It was supposed to be the turning point in our response to violent Islamism. This week marks six years since more than a million people marched through the streets of Paris waving “Je Suis Charlie” placards in a show of defiance, echoed across the world, against the slaughter of satirists by a pair of jihadist brothers.
Today, with most Western countries reverting to type and responding to jihadist terror with obscurantism and denial, it looks like far fewer people were Charlie than was actually claimed. Not so in France, though, which is more or less united behind President Macron’s decision to confront the country’s domestic Islamist movement. In one poll at the end of last year, a staggering 79% of French citizens agreed that “Islamism has declared war on the Republic”.
To his critics, Macron’s hard line was a cynical manoeuvre designed to reduce the electoral threat to his right posed by Marine Le Pen and National Rally. But such a claim ignores the threat that Islamism does pose to France. It is also to misread who is directing the country’s conversation on extremism. For the truth is that the impetus behind France’s skirmish with Islamism doesn’t come from the Right, but from the Left.
This shift did not happen overnight. Way back in 2002, the left-wing feminist collective Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives) was founded following a series of high-profile organised gang rapes known as tournantes – or “pass-arounds”. They soon became vocal advocates against escalating misogyny and violence against women. But they were particularly concerned with the French authorities’ empowerment of Islamist and Salafist groups to tackle the social ills of drugs and crime, which to the feminists culminated in an Islamist culture of sexual repression, misogyny and extremism.
This was famously attempted in the commune of Trappes, some 30km from Paris, where the Salafist community was enlisted to steer young members away from criminality and delinquency. One resident gushingly described how “mothers saw their children return to religious practice. It was a relief.” By 2013, however, it became starkly clear that this experiment in activist Salafism had all but failed. Trappes was seized by religious rioting and the commune set an ignominious national record in sending 80 jihadist recruits to Syria. At the time, Ni Putes was denounced for being “Islamophobic”. But, if anything, the riots acted as a vindication of their warning.
Yet Ni Putes was hardly an isolated example, a fringe outlier on the peripheries of French debate. In the same year as its launch, a collection of essays titled Les Territoires Perdus de la Republique, or The Lost Territories of the Republic, was published, which warned of rising antisemitism and radicalisation among second and third generation Muslims. In the book, a number of schoolteachers – those tasked not just with imparting knowledge, but the values of the Republic – pointed out that classrooms were disintegrating along ethnic and religious lines, that the ideals of secularism and universalism were facing an unprecedented challenge.
That isn’t to say that the teachers’ sense of urgency — or that of Ni Putes — was widely shared on the Left, or even the centre. In fact, as late as 2014, national discussion surrounding Islamism was still, to an extent, plagued by cringe-inducing naivety. In April of that year, journalist David Thomson appeared on a typically French news programme to assess the steady exodus of jihadist recruits to ISIS’s nightmarish project in Iraq and Syria. Thomson, who by this point had interviewed dozens of French jihadis, calmly explained that that French jihadis see France as a legitimate target, as an “enemy of Allah”.
For this now painfully obvious insight, Thomson was humiliated on national television. Facing the indignation of seven panellists and a presenter, the journalist – barely allowed to finish a sentence – was accused of “populism” and “stigmatising” French Muslims, while other guests drew comparisons between ISIS recruits and the anti-fascist volunteers of the Spanish Civil War. Of course, France was a target. And an honest attempt to understand Islamism and its militant jihadi offshoots would have made this clear. As one anonymous imprisoned jihadi made clear recently: “France is a symbol, an enemy. If you can push it into a civil war, if you’re able to make France lose its strength, its social contract, then you will have an open door to a victory in Europe.”
It wasn’t long before Thomson’s every word proved correct: just one month later, a Frenchman fresh from the Syrian jihad, Mehdi Nemmouche, gunned down four people at the Jewish Museum of Brussels. Later, between the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 and the assassination of Father Jacques Hamel in July 2016, jihadists would kill a total of 239 people in France. Thomson, for his troubles, ended up on a jihadi kill-list and went into hiding.
For much of the French centre and liberal-left, afflicted by what Thomson labelled “jihadoscepticism”, the attacks proved a rude awakening. In particular, the shootings at Charlie Hebdo’s offices struck at the core of the French Left’s secular, anti-clerical values. (Despite the British media’s portrayals of the magazine as Islamophobic and racist, it sits firmly within the traditions of the Left.)
Since then, every section of French political society has woken up to the threat of Islamism. Just as with Ni Putes’s vindication, one of the contributors to The Lost Territories, a history teacher named Iannis Roder, has found himself exonerated and thrust into the public eye. The decision to invite him to deliver a Ted Talk in 2017 signalled his total rehabilitation by the liberal professional classes. To this day, Roder still challenges the escalation of classroom “separatism” through an influential left-leaning think tank, Fondation Jean-Jaurès.
More significantly, a raft of left-wing commentators and politicians have stepped into the rhetorical and ideological territory carved out by Ni Putes and others. Then Prime Minister Manuel Valls adopted a firmer stance than his fellow socialists on security, secularism and Islamism, though he paid for it electorally. Journalist Caroline Fourest and Marianne magazine, firmly of the Left, became fierce and fearless public advocates against Islamism, while prominent socialist voices such as Gilles Clavreul and Laurent Bouvet offer full-throated criticism of the far-left’s indulgence of it.
Even the academics have got on board. Echoing the explosive 2002 essay collection, leading scholar Bernard Rougier published Les Territoires Conquis d’Islamisme, or The Territories Conquered by Islamism, detailing the growth of Islamist movements of France – and, more importantly, where Islamists have become the de facto local authorities. Soon, long-held truisms about the socioeconomic causes of radicalisation were subjected to rigorous questioning, exemplified in the work of Hugo Micheron. Why, for instance, does Trappes hold the record for jihadist foreign fighters but a neighbouring commune with the same socioeconomic profile account for zero? What made the tiny affluent Southern town of Lunel “the capital of French jihad”, but Marseille, a big city with its own share of social ills, immune to the lure of extremism?
Crucially, all of these developments have taken place in the mainstream. A culture of public intellectualism sees those such as Roder, Thomson, Fourest, Rougier and Micheron on TV shows and in newspapers in a way that their British colleagues might only find themselves in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. It’s a refreshing reminder that the West’s understanding of Islamism doesn’t have to be hampered by political tribalism: for the Left in Britain, the cause is Western foreign policy; for the average liberal-minded academic, it’s economic and social marginalisation; while for the far-right and certain sections of the Right, Islam is to blame.
In recent years in France, though, the centre-left has shed this deadweight and articulated arguments against Islamism and for the values of the Republic. Yes, the far-left remains obsessed with “anti-imperialism” and identity politics. But there can be no doubt that those not on the fringes now focus on the political dimensions of Islamism, without implicating ordinary French Muslims in the manner of the far-right.
That is particularly important, as few things have boosted the Western far-right like the perception that the establishment is unwilling to confront the thorny issues of the day. Yet in France – and perhaps there is a lesson in this for us in Britain – the Left and the centre are pulling the rug from beneath the far-right’s feet. It follows that the former darling of centrist liberals, Emmanuel Macron, has been on the very same intellectual journey. The only question for France remains whether or not this is too little, too late.