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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
« La France doit revoir la conception même de ses engagements extérieurs »
« La France doit revoir la conception même de ses engagements extérieurs »
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

« La France doit revoir la conception même de ses engagements extérieurs »

Originally published in Le Monde

Les attentats terroristes sont la première préoccupation pour une grande majorité de Français, et le président Macron affirme que « la lutte contre la menace terroriste est la priorité des prochaines années ». Mais comment mettre en œuvre cette priorité ? Renforce-t-on la sécurité de la France en écrasant l’organisation Etat islamique (AI) à Mossoul, en Irak ?

C’est le raisonnement qu’ont tenu les Etats-Unis après le 11-Septembre, quand ils portèrent la guerre en Afghanistan pour en chasser les talibans, qui y avaient accueilli Al-Qaida. Est-ce la bonne réponse ? Les opérations extérieures pèsent sur le budget, et, à l’heure où le respect de la contrainte budgétaire conditionne la restauration de sa crédibilité, la France ne peut se payer le luxe de se tromper de stratégie. Le coût des opérations extérieures françaises dépasse maintenant le milliard d’euros par an, avec environ 13 000 hommes déployés – un coût à rapprocher des 850 millions d’euros d’économies qui viennent d’être imposées au budget de la défense.

L’exemple américain devrait faire réfléchir : après les milliards de dollars dépensés en Afghanistan, en Irak, au Pakistan, Al-Qaida compte aujourd’hui plusieurs milliers de combattants alors qu’ils n’étaient que quelques centaines en 2001, et les Etats-Unis ne peuvent abandonner l’Afghanistan sans prendre le risque que, demain, les talibans ne s’emparent à nouveau de Kaboul. Donald Trump vient d’ailleurs de le reconnaître.

Sortir de l’impasse

Au Mali, la situation n’est guère meilleure : l’opération « Serval » a sauvé Bamako d’une offensive djihadiste, mais si la France mettait fin à l’opération « Barkhane », au Sahel, il est probable que des groupes djihadistes, après avoir reconstitué leurs capacités, repartiraient à l’assaut. Au Mali comme en Afghanistan, l’aide extérieure au développement de capacités militaires nationales se heurte aux dynamiques politiques locales : les Pachtouns d’Afghanistan sont plus inquiets des menées des Tadjiks et des Ouzbeks que des talibans. Au Mali, les leaders du sud du pays ne voient pas d’intérêt politique à s’occuper du nord, dont le poids électoral est négligeable. Les acteurs extérieurs se retrouvent alors pris au piège d’une stratégie de stabilisation inachevée : partir est dangereux, rester débouche sur un engagement dont on ne voit pas la fin.

La France voudrait sortir de cette impasse en passant le relais à des opérations de maintien de la paix de l’ONU ou à des forces régionales africaines : aux armées des pays riches de traiter l’urgence, à d’autres d’assurer la réponse de long terme. Cette stratégie de sortie est une partie de la réponse, mais elle est insuffisante : la France doit revoir la conception même de ses engagements extérieurs, sous peine de répéter, à quinze ans de distance et avec beaucoup moins de moyens, les erreurs américaines.

La première et la plus grave erreur est d’utiliser le langage de la guerre à propos du terrorisme. Faire la guerre au terrorisme, c’est constituer une multitude de mouvements divers, produits de circonstances particulières, en un adversaire unique, et donc aider l’ennemi ; c’est banaliser la situation exceptionnelle que doit rester la guerre, et, ce faisant, miner les fondements d’une société de droit ; c’est promettre la victoire contre un phénomène qui existe depuis des siècles, et donc créer l’illusion d’un engagement limité dans le temps.

Ne pas confondre les menaces

Et quand la réalité s’impose d’un engagement plus long que prévu, la deuxième erreur est de croire que le soutien à des alliés locaux, à coups de conseillers militaires, de forces spéciales et de raids aériens, est la solution de substitution, alors même que toute alliance avec des partenaires locaux nous englue dans des combats qui ne sont pas les nôtres.

La troisième erreur, qui permet de justifier aux yeux de l’opinion des engagements extérieurs à l’utilité souvent incertaine, est de confondre menace intérieure et menace extérieure. Les combats de Syrie ou d’Irak peuvent inspirer et aguerrir des terroristes européens. Mais il ne faut pas exagérer les conséquences d’une victoire à Mossoul sur la sécurité des Français. En fait, le résultat le plus immédiat des défaites de l’EI est de pousser les combattants étrangers qui l’avaient rejoint à retourner dans leur pays d’origine ! Résoudre les conflits extérieurs et lutter contre la radicalisation d’une infime minorité de Français sont deux défis de nature différente, et les confondre en un seul combat global complique plutôt qu’il ne facilite leur solution.

Le terrorisme exploite les fragilités internes d’une société, et les acteurs extérieurs n’ont donc qu’un rôle d’appoint dans la réponse à lui donner. La leçon est claire pour la France : à l’extérieur, un peu moins d’actions militaires et plus de diplomatie ; à l’intérieur, un traitement plus policier que militaire de la menace terroriste. Les opérations extérieures ont leur place dans une stratégie antiterroriste, mais il est grand temps d’en revoir à la baisse les ambitions.