When President François Hollande meets with President Obama today, the focus will undoubtedly be on the terrorist attacks earlier this month. Hollande is also likely to reiterate that these attacks, along with the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris earlier this year, will not crush the French way of life.
The public reaction to the earlier attack was swift; across the world, people adopted the phrase “Je suis Charlie” on pins they wore and on social media to express solidarity with France. But the phenomenon was to a large extent instrumentalized by the media and politicians — it constructed the terrorists’ challenge to French society in terms of freedom of expression, breaches in laïcité (French-style secularism) and the right to blasphemy. In this context, the actions of the Kouachi brothers — who carried out the killings in the premises of the satirical weekly on Jan. 7 — were presented solely as the product of a grievance addressed at “our model” of freedom, allegedly personified by Charlie Hebdo’s stance.
This analysis was flawed. It largely neglected the emblematic significance of the victims — Jews, who epitomize the history of French diversity — of the kosher supermarket targeted two days later by Amedy Coulibaly in the same wave of coordinated attacks as the Charlie Hebdo attack. It also denied the implicit political function of Charlie Hebdo, whose humor was not as universal, since many thought it was rather one-sided (no doubt against the will of some of its cartoonists), and ended up further polarizing society by stigmatizing Muslims and giving many of them the impression that their faith was not treated equally.
After such a construction of the jihadists’ challenge to France, it was not surprising that during the massive demonstrations in the wake of the January attacks, a large share of people from the suburbs, stemming from Muslim origins, did not participate — showing clearly that not everyone felt like Charlie. Many of those who did not share the popular sentiment resented both the sanctification of Charlie Hebdo and the fact that Israel — bolstered by Benjamin Netanyahu marching next to President Hollande — was left free to seize upon the anti-Semitic dimension of the attacks.
The attacks this month in Paris and Saint-Denis are of yet a different nature — and can be understood only as highlighting a literal “terrorist” rationale. Unlike the January attacks, the most recent campaign cannot easily be seen as the expression of an explicit profiling of the targets by the attackers.
The most open and allegedly progressive fringes of French society were targeted — tantamount to hitting Brooklyn and its hipsters in the United States — tolerant youths, rock music fans and supporters of a multicultural football team. Was this a clear strategy? Can the Islamic State claim that those who were targeted bear a specific responsibility in the “evils” it claims to be fighting?
Or did the modus operandi stem from a simplistic, and yet implacable, logic of tit-for-tat retaliation to French bombardments in Iraq and Syria? Does the Islamic State think targeting citizens indiscriminately is justified by the idea that people have the ability to elect their government democratically, so each French citizen bears responsibility?
The Islamic State’s statement claiming the attacks suggests the latter, although never explicitly. Consequently, the message did not specifically target a hedonistic way of life. Had the attacks at the stadium during a France vs. Germany soccer game succeeded, the dominant media and political narratives would have been entirely different. The only victim of the three suicide bombers near the Stade de France was a retired blue-collar bus driver of Portuguese origin.
Much like in January, jihadits are retaliating against European foreign policy, but they are also challenging the capacity of France to let communities and groups coexist, like the French motto states: fraternité. Beyond the obvious failures of the republican model and the apparent hypocrisy of laïcité, when dealing with certain discrimination, the Islamic State and other transnational Islamist militant groups threaten the symbolic objective of European societies to be portray themselves as open-minded and multicultural.
One should, however, acknowledge that Islamist extremists are not the only ones threatening that symbolic objective — political parties, both right and left of the spectrum, sometimes act as militants’ objective allies. Reconstructing the jihadi challenge to France as one of coexistence is important.
First, it puts the Jewish victims of Hyper Cacher back in the picture. Framing the January attacks as a challenge to freedom of expression had to a large extent overlooked their symbolic and political importance. Developing a counter-narrative also implies that Islamophobia should be regarded as a central threat to French society. Its constant rise in the wake of every attack claimed by jihadits marks the symbolic victory of the terrorists since it creates further polarization of society.
Rejecting the division of France sought by the Islamic State is precisely what Antoine Leiris, the husband of a victim of the most recent attacks, did when he addressed the terrorists on his Facebook page: “I will not give you the gift of hating you […] You want me to be afraid? To cast a mistrustful eye on my fellow citizens? […] You lost.”
Whether most citizens and politicians will follow his lead is unclear. Many French Muslims have currently expressed unease and feel they are scrutinized and likely to face increased discrimination.
Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia need to be fought equally, far from the double standards that often end up being manifest when anti-Semitism — beyond the paradoxical exception of Hyper Cacher — dominates the headlines and Islamophobia triggers little public reaction.
Much has been said about the necessity to adapt France’s foreign policy to the new Islamist militant threat, in particular by moving closer to Russia’s position on Syria and increasing airstrikes on territory controlled by the Islamic State. Significant decisions have been hastily made — although many will probably be counterproductive and foster more radicalization and support for the Islamic State.
On the contrary, little is said and done to rebuild trust inside France and integrate Muslims. Focus on the global military implications will probably leave the main challenge of terrorism — that to French internal coexistence — unaddressed.
Mending French society will not be easy. It would require a change by the government and the public in how they work with minorities and in the way these events are portrayed in the mass media. And it would call for more inclusive policies, which are costly and effective only in the long term.
A denial of the challenge’s nature and a refusal to let alternative narratives emerge will only carry France — and Europe — in a downward spiral of violence. Taking seriously what terrorists are telling France, albeit indirectly, and acting accordingly should in no way be seen as implying a symbolic victory for the Islamic State. Much to the contrary, it is the most direct way to achieve its delegitimization, first among a segment of disenfranchised Muslim citizens, and its consequent defeat.
Laurent Bonnefoy is a researcher at the Center for International Research (CERI) of Sciences Po in Paris and a member of the When Authoritarianism Fails in the Arab World program.