An estimated 600 Europeans — 140 of them French — are fighting with Syria’s rebel forces against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, he disclosed while proposing greater coordination among Western democracies on terrorism lists and counter-radicalization programs.
At least a dozen of the French citizens have known links to al-Qaeda, according to Valls.
“We all face a growing threat of radicalization of our populations and more terrorism at home, whether it is promoted through cyber-jihadism, battlefield experience or sermons in some mosques,” Valls told me.
He then plunged headlong into a subject that most European and U.S. politicians furiously dance around: Muslim minorities in the West provide a fertile recruiting ground for terrorist networks because of some of Islam’s practices and tenets.
“These attacks are tied not just to terrorism but also to a decline in the authority of the family and the state. Young people mixed up with drugs and criminal activity are also subject to influence by radical Islamicists,” he said, referring to the Boston Marathon bombings and political murders in Britain and France.
“Part of my effort is to say clearly that we need a French Islam, an Islam that accepts the separation of state and religion, the equality of men and women, democracy as our form of government,” he said. “This climate of insecurity must be overcome” by vigorous government action that fights both terrorism and the causes of terrorism.
“The economic crisis the world is passing through has worsened the identity crisis that many young people in minority communities are experiencing. We have to reestablish authority and security in our towns.”
Valls — whose family immigrated to France from Spain in the 1940s — is no right-wing xenophobe or primitive Islam-basher. A powerful figure in President François Hollande’s Socialist cabinet, he has long been critical of harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric used by former president Nicolas Sarkozy and his conservative followers.
“I’m not doing a Sarkozy on this,” he advised me, and I nodded. The politician I was thinking of as I listened to Valls was in fact Tony Blair.
At 50, Valls displays the kind of determination, energy and consensus-seeking at the center that marked Blair’s rise in 1997 to become Britain’s prime minister. Those qualities have made Valls a star in Hollande’s floundering government. If — more likely, when — Hollande needs a new prime minister in a year or so, Valls will be high on his list.
The French left lost power in 2002 “because of security issues,” continues Valls, who was then a close adviser to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. “I have drawn the lessons of that defeat. The left has to incarnate security.”
But Valls’s approach to Islam intrigues me more than does his party’s image. He puts his hand on a hot stove when he says that France needs a more tolerant Islam, but he does not pull back immediately when debate flares. Most other U.S. or European politicians do, seeming to fear the appearance of inciting religious tensions.
“There has been a distinct globalization of Islam since the Iranian revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The relationship between this global Islam, which includes radical and destructive currents, and local Islam in our countries, is something we must examine,” he said.
And he is willing to use his law enforcement powers to conduct that examination. We happened to meet on the day he announced a major reorganization of the French domestic intelligence service and its equivalent of the FBI, bringing them more in line with U.S. practices such as parliamentary oversight.
Subsequent disclosures of U.S. Internet and telephone surveillance of European Union officials have provoked outrage across the Old Continent.
More’s the pity. Initially the French met the outing of the National Security Agency’s PRISM program with a world-weary shrug. One newspaper headlined its story: “At Last, Obama Is Listening to Us.”