All of a sudden, the French find themselves front and center on the world stage: continued slow economic growth, the surge of refugees across Europe and now, dealing with the aftermath of November 13. Since the carnage that hit Paris, President Hollande has been on hyper-drive: air strikes in Syria, intensified security, and persistent lobbying among key world leaders for a coordinated war against ISIS.
What Hollande has not done in public is to link the dots. There has been much chest beating and soul searching. Defining that soul in a multi-ethnic and pluralistic society has been difficult. Nationalist feelings are at a fever pitch across the political spectrum. French flags are hanging everywhere as if hanging a French flag in your window indicates Frenchness. If our values and society are at risk then what are our values?
Politicians and pundits have been speaking out on terrorism and jihadism. With upcoming regional elections, there is a feeling among the left and right that social issues should not be addressed lest they enhance the standing of Marine Le Pen’s extreme right wing political party, the Front National.
The French intellectual, Alain Minc has written that, “Islam resembles a subterranean territory within French society”. So how does France face up to tackling the social roots of terrorism? Has there been a lack of responsible governance over the last twenty years in tackling these difficult issues?
The obvious answer is yes. However, the political will and appetite has been lacking. Clearly something will have to be done in order to offer disenchanted youth across diverse backgrounds a positive stake within the national fabric.
Some suggest that the country adopt affirmative actions, boost civics classes within the public schools, and foster anti-discrimination initiatives. Others claim that in the current fragile environment that such statements of support for those left economically behind in the poorer urban quarters and suburbs is untenable given the atmosphere of fear in the face of any future terrorist assault.
Most people would state that this a country dedicated to secular traditions, respect for French law, and of course the slogan, which rings in everyone’s ears about equality, freedom, and fraternity. So where does this put the Muslim community?
Fortunately, President Hollande has harnessed our national grief and is using this opportunity to rally the diverse communities within this nation. Although the administration has declared war on ISIS, sent the Charles-de-Gaulle aircraft carrier to the Eastern Mediterranean, ordered a state of emergency, and rounded up potential suspects, he has not of yet addressed the underlining social issues, which are at the root of the current problem.
The problem is that no one is addressing the taboo elephant in the room: How does the government better integrate those of immigrant descent among us?
The answers do not lie in some far off land, but resonate much closer to home. The hard truth that the perpetrators were born among us has been a difficult pill for many to swallow. The culprits might have been seduced by a twisted ideology, but ISIS was just a means for them to legitimize their social grievances.
Out of desperation and alienation, they have bought into an argument that we are living through a clash of civilizations. The West is seen by radical Islam as decadent, dismissive, and antithetical to the teachings of the Prophet and therefore must be destroyed. This perverse interpretation of the Koran could not have come about if the people of North Africa, who immigrated to France, felt a deeper part of French society.
Their offspring have grown up in broken families, rundown housing projects with little hope of gaining successful employment. Their anger in the last twenty years has sometimes erupted in rioting, burning cars, and looting stores. Yet, many people still felt unconcerned by their plight. It took the attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the shootings at a kosher supermarket to sound the national alarm bells.
In the past, successive government administrations of both the left and right have used the immigrant issue as a wedge in political campaigns with diverse consequences. As in the United States, there are cultural wars between the left and the right. When the terrorist component is thrown into the shaker, the outcome is an explosive cocktail.
The seeds of France’s problems took root years ago in the form of passive discrimination, income inequality, and a lack of viable employment for an entire generation. Clustered in satellite cities outside of Paris most feel cut off and isolated. There is little or any social engagement across communities.
Secondly, the last fifteen years in France like in many Western economies has seen acceleration in income inequality. This has hit all classes and economic sectors. Factories continue to close and many traditional white-collar jobs have been off shored. To try and change this dynamic, the Sarkozy administration recalibrated work contracts.
Unfortunately, it did not have the desired effect. It was meant to introduce more flexibility in the workplace and allow people to earn more. In the end, corporations hired fewer people, and shared out the work to the special few who held full time employment. The rest were left to scramble and hold multiple part-time work contracts to make ends meet.
The French economist, Thomas Piketty has addressed this subject at great length in his 700-page book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”. The chattering classes have chewed over his work, but the current administration has yet to implement any of his pragmatic solutions to ease the economic crisis.
In a recent interview with the French newspaper, Le Monde, he is quoted as stating that the major driver of terrorism in the Middle East, and indeed in Paris, is social and economic inequality.
In his view, the West is partially to blame with its callous manipulation of geopolitics, the two Gulf Wars, and its relationships with the Gulf States.
If terrorism is rooted in inequality as Piketty claims, then the best solution is for Western countries to demonstrate that they are more concerned with the social development of the region than they are with their own financial interests.
I certainly give President Hollande credit for dealing swiftly with the aftermath of the Paris attacks. He has stood shoulder to shoulder with leaders on both side of the aisle and with every religious group in this city showing a strong face of solidarity among all the citizens who live in this country.
Since the attacks, I have spoken at great length with friends, family, and acquaintances throughout the city. Parisians can be a tough lot, but in reality are soft under their contrived cynicism. The new trend is to show no fear. However, most people are afraid.
Those attacks were not military targets. They were an attack on a civilization and a way of life. Everyone feels vulnerable. Security has been stepped up, but this doesn’t make anyone feel safer. To resolve the dangers of our times, we must all stand up and hold hands together against the hate mongers. This means inclusiveness, openness, tolerance, and mutual respect. Immigrant bashing and name calling only serve to fracture a fragile society looking for a comprehensive solution.
The way forward is for France to turn away from “austerity” and reinvigorate its model of integration and job creation. To combat a twisted ideology, you need to be able offer a positive solution where people have the opportunity to fulfill their dreams and belong to a larger community. Can President Hollande step up to the challenge? Only time will tell.
- Why Inspirational Leaders Follow A Path Of Gratitude – by AndrewScharf - October 10, 2019
- From Paris: Strategies For The Age Of Trump – By Andrew Scharf - November 23, 2016
- French Introspection & Action:Aftermath Of The Paris Attacks – by Andrew Scharf - December 1, 2015