France should tread carefully before taking action that may empower extremists further

The French authorities can either act in a way that brings society together, upholding fundamental freedoms and rights for all. Or, they can choose a trajectory of further calamity

H A Hellyer,Rim-Sarah Alouane
Saturday 31 October 2020 18:30 GMT
Protests across France after teacher killing

In the aftermath of the killing of the French teacher Samuel Paty, the French state responded – and now, with the further killings in Nice at the hands of more extremists, there will be an even greater impetus to act. 

As scholars concerned with extremism of different types on the one hand and the upholding of civil liberties on the other, we know there are lessons from recent European history that are prescient here.  

There’s a crucial window within which the French authorities can act in a way that brings society together, upholding fundamental freedoms and rights for all. Or, they can choose a trajectory of further calamity.

Firstly: we need to realise that extremists strike precisely in order to provoke division and strife. We have to cooperate to stop them from doing just that. When extremist Islamists committed terrorist acts in 2005 in London, Brits realised that the attack was not on certain types of Londoners, but on every Londoner, on every Briton. That meant all Britons had to stand together, without encouraging further polarisation.  

It’s not an easy balance to come to on security policy in light of a prescient threat, especially in the direct aftermath – but it’s precisely because of that it is important that leaders lead with good examples.  

The British government was not without fault in how policy proceeded, but government did not suddenly descend upon Muslim Britons writ large, claiming they were all suspects. A message of inclusion and solidarity meant British society denied extremists a key victory.

In France, however, the continuous implementation of state of emergency legislation included vague references to an individual’s practice of Islam; to the extent that abuses by authorities against ordinary Muslims could not be avoided. Eventually, these exceptional measures were codified into the “Interior Security and Fight Against Terrorism” law – in other words, made permanent.

Moreover, French politicians have abused the concept of laicité (secularism) to attempt to limit visible expressions of Islamic commitment. The ongoing discussions on banning Muslim women from wearing the Islamic headscarf in public spaces, and the latest statements by the interior and education ministers regarding “Islamo-leftism”, encourage the idea that just the visibility of Muslims can be a national security threat.  

Secondly: in the aftermath of the Danish cartoons crisis, there was the temptation to insist that those who supported the publication of the cartoons were pro-freedom of expression, and those that did not were opposed to it. It’s alluring, but it is ultimately flawed.

French law, for example, has an offence pertaining to insulting the symbols of the republic. In different parts of Europe, denial of the Holocaust is a criminal offence. The existence of such regulations points to one common reality; that irrespective of faith or creed, there are always certain things we deem to be “sacred” in the public arena.  

French parliament falls silent after Nice knife attack

Muslim Europeans might not insist European legal systems share their respect for the sacredness of the Prophet; but, as Europeans generally, it’s a false dichotomy to pit “freedom of expression” against Muslims having deep respect for him. Rather, it’s about European communities recognising that what is sacred in the public sphere is contested – it’s not a “universal value”, and how that contestation is reflected in law is, or ought to be, the result of a collective consensus. For some, religion may not be deserving of being included in that conversation – but that’s certainly contested, nonetheless.

Thirdly, whether in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in 2005, or the Danish cartoons crisis, there are always going to be state and non-state actors, in and out of France, who are keen to exploit the situation for narrow, destructive political gain. We’ve already seen an incredibly destructive form of that with the murders in Nice, and terrorist groups like al-Qaeda have reportedly called for attacks in France. We will see a great deal of much warranted attention on security threats, and no country can tolerate terrorism.

But this moment in European history comes at a time when the mainstreaming of the far-right is well underway. French Muslims writ large are not responsible for terrorism, and French politicians should resist fuelling discourse that “others” Muslims; rather, they should reinforce the reality that Muslim communities are as much a part of France as any other. Muslim French citizens have been attacked, alongside their non-Muslim compatriots, when terrorists have struck France; they should not be made to feel that they are going to be attacked again due to the aftermath.  

Finally, public figures, French and otherwise, should aim to reduce tensions, not increase them. Extremism of all types, and the abrogation of civil liberties on the altar of securitisation, need to be opposed in the same breath. In so doing, we deny extremists the victory they seek. Or we can choose to empower them further. The choice, really, is ours.

Dr H A Hellyer is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (London) and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Rim-Sarah Alouane is a legal scholar at the University Toulouse Capitole

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