoonist who, in their eyes, despised Islam and Muslims? The symbolic resonance of this can scarcely be overstated. Has this anti-Zionism morphed into anti-Semitism in immigrant communities in France, as it has throughout Europe? Unquestionably. In the late nineteenth century, August Bebel could say that anti-Semitism was the socialism of fools; in the early twenty-first century, it is the anti-Zionism of fools. And yet, in fairness, it is not only Muslim immigrants who conflate Jewish and Zionist identities. The official Jewish community organizations in France and elsewhere in Europe often exhibit the same confusion. For example, Roger Cukierman, the head of the largest French Jewish community organization, declared in 2014 that “the fight against anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism needs to become a national cause” in France.