The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. Republicans see a clash of civilizations. French president says no.

French President François Hollande delivers a speech during a joint gathering of both houses of Parliament in Paris on Monday. (Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)
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The strange, roiling debate in the United States over the need to call out "radical Islam" — a sideshow to actual matters of policy in the Middle East — kicked into overdrive after the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday.

The subject came up at Saturday's Democratic presidential debate and loomed over Sunday's talk shows. And, on Monday, a number of U.S. governors cited concerns about Islamist infiltration in declaring that they would not allow the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states — even though it's still not certain that a single one of the Paris attackers was a Syrian refugee.

Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), a Republican presidential hopeful, created the most stir when appearing Sunday on ABC's "This Week." Reacting to Hillary Clinton's statement that she didn't believe the United States was at war with Islam, Rubio suggested, "That would be like saying we weren’t at war with Nazis, because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi Party but weren’t violent themselves."

Rubio continued: "This is a clash of civilizations.... There is no middle ground on this. Either they win or we win. And we need to begin to take this seriously. These are individuals motivated by their faith."

This apocalyptic line — that we're locked in a live-or-die civilizational struggle — is a popular theme in the Republican debates, where an array of candidates grandstand on the cultural nature of the threat as a way to highlight the supposed weakness and political correctness of their Democratic opponents.

Presidential candidates Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders all spoke about strategies to confront terrorism in the wake of the Paris attacks. (Video: The Washington Post)

But French President François Hollande, whose nation's capital was the scene of carnage last week, does not agree with this talking point.

On Monday, he addressed the French Parliament, declaring, "France is at war." But he specifically rejected the rhetoric espoused by politicians such as Rubio and, closer to home, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

"We are not committed to a war of civilizations, because these assassins don't represent any civilization," Hollande said. "We are in a war against terrorism, jihadism, which threatens the whole world."

This admission did not come at the expense of tough action. French jets have already pounded Islamic State redoubts in Syria, while Hollande has plans to expand France's paramilitary forces and urged lawmakers to approve a three-month extension to the current national state of emergency.

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