France: An uncanny counterterrorism strategy
French President Emmanuel Macron is currently in Washington, DC. This is the first official visit to the United States by a head of state during the Trump administration. A “bromance,” that even Macron has joked about, has seemingly developed between the French and American presidents. Macron, who ran as an independent but initially stated that he is “left-wing”, is actually more conservative and similar in some policy areas to his U.S. counterpart than anyone would expect. This brings me to the focus of this article which is Macron’s proposed counterterrorism strategy.
More than 230 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in France since 2015. Most of these attacks were perpetrated by French or other Europeans inspired by or affiliated with the Islamic State. Additionally, an estimated 1,900 French nationals have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State. The last terrorist attack in France occurred on March 23, 2018 when a man claiming allegiance to ISIS stole a car, opened fire at police, and held hostages at a supermarket before being fatally shot by police. Four people were killed and 15 in the attack.
Following the attack, Macron condemned “underground Islamism” and those who indoctrinate and corrupt people on French soil. The attack gave the French president more reason to move forward with a controversial strategy that has been under development for a few months. The strategy calls for the restructuring of Islam in France, with the goal of integrating people but also preventing terrorism. Specifically, the strategy has three pillars: 1) determining who will represent Muslims in France, 2) establishing how Islam will be financed in France, and 3) defining how imams in France are trained.
The man behind this strategy is Hakim El Karoui, an ex-investment banker and nephew of a former Tunisian prime minister. He is the son of a Tunisian Muslim father and a French Protestant mother, and identifies himself as a French Muslim, although he is not known for being religious. El Karoui is the embodiment of the French elite, and what he may aspire other French Muslims to follow.
El Karoui supports secularism in France and opposes the use of the veil in public, as he considers it an oppressive practice that goes against the French value of equality (égalité). He also has categorized radicalization as a uniquely Muslim problem, when many convicted terrorists have not been found to be particularly religious. He also distracts critics who claim that radicalization may be a structural problem by saying that the main problem in the Muslim and Arab world is the incapacity to face problems. He says that this population blames everything on someone else, such as Israel, and does not take responsibility for their actions.
The proposed counterterrorism strategy by France is faulty. A strategy cannot target a specific group or population by further marginalizing it and fueling stereotypes. This reduces the potential for collaboration with these communities and increases divisions that could be contributing to the conditions that lead youth to joining violent groups in these areas.
France needs to do what it has actually proposed in its policy: integrate marginalized communities, while understanding and respecting their differences. Reforming Islam to make people “more French” is not a viable option. This population of approximately 4.5 million people are French, but have never been able to integrate into French society, as they live in a completely alienated and unattended world. This situation is real. Three years ago, I was riding the metro in Paris when a man started speaking to me in Arabic. I told him that I don’t speak Arabic, so he switched to French to tell me that he has been living in France for 40 years, yet he does not feel French. He talked about racism, exclusion, and his wish to go back to Algeria one day.
Liberté, égalité, and fraternité does not exist for everyone in France. Those who are not part of the majority do not have liberty, equality, or feel like are brothers/sister with the rest of the population. The French government needs to work on integrating these communities but not through an attempt to change something that is fundamental to them like their religion. As has been observed, a small group of Muslims is committing these attacks in France, not the entire Muslim population. Focusing on these people’s identities will not address the situation. Attention must be paid to the behaviors of individuals who are at the greatest risk of radicalizing and efforts to change these behaviors should be considered.
While foreign financing of Islam (or any other religion, activity, group, etc.) should be controlled, and any foreign influence in a state should be countered, a strategy should not target only one group. The idea of national unity behind Macron’s plan is valid; however, the way he wants to attain it does everything but unite the country. Inclusion through opportunities, programs for marginalized youth, and an overall understanding that there are different groups in France must be part of this policy.
Attempting to make a whole segment of a population adopt the ways of a secularist Muslim, who is part of the French elite, will further alienate people because his ways do not resonate with the target population. Macron is a smart leader and with better guidance will be able to better focus his counterterrorism strategy. Preventing violent extremism involves working with target populations and getting their support to identify those individuals who pose the greatest risk to society.