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France’s all-powerful state is as powerless against violent Islamism as it is against the coronavirus

John Laughland
John Laughland
John Laughland, who has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oxford and who has taught at universities in Paris and Rome, is a historian and specialist in international affairs.
John Laughland, who has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oxford and who has taught at universities in Paris and Rome, is a historian and specialist in international affairs.
France’s all-powerful state is as powerless against violent Islamism as it is against the coronavirus
When an old lady was beheaded in a church in Nice on 29 October while saying her prayers, and a sacristan and a third victim were murdered with a knife, the number of deaths from Islamic terrorism in France since 2012 rose to 270.

The best known of these victims are the 12 people killed in the attacks at the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015; the company boss decapitated in June 2015; the 90 victims of the Bataclan theatre massacre of November 2015; the two police officials whose throats were slit in front of their young son in June 2016; the priest whose throat was slit while saying Mass in July 2016; the 86 holidaymakers mowed down by a truck on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice in August 2016; the policeman who exchanged himself for a hostage and had his throat slit in March 2018; the four police officers murdered inside the prefecture of police in Paris by one of their colleagues in October 2019; the schoolteacher decapitated on 16 October 2020; and now this second attack in Nice.

Like the previous attacks, this one has inspired widespread revulsion. But the tone has changed. Numerous opposition politicians have started to say that candlelit vigils are not enough. Even though some ministers have continued to repeat sentimental banalities about unity and solidarity, others have also started to say things that were not said before. In particular, the Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, said after an axe attack in September – not among those I have mentioned above – that France was “at war” with Islamic terrorism, while, on Thursday, Emmanuel Macron said in Nice that France herself had been attacked.

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Such martial vocabulary is new. It is true that François Hollande declared a state of emergency after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and set up a military operation called Sentinelle to improve security. But, in reality, it meant nothing more than bored soldiers walking around railway stations. Now, the Cassandras warning of incipient civil war are no longer limited to social conservatives such as Philippe de Villiers or opponents of immigration like Marine Le Pen, but include, spectacularly, people like Emmanuel Macron’s first Interior Minister, the former Socialist Party member, Gérard Collomb, who warned of it in 2018 when he resigned.

However, there is a grave danger associated with announcing a war and engaging in it: you might lose. This risk is serious for three reasons. First, the measures required to uproot the problem are far greater than those already mooted. When the schoolteacher was beheaded in October, the French government announced its desire to dissolve some Islamist organisations and close a couple of mosques with radical imams. But, as every counterinsurgency expert knows, you have to drain the swamp that breeds the terrorists or else new ones will come back as soon as you eliminate the existing ones.

This swamp includes, above all, the hundreds of lawless zones in France where, for decades, the police have not dared intervene, or have been prevented from doing so by their superiors. These zones are run by drug dealers, mafias, and Islamists. This intolerable situation has been tolerated, and has therefore been deteriorating, for many decades:  Gérard Collomb said in 2018 that it would soon be too late to do anything about it. Maybe it already is.

The fact there is still no statement of any plan to resolve this indicates that the new strong words are designed only to hide the reality of a lack of any political will. On the contrary, the dominant force in the French political class remains precisely that political correctness which renders any such policy impossible. For decades the whole apparatus of the state has demonized those who criticize immigration or Islam, and this situation has not changed, even after the terrorist attacks. Prosecutions for incitement to Islamophobia continue to be brought, the most high profile being the latest conviction of journalist Éric Zemmour as recently as September 2020. Legal immigration into France – which the centrist Collomb identified as an ongoing security problem two years ago – continues at a rate of 200,000 a year, with the absolutely inevitable social consequences.

The absence of political will is therefore a major impediment. But even if there were such will, victory is far from assured. Failure is not only possible but probable, as recent events have shown. The last time Emmanuel Macron declared war was in March, when he announced drastic measures to fight Covid-19. France introduced lockdown – a curtailment of civil liberties not seen since the German occupation of France in the Second World War, in which various fundamental rights such as freedom of movement, of religion, and of assembly were summarily binned. Yet this gigantic, almost totalitarian deployment of state power, decided with the appropriate level of will and largely obeyed, has, in fact, been powerless to stop the spread of the virus, as President Macron effectively admitted when he announced a second lockdown the night before the Nice attack. In other words, the apparently all-powerful state is, in fact, as impotent against the coronavirus as against the virus of Islamism.

Thirdly and finally, the French political class, like its equivalents elsewhere in Europe, is metaphysically incapable of fighting this war. To defeat an enemy, you have to understand what drives him. When a young man slaughters an old lady saying her prayers in a church, slitting her throat according to the Muslim practice of animal sacrifice, and shouting, “Allahu Akbar,” his motivation is religious not political. Unlike previous terrorists from the Muslim world – Palestinians, for instance, or Algerians – he is not fighting for the political liberation of a territory. His act is, instead, designed to punish a perceived heretic for her religious practice and thereby to advance the cause of Islam. As a terrorist, his goal is also to inspire terror in Western society at large for its impiety and godlessness. It is an act of religious war. Unable to conceive of this because they are indeed godless, having abandoned Christianity and all religion, European states cannot even begin to respond.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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