On Bastille Day 2015, my family and I walked over to the banks of the Saône river in Lyon to watch the fireworks with thousands of the city’s residents. I only briefly noticed the metal barricades blocking the street set up next to the French fry stands.
The events in Nice are a horrific reminder that, in reality, everyone in France is a target. While it is not the only country in the region to have experienced terrorist acts in recent years, France has suffered more frequently than neighbors like Britain, Germany, Italy, or Spain. Why has France been the focus of so much jihadist violence within Europe?
The answer lies in three factors: France’s foreign and domestic policies, history and demography, and approach to citizenship and immigrant integration. The individual factors are not unique to France. It is the combination that makes France a focal point for violence.
Radical Islamists oppose French policy abroad and at home
France has pursued specific policies that have made radical Islamists angry. It has been more involved in military campaigns against the Islamic State than Italy or Germany, and has taken an even more aggressive position since the November 2015 attacks in Paris. Its stance contrasts sharply with Spain’s withdrawal from Iraq following the 2004 attacks in Madrid.
Still, ISIS’s singling out “the spiteful and filthy French” among its preferred targets predates November 2015, and was a passing reference during a call to murder Americans, Europeans, Australians, and Canadians. In addition, Britain has been extremely active in the anti-ISIS coalition, but there have been fewer successful jihadist attacks on its territory in recent years. So France’s foreign policy alone cannot explain its situation.
France has also been the sole Western country pursuing its strong version of laïcité. This brand of secularism has dialed up opposition to headscarves in schools and to full face-covering veils anywhere in public. Most French public figures support laïcité in the name of national values such as equality between men and women, but some see it as little more than a transparent mask for the country’s Islamophobia.
Because of its history, France has more potential Islamist recruits
There are historical forces at play here too. The decolonization of Algeria unfolded by way of a vicious eight-year war that created resentments and suspicions on all sides. Although by some measures, French respondents are quite tolerant of Muslims, surveys conducted by the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights since the 1990s have shown a deeper dislike of North Africans and Muslims than of Jews.
During interviews I conducted following the Charlie Hebdo attack, one woman of North African origin told me that her 9-year-old son was confronted by a classmate who said, “dirty [expletive] Arab, that’s how my parents talk about you at home.”
Algeria’s history as a French colony, and France’s robust economy in the early 1970s, made it easy and attractive for North African immigrants to settle in France. Among European countries, France has the second largest number of Muslims, and it is undoubtedly the largest recipient of Muslim migrants from its former colonies.
These raw figures are no guarantee of Islamist violence, but the combination of demography and history increases the pool of available recruits.
France’s approach to integrating migrants has not worked for some French Muslims
These demographic outcomes were created not only by history and economics, but also by France’s approach to citizenship and integration. France has granted migrants full citizenship in greater numbers than neighbors such as Germany or Switzerland. Like France, Britain — in spite of its refusal to join the Schengen zone of free movement within Europe — and Belgium have also typically been prone to confer citizenship on newcomers.
Among these countries, however, France has been especially insistent that if you go through its schools and speak the language and accept French ways of life, you will be treated the same as everyone else. This bargain has more or less worked for the majority of Muslims. As my research with Rahsaan Maxwell has shown, being born in France, being a French citizen, and speaking fluent French are the best predictors of feeling French. These matter more than being religious, which to the extent it depresses feelings of Frenchness, also does so for non-Muslim immigrants.
At the same time, the deal has not worked for all of France’s nearly 5 million Muslims. Many feel trapped in the down-and-out suburbs of its big cities. They have gone through the schools and speak French, but still can’t find good jobs. Some turn to petty crime, some wind up in jail, many seek greater meaning for their lives. These are not mosque-going ideologues. They are disillusioned and troubled individuals who can turn to violent jihadism with little warning.
Taken together, these factors set France apart from most of its neighbors. Changing any one of these — to the extent it can be changed — would have at best a marginal effect on future developments in France.
Moreover, it would be wrong for policymakers in other countries to conclude that involvement in an anti-ISIS coalition, the presence of Muslim migrants, or a more generous citizenship policy would greatly increase the likelihood of attacks on their soil.
Even though France is going to be a target for ongoing violence, I did not hesitate to travel to Paris, Lyon, or Strasbourg earlier this summer, and plan to take my family back to Lyon next year. As residents in San Bernardino, Orlando, Brussels, Beirut, Dhaka, Istanbul, and elsewhere know, you cannot avoid terrorism simply by staying home.
Erik Bleich is a professor of political science at Middlebury College. His most recent book is The Freedom to Be Racist? How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism.