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France and its Muslims: Riots, Jihadism and Depoliticisation
France and its Muslims: Riots, Jihadism and Depoliticisation
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The Problems with “African Solutions”
The Problems with “African Solutions”
Report 172 / Europe & Central Asia

France and its Muslims: Riots, Jihadism and Depoliticisation

France faces a problem with its Muslim population, but it is not the problem it generally assumes. The October-November 2005 riots coupled with the wave of arrests of suspected jihadists moved the question of Islam to the forefront of French concerns and gave new life to concerns about the threat of a Muslim world mobilised by political Islamism. Yet the opposite is true: paradoxically, it is the exhaustion of political Islamism, not its radicalisation, that explains much of the violence, and it is the depoliticisation of young Muslims, rather than their alleged reversion to a radical kind of communalism, that ought to be cause for worry.

Executive Summary

France faces a problem with its Muslim population, but it is not the problem it generally assumes. The October-November 2005 riots coupled with the wave of arrests of suspected jihadists moved the question of Islam to the forefront of French concerns and gave new life to concerns about the threat of a Muslim world mobilised by political Islamism. Yet the opposite is true: paradoxically, it is the exhaustion of political Islamism, not its radicalisation, that explains much of the violence, and it is the depoliticisation of young Muslims, rather than their alleged reversion to a radical kind of communalism, that ought to be cause for worry. The key to minimising the risks of rioting and militant jihadism is to curb forms of state violence being exercised against predominantly Muslim, working-class neighbourhoods and to promote political participation by their residents.

To date, efforts to organise this population politically have systematically failed. This has been the case, most recently, in attempts by the principal Islamist actor, the Union of Islamic Organisations of France (UOIF), to use religion as a rallying force. Forsaking its strategy of political opposition, the UOIF gradually adopted a clientelist strategy in which it sought recognition by the state. The end result was to alienate the organisation’s social base, especially its youth, which no longer felt adequately represented by leaders they believed had been co-opted by the government.

The same fate befell the various movements of young Muslims that emerged in the 1980s as agents providing social organisation for Muslim neighbourhoods. Suspected by the authorities of enjoying excessively close ties with North African Islamist militants, and viewed by young residents of disadvantaged neighbourhoods as overly removed from their everyday concerns, these associations lost their momentum.

The exhaustion of political Islamism has coincided with the growth of Salafism, a missionary movement which, invoking the “pious ancestors” of Islam, preaches a rigorous adherence to scripture and focuses on morals and individual behaviour, and calls for a break with Western societies. With the weakening of the dissident impact of political Islamism and the exhaustion of the Muslim youth movements, Salafism has expanded into the vacuum, its success reflecting the growth of individualist concerns, the tendency to retreat from French society and the opting out from politics rather than the project of organising the Muslim community as a community or of confronting wider French society.

As neither political Islamism nor the Muslim youth organisations can organise or mobilise their constituencies any longer, and as the rising religious force, Salafism, has no interest in doing so, a dangerous political vacuum has developed, particularly among the young, idle underclass of the suburbs. As a consequence, political demands increasingly are expressed through jihadi Salafism and rioting, fuelled by precarious living conditions, rampant unemployment, social discrimination and, more recently, the perceived vilification of Islam.

The question of jihadism clearly is both political and transnational.  While in the past terrorist attacks in France were linked to foreign national Islamic groups whose struggles spilled over onto French soil, since the second half of the 1990s this no longer is the case. Today, the vast majority of Islamist violence is not imported; rather, it is perpetrated by French nationals in the name of an “Islamicised” anti-imperialist discourse, stimulated by the Palestinian and Iraqi issues on the international scene, and by social discrimination in France. The nature of the struggle has changed: it aims not at attaining political power or at establishing an Islamic state in a given country, but at a broader confrontation between the global Muslim community, or umma, and its enemies. The issue for jihadis is not Western licentiousness but Western imperialism.

That said, in the absence of effective organisational structures, political demands have tended to be expressed less through the jihadist temptation than through mass revolt. The unrest in the suburbs in October-November 2005 took place without any religious actors and confirmed that Islamists do not control those neighbourhoods. Even though they had every interest in restoring calm and thereby demonstrating their authority, and despite several attempts to halt the violence, they largely failed: there were no bearded provocateurs behind the riots, and no bearded “older brothers” to end them. As for the officially sanctioned institutions of Islam in France, they too demonstrated their lack of purchase on events and on the populations involved in them.   

With the neutralisation of Muslim youth organisations and political Islamism, and the failure of the secular political parties to engage properly with the Muslim population, there is a growing tendency to resort to violence, be it a riot or of the jihadi variety. Undoubtedly, Islamist violence reflects the growing appeal of a global, radicalised world view inspired by al-Qaeda and requires security measures in response. But such violence, like the uprisings in underprivileged neighbourhoods, is above all the consequence of a crisis in political representation and, to that extent, requires – beyond necessary security and socio-economic measures – a political response.

The events of 2005 served as a reminder that the French model of integration – quickly lauded in the aftermath of the July 2005 London terrorist attacks as a preferred alternative to Anglo-Saxon communalism or multiculturalism – is also in need of a corrective. But while the general tendency is to define the problem as a clash between the communal order supposedly governing Muslims on the one hand and the emphasis on individualism allegedly governing the French republic on the other, the problem is in fact the precise opposite. France’s Muslims are in reality far more individualistic than expected; conversely, the French republican model is far more communal than claimed, a feature expressed through the country’s social ghettos and through the state’s repeated instrumentalisation of religious elites. That this form of communalism is inconsistent with a strict republican dogma is not the issue. The issue is that it is singularly ill-adapted to the management of a population dominated by individualism and in which demands placed upon the state are high and often unaddressed.

A policy response that focuses on religion building and looks for “moderate”, controllable Muslim representatives will have little impact. Offering young Muslims a tamer, domesticated, or coopted Islam will hinder neither the temptation of radicalism, nor the dynamics of mass rioting. A more successful approach would focus on the political matters at the core of the crisis and concentrate on curbing repressive practices in disadvantaged neighbourhoods and promoting new, credible forms of political representation for young Muslims, including via existing secular political parties. For the West more generally, an effort should be made to seriously address the dramas that help mobilise and radicalise European Muslims – Palestine and Iraq in particular – and that constitute the principal grievance invoked by armed movements, whether or not they actually motivate them.

Paris/Brussels, 9 March 2006

Commentary / Africa

The Problems with “African Solutions”

This week Paris will host the annual France-Africa summit. In a year in which Africa and the West clashed over the International Criminal Court – and amid growing doubts over the UN Security Council’s legitimacy, in part because of its unrepresentativeness – there will be no shortage of issues that Africa’s leaders will seek to address.

President François Hollande has chosen to focus the agenda on peace and security. Following the deployment of French troops to end crises in Mali and the Central African Republic (an additional 800 troops are expected to arrive soon in Bangui, bringing the total to 1200), he does not want to be dragged into another intervention and would like African states to assume greater responsibility, particularly financial, in resolving the continent’s conflicts. France and the AU both want much greater African financial contributions for peace operations, in part to make them more sustainable. Since becoming AU Commission chairperson in 2012, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has pushed for a more self-sufficient AU to end its perpetual and disruptive dependence on external funding.


Other Western countries also do not want their troops fighting in Africa’s wars, and would rather not pay for Africans to fight them either; they are perhaps all too ready to endorse “African solutions for African problems”, a policy embraced by the African Union and many of its members to prevent external interference. But this overlooks some fundamental facts. “African solutions” are often as problematic and riddled with hidden agendas as traditional interventions; they are not necessarily the preferred option of all parties, and usually still require significant international assistance. Finally, some conflicts are such an international threat they require an international response.

The pressing need is not for African solutions as such. It is for improving cooperation by defining a clearer division of labour based on a hard-nosed assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of all relevant actors–national, sub-regional, continental and international. As Africa’s many conflicts have demonstrated, usually peace can only be imposed through the rapid, pragmatic and effective coordination of most, if not all, the actors in a conflict.

A convergence of interests

President Hollande and AUC chairperson Dlamini-Zuma share another common interest: they are worried about the viability of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), particularly the African Standby Force (ASF). The ASF was supposed to be a collection of brigade-level, mobile, joint forces, regionally based, that could respond quickly to threats to peace and stability. More than a decade after its conceptualisation, the ASF remains a distant goal.

Frustrated with the continent’s inability to field a credible intervention force in Mali earlier this year, and embarrassed by the decisive French intervention, the AU proposed, as a temporary mechanism, the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC), capable of acting swiftly, and – crucially – independent of Western support. It is to be based on a coalition of willing states and would be financed by AU member states solely on a voluntary basis. Chad, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda have pledged troops, while Algeria, Angola, Ethiopia, Ghana, Niger and Sudan have signalled their willingness to participate in future coalitions.

But the ACIRC may face the same problems that confront the ASF: unwillingness of African states to finance such initiatives; gaps in military capability; and lack of the sustained political leadership necessary for effective peace enforcement. The ACIRC will also not resolve other political challenges that undermine the AU’s efforts to promote peace and security, most importantly tensions among regional bodies and the UN over the leadership of, and division of responsibility in, peace operations.


The problem with some African solutions

Much is made of looking for African solutions, but the AU (and its member states) have no shortage of ideas, whether appropriate or not, on how to resolve the continent’s peace and security challenges. In the last decades, African states, and African statesmen, have played frontline roles in brokering peace agreements and have sought ways, ostensibly African, to end crises. AU member states have deployed ever more troops to peace operations in Africa, including in Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan and, more recently, the Central African Republic (CAR). The AU is more robust and more mature than its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, with meaningful institutions to tackle the continent’s array of peace and security challenges. In 2011, it established a regional cooperation initiative to hunt down the Lord’s Resistance Army and the U.S. provided 100 army personnel to support Uganda in this military campaign (although, two years on, Joseph Kony remains elusive).

But even with increased engagement in peace operations, questions remain about the quality and capability of African troops. Many African armies have pretty dismal track records in their own countries and are often poorly equipped and trained to deal with complex peace operations. Even Africa’s strongest armies have been found lacking. The decision by Pretoria to unilaterally intervene in the CAR, which resulted in the death of thirteen South African soldiers, led to an embarrassing political and military retreat by one of the continent’s stronger powers.

And while “African solutions” sound more legitimate, interventions by African states are often no less controversial than more international ones. For example, Ethiopia’s and Kenya’s interventions in Somalia in 2006 and 2011, respectively, were deeply problematicand had less to do with stabilising that country and more to do with their own national concerns. The sound principle that neighbouring countries with interests in Somalia should not be part of the African Union mission there was abandoned when the AU and UN agreed to re-hat (as part of AMISOM) Kenyan troops already in the country; Ethiopia is now seeking to do the same. One possible upside is that integration of both countries in AMISOM might force them to accept a more coordinated international role in helping to stabilise Somalia.

Similarly, there is great anxiety that Chad might use MISCA, the new AU-led mission in the CAR, to further its own regional ambitions following concerns that it may have been linked to the downfall earlier this year of CAR President François Bozizé. Neither Chad nor its neighbours weighed up the consequences of their African solution of essentially turning a blind eye to the Seleka rebel movement’s March 2013 coup. Today, Bangui and the entire country face a worsening security and humanitarian crisis.

Competing peacekeepers and peacemakers

Differences and competition among AU member states, between the continental and sub-regional bodies, and with multilateral actors have kept progress slow. The AU sees itself as Africa’s key interlocutor on peace and security, but it increasingly faces challenges to its authority, with member states seeking more immediate solutions and sub-regional bodies wanting to manage conflicts in their backyards. The Economic Community of African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), for example, want greater political and financial control over responses to conflicts in their region. While some felt humiliated by France’s decisive intervention in Mali, a core problem is that African states failed to act decisively because of disagreement among themselves: the AU and ECOWAS, still suffering a degree of distrust and mutual suspicion over their differences in handling the post-elections crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, competed over who was in charge; ECOWAS leaders were unclear about whether a military response was appropriate to address the twin problems of domestic crisis in Mali and transnational terrorism in the Sahel; Mali’s political leaders and the military junta were wary of an ECOWAS intervention; and neighbouring Algeria and Mauritania were not members of ECOWAS and did not share its views on military intervention. In Libya, the AU’s preference for an inclusive dialogue with Muammar Qadhafi and his opponents, as opposed to troop deployment, was stymied in arguably questionable circumstances when NATO chose to anoint the Arab League as its partner of choice in dealing with the Libyan uprising.

In its tenth anniversary year, the AU has become more assertive and wants to be the principle voice for Africa, but it has to balance this with its limitations and recognise there are other important, and equally strong-willed, actors. The AU wants to be treated as an equal partner by the UN Security Council, but, for a number of reasons, the permanent five council members want greater oversight and will not sacrifice their soldiers in African wars. Africanisation of peacekeeping has gradually increased since 2000 and took an innovative turn with UNAMID, the first hybrid (joint) AU-UN mission, in Darfur. The problems with the joint model have been widely acknowledged, even by the AU. Nevertheless, the UNSC, as well as the Department for Peacekeeping Operations, must realise that the international peacekeeping architecture has also failed to provide meaningful solutions to several crises and alternative thinking is required. In the DRC, the push by regional countries for an international intervention brigade to fight the rebel “March 23” (M23) movement was in part a response to fifteen years of failed UN peacekeeping (by MONUSCO) in eastern Congo, as well as frustration with Rwanda’s continued interference and President Kabila’s inability to govern his country. (Ironically, some African states, as well as the EU, U.S. and others, had turned a blind eye to his flawed electoral victory in 2011.) In the end, a combination of regional troops (mainly South African and Tanzanian), supported by MONUSCO and fighting alongside the Congolese army, defeated the M23 rebellion.

A new global division of labour

No single institution (or country) can address the numerous peace and security challenges on the continent; today a number of partnerships are required. Indeed, since the early 2000s, various divisions of labour, starting with the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), have evolved among the AU, sub-regional organisations and the UN.

Probably the most intense partnership is AMISOM. African troops do most of the fighting and have suffered hundreds of casualties. Before the establishment of the United Nations Support for Somalia (UNSOA) in 2009, troops suffered from serious logistical deficits and were in no condition to challenge the extremist Islamist movement Al-Shabaab. Discussions about a potential UN peacekeeping operation seem to be off the table in part because the UN is not willing to do peace enforcement, which is essentially what AMISOM is undertaking, while the AU is willing to risk more casualties. The AU considers AMISOM an important step in building its own peacekeeping credentials, but sometimes it conveniently ignores the crucial role that UNSOA continues to play in sustaining its forces. UNSOA serves as a critical link between the AU and UN, which otherwise would pass each other by.

After fifteen plus years of varied bilateral and multilateral initiatives focused on strengthening Africa’s capacity to manage its own crises, there should be a clear-eyed review of what has been achieved and what can be made to work better. UN and AU relations have improved, at least in peacekeeping, though the UNSC’s failure to reform its membership structure and tensions over the ICC militate against this. Nonetheless, the UN’s decision to bolster its office to the AU (UNOAU) with an Under-Secretary General at its head is a significant step.

Today, complex conflicts — involving extremism, transnational crime, and asymmetrical tactics — require the AU, sub-regional bodies and the UN, together with partners such as the EU, to field robust, agile and decisive operations based on an integrated system of response among multiple actors. They should also invest greater effort in prevention, as the best means of effective conflict management is for conflicts not to break out. Indeed, Africa and its international partners need to ask themselves how they allowed the CAR, which displayed sufficient signs of fragility, to once again slide into chaos. Deploying troops may sometimes be important to avert a crisis, but this can only be a temporary measure and cannot replace the essential need to focus more on governance, development, institution-building and appropriate management of natural resources to enable sustained peace

The December summit cannot address all these concerns, and is not necessarily the forum to navigate complex relations between the AU and its partners. But beyond the usual diplomatic photo opportunity, the gathering at the ÉlyséePalace should provide an opportunity to talk seriously about the future of Africa’s peace and security architecture. The goal should not be finding African solutions but achieving better coordinated responses to specific conflicts, and ensuring the better practice of conflict prevention.