After the worst week of terror in its recent history, France has awoken, as Prime Minister Manuel Valls has suggested, to a brand new world. The week began in horrific bloodshed, but the final lasting and comforting images were of the greatest public demonstrations since Liberation, gathering dozens of international leaders and 4 million throughout France. Even more impressive were the spontaneous demonstrations the very day of the Charlie Hebdo attack: tens of thousands took to the streets, holding pens in the name of freedom of expression, while at least two armed terrorists were still on the loose. But the marches’ successes should not serve as a pretext to ignore the very hard challenges that the country now faces.This is a crucial moment in French history. For all the universal condemnation of the attacks and cry for freedom of expression, the targets were not abstract principles but pillars of French republican identity: the free-thinking press and the Jews, emancipated by the French Revolution. Just as the 9/11 terrorists hit symbols of American power, these attacks on sensitive targets placed France on war footing. Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who gained popularity as a law-and-order leader (and was the most prominent Socialist who voted in favor of President Sarkozy’s effort to ban the burqa in 2010), said France was at “war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islamism, against everything intended to break fraternity, liberty, solidarity.” But rhetoric alone is not sufficient to snap France out of its millennial torpor.The marches have, so far, reignited a sense of national purpose that had been long lacking from the mainstream discourse. The country’s chronic economic woes, coupled with a European project whose politics have drawn nothing but yawns from most ordinary people, had made it hard for citizens to hang to a sense of national pride. Last week, the Marseillaise was sung in unison at the National Assembly for the first time since 1918; red, white and blue flags were brandished at the marches; and policemen were hailed as heroes by crowds. French leaders now need to seize upon the moment to prepare the country to confront radicalism and reclaim the defense of French liberal institutions, and the principles of secularism, civic assimilation and national unity.For decades, the theme of national identity, sovereignty and secularism have been largely hijacked by the extreme right to promote a divisive, populist and anti-European agenda. In recent months, in fact, both political and cultural discourse in France has been dominated by a veritable obsession with decline. “French Suicide,” a wide-ranging and controversial yet erudite essay by right wing opinion writer Eric Zemmour catapulted to the top of the best-seller lists. The argument in broad strokes is that France had been slowly strangling itself with the assistance of multiculturalism, Europe, pop culture, feminism, globalization and Islamic radicalism. Zemmour explicitly doubts the capacity of Muslims to integrate into French society and warns of a looming civil war. Despite making some outlandish statements in the past (like suggesting before the World Cup that multiculturalism had dashed hopes for the German soccer team), Zemmour was all over French news in late 2014.Zemmour’s “French Suicide” was just toppled as the top best-seller in France by Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, “Submission,” whose central theme is also the suicide of France. Houellebecq’s scenario: after an abysmal second term for President Hollande, discredited mainstream political parties decide to endorse an Islamist candidate in the 2022 presidential elections to prevent the National Front from coming to power. Houellebecq, one of France’s most celebrated and controversial novelists has always shown unparalleled talent for tapping into the country’s deepest insecurities. These immensely successful books give voice to a widely-held gloomy public sentiment—and the general feeling that France’s elites have failed to prepare the country for current challenges. The National Front has thrived on this feeling, and the reluctance of mainstream elites to engage the rise of radicalism and defend French identity at a time of globalization.The last time a similar dark sentiment overtook France was in the immediate aftermath of its humiliating and rapid occupation by Nazi Germany in 1940. It was, of course, Charles de GauIle, leader of the Free French in London, who helped France restore its sense of national purpose. In his memoirs, de Gaulle seems to be talking precisely about these challenging moments. In his characteristic grandiloquence, de Gaulle’s opening words on France resonate today:
Providence has created her for complete successes or exemplary misfortunes. If it happens nevertheless that mediocrity marks its acts and endeavors, I feel it is an absurd anomaly, the fault of the flaws of the French rather than of the country’s genius. But, the positive side of my spirit convinces me that France is only herself in the first row: only vast enterprises are susceptible to compensate the seeds of division that its people bears in itself; that our country as it is, among others, as they are, must stand high and straight, otherwise it would confront fatal danger.
The French stood “high and straight” last week to express outrage at the murders in Paris but the “seeds of division” loom large. Right after the terror attacks on Tuesday, a common reaction was “what a gift for the National Front!” Marine Le Pen’s party, fresh off a strong showing in the 2014 European Parliament elections, could gain from rising fears of loss of national sovereignty over immigration and Islam, as it has profited by broad discontent with the euro and the European Union in the current economic crisis.But the FN’s openly opportunistic reaction to the attacks have brought it under criticism. Le Pen’s attempt to profit off the grief by making statements on reestablishing the death penalty, and her attempts to victimize herself after her initial exclusion by mainstream parties from the marches, seem to have backfired. “Marine Le Pen, aren’t you ashamed?” is how a radio host abruptly opened an interview with the FN leader on Monday.A coherent strategy against Islamic radicalism has to be designed, articulated and defended in the public square. The truth is that French authorities have not taken terrorist threats lightly, either domestically or internationally. France has experienced domestic terrorism before, from Iranian-backed groups in the 1980s and Algerian Islamists in 1995. Over the last year, the domestic intelligence agency, the DGSI, has launch its first public campaign to aggressively recruit new agents and has been given increased powers through legislation. This recruitment campaign has been undertaken in part because of the fear of terror cells arising from those French citizens returning from Jihad.Last July, the Interior Ministry estimated the number of French citizens who left for jihad in Syria at 800. Beyond its borders, accordingly, France stepped up its action against radicals, leading the way against violent Islamists in the Sahel, sending troops to Mali despite lukewarm support from European partners and initial skepticism from the U.S.; and France has the second largest contingent in Iraq (after the U.S.) in the fight against ISIS. In a break from protocol, authorities have admitted to foiling other attacks in the weeks preceding the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The country remains on very high alert as six accomplices of the Buttes Chaumont network are still being sought by the security forces.Additional measures to fight radicalization were announced this week by the Prime Minister: news funds and jobs for police and intelligence services as well as measures to isolate Islamist preachers in prison (which has become a key breeding ground for extremists), etc. The question of stripping binationals who went to fight jihad in Iraq or Syria of their French citizenship, as proposed by the opposition, is also being examined. The risk of future attacks is high.However, beyond immediate security measures, these attacks make clear the ideological nature of the challenge that Europe is facing. France has brutally become the main front, the “crucial test case” for Europe, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat noted. To have broader success, French officials need to speak publicly and with moral clarity about Islamic radicalism rather than leaving the fighting to anti-terror operations by the police, intelligence agencies or the French military. French elites have to show that Le Pen’s local brand of Putinism is not the solution against fundamentalism.The first test case is the future of French Jews. Despite efforts by the authorities to protect the Jewish community, including banning pro-Palestinian protests last summer as they degenerated into violence, or preventing the anti-Semitic “humorist” Dieudonne from performing, anti-Semitic attacks have been on the rise. On Monday, in an unprecedented measure, the authorities announced the deployment of 4,700 policemen to protect Jewish schools and other sensitive sites. As Valls proclaimed: “France without Jews in not France anymore.” France has the largest Jewish population in Europe (600,000) and has become in 2014 the primary source of emigration to Israel with about 6,000 people making aliyah, which still excludes thousands more who opted to emigrate to London or New York. These departures have not necessarily been motivated by immediate physical danger, but rather by an inchoate pessimistic reflex about the future of France. Preventing the massive departure is less about the Jews than about France proving it has a future and the ability to offer a safe haven to a community that has faced anti-Semitism but also historically thrived under the Republic.A larger challenge will be integrating the largest Muslim community in Europe (somewhere between 5 and 7 million in total) while still fighting radicalism within its ranks. As the noted Islam expert Gilles Keppel explains in Le Monde:
A large majority of our fellow citizens of the Muslim faith are convinced of the necessity to uphold the republican pact, to integrate Islam to the French culture, the same way Jews, Christians, free thinkers have… but there also exists today a pole of attraction to jihad hostile to this pact. The difficult challenge is to maintain things in proportion, without any confusion, but without dissimulating reality.
As this week’s cover of Le Point, a weekly political magazine suggests, it is “the end of taboos”.Particularly disturbing were the number of schools who chose not to take part in the national moment of silence in memory of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Heads of these schools knew some students would be disruptive, having been forbidden by their parents to express solidarity with supposed “blasphemers”—just as many refused to honor those murdered in attack on the Jewish school in Toulouse attack in 2012.Education has become a critical battleground. On a daily basis, it has become harder to teach the history of the Holocaust or even biology in certain neighborhoods. It is a truism to say there is no silver bullet: it will take moral clarity, vigilance, and a mix of economic, educational and security intervention to take down the walls of the “lost territories of the Republic” as these neighborhoods have become known. But beyond that, the French model will have to become attractive again for youths who look to religion to give identity and purpose: this is a task for the whole of French society.The challenge of integration of minorities has been made infinitely more complex in a nation where self-denigration and discussion of national suicide has become second nature. If the proud and inclusive national reawakening defended by French leaders fails, both violent radical Islam and the intolerant discourse of the National Front will benefit, feeding off each other The challenge is considerable. The unity marches, the singing of the Marseillaise, and the vigorous defense of Republican principles we have seen this week offer a glimpse of a more hopeful future, one of a French rise.