Monday

27th May 2019

Analysis

France and the post-Charlie challenge

  • The Charle Hebdo attacks have brought several of France's societal issues to the fore (Photo: Paul S.)

Not everybody is Charlie after all. In the wake of the massive demonstration of national unity, on 11 January, France has discovered that the consensus around its much cherished “republican values” is not as widely shared as expected.

The “I am not Charlie” movement is heterogeneous, from people distancing themselves from the satirical and often provocative Charlie Hebdo to a large part of the young Muslim population of France rejecting mainstream values.

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It poses a challenge to the idea of freedom of speech defended by more than four million people earlier this month, and it ultimately poses a challenge to the civil and political balance of the country.

The prosecution of controversial comedian Dieudonné, after he wrote on his Facebook page that he felt “like Charlie Coulibaly”, referring to one of the three Islamic radicals who killed 17 people in Paris, is only the most visible case.

Dozens of people have been prosecuted for “apology of terrorism” in the last two weeks. Some were drunk or had a history of psychological problems but they were nevertheless sentenced to months in prison (four years in one of the first cases) after they expressed support for the terrorists or threatened policemen.

In one case, a 14-year old girl was prosecuted after she shouted at a tramway ticket inspector that she would “take a Kalashnikov”.

Dieudonné’s trial, due to take place on 4 February, could be an indication of what will follow. Appearing to repress people who do not share the national consensus could lead to more problems.

Meanwhile conspiracy theories abound.

Far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was quoted by a Russian newspaper as saying that “intelligence agencies” were behind the Paris attacks.

As outlandish as this might seem, this theory is shared by many young Muslims, who say that the attacks are “a plot to tarnish Muslims’ image”. Photos and videos meant to substantiate this are circulating on social networks and fuel defiance of authorities, especially of teachers.

About two hundred incidents have been reported in schools across the country. In most cases, students refused to honour the minute of silence after the killings at Charlie Hebdo. And in many schools, debates about the attacks were cancelled for fear of further incidents in the classrooms, especially antisemitic statements.

Deep cultural rift

Mistrust of mainstream media, contesting of French values, antisemitism: the attacks reveal a deep cultural rift between the French majority and a large part of the country’s youth.

“In families, between schoolmates, on social networks, there is a massive background of antisemitism. For them, it is not even an opinion, it is a cultural fact. That is what is worrying. It is a cultural fact which we can never see when it does not surge like that,” said high school teacher and author Mara Goyet on French radio.

This revelation is now shaking one of France’s cornerstones - its education system.

School has historically been the place where the Republic transmits the “liberté, égalité, fraternité” spirit to younger generation. And now this is openly challenged, in suburbs mainly populated by families of immigrant origins.

Education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, herself of Moroccan origin, is soon to present a set of measures to promote “laïcité” (secular values) and “strengthen the sense of belonging to the Republic”.

This approach has limits.

The first is the religious and cultural background of these young people. Some personalities, including Muslim clerics and intellectuals, are now calling for a reform of French Islam.

“For Islam and for immigrants, this situation is a huge challenge," observes anthropologist Malek Chebel, who refers to the difficulty of both staying away from the sources of religious violence while seeking to belong to a secularlised "European space".

Chebel said he “deeply regrets the absence of a charismatic Muslim leader from whom we would hear a voice which is for now muffled and inaudible”.

But French Islam still has no truly representative body and it remains much dependent on foreign money and foreign imams. Reforming it on a purely national basis could prove a difficult task.

Chérif and Saïd Kouachi's as well as Amedy Coulibaly’s path to terrorism also demonstrate that religious radicalisation is in many cases related to social difficulties.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls has acknowledged this by speaking of "a geographic, social, ethnic apartheid which has developed in our country".

"Social misery, added to daily discrimination… because someone doesn’t have a good family name, the right skin colour, or because she’s a woman," said Valls.

In some suburbs, unemployment is as much as 50 percent, and young people of foreign origin are the most affected.

“We need a 'New Deal' for the suburbs”, said former Green MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit. And many people think that President François Hollande should seize the opportunity to launch an ambitious plan, focussed on tackling youth unemployment and discrimination.

But dealing with these problems would take time and money, at a time when France is struggling to reduce its deficit and return to economic growth.

This month’s terror attacks demonstrated the underlying intolerance and antisemitism of some Muslims but also highlighted the alienation and vulnerability of many other Muslims.

More than 100 anti-Muslims acts - mainly threatening and insulting tags on mosques - have been reported in France since the attacks.

French society is now facing a delicate balancing act. It must address the cultural rift with a part of the Muslim community and fight islamic radicalism while at the same time tackle Muslim alienation and avoid islamophobic sentiment.

According to a poll made after the attacks, 40 percent of people think that “the presence of a Muslim community in France is a threat for our country’s identity”, while 25 percent think that it leads to "cultural enrichment”.

National Front leader Marine Le Pen did not benefit from the attacks because she excluded herself from the 11 January march and the atmosphere of national unity.

But as the horror of the Charlie Hebdo attack inevitably dissipates with time, Le Pen will surely bring the debate back to her favorite topics, Islam, immigration and crime.

With her party’s spectacular progress in last year’s elections, Le Pen is very confident she will qualify for the second round of the next presidential election in 2017 and win a number of seats in the following parliamentary elections.

This prospect lies like a sword of Damocles above the heads of François Hollande, Manuel Valls and opposition leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy or his competitor Alain Juppé.

Eradicate jihadism, fighting Muslim radicalism and antisemitism, tackling Muslim alienation, containing islamophobia and resisting the rise of the National Front: France will have to be much more than Charlie to face all these challenges.

Opinion

Charlie's false friends

Remove the right to offend anyone and you roll back centuries of progress towards free thought, free speech and free societies.

Chemnitz neo-Nazis pose questions for Germany

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