Thursday, December 7, 2023

A new wave of Islamic terrorism in France and its impact on French politics and society

In the last two months, France has been coping with a new wave of violence that originates from ongoing Islamic radicalization. The French government's response, which was hesitant and inconsistent, increased public anger and strengthened the far-right parties. Mass demonstrations by Hamas supporters turned into anti-Semitic violence, but the attempt to present a united front in the fight against anti-Semitism was met with an indecisive position of President Macron and the refusal of the Left to condemn Hamas. Internal considerations influence President Macron's position regarding the war in Gaza in his attempt to calm the Muslim immigrant neighborhoods and prevent escalation. The trends above create a new political dynamic that requires re-examination and policy adjustments ahead of future challenges.

Since the beginning of October 2023, France has once again faced a wave of violent incidents against the background of Islamic radicalization in the country. On October 13, a young man of Chechen Muslim origin murdered a literature teacher in the city of Arras in northern France, precisely three years after a similar attack that shocked the country. On December 2, a young man of Iranian origin murdered a tourist in the center of Paris to "avenge the death of Muslims from Gaza to Afghanistan." The attackers had been under surveillance for suspected Islamic radicalization and were marked as a threat but still managed to strike. Government representatives claimed that one of the attackers suffered from psychiatric problems, which was seen by the public as further proof of the government's incompetence. However, what angered the French citizens more than the two attacks above was a violent event that took place in the town of Crépol in the south of France on November 18 during a teenagers' party. About ten young men of Muslim descent from the nearby town, armed with cold weapons, broke into the party, shouted that they intended "to kill all the whites", brutally attacked the participants, and murdered a 16-year-old boy.

The racist and brutal nature of the event, which took place in an agricultural area in the French periphery that is less exposed to the threats of Islamization, was aggravated by another factor that angered the public: the government's response. The law enforcement authorities delayed the publication of the names of the suspects in an attempt to prevent the disclosure of their Muslim origins. The government even tried to ban demonstrations of sympathy with the murdered teenager, explaining that it was an initiative of the radical right groups and a danger to public order. For many, it looked like a bias and a double standard. Everyone here remembers the riots across France in June 2023, after the death of a young Muslim man killed as a result of disobeying police officers and the government's helplessness in the face of rioters who vandalized public property, attacked police, and terrorized residents. Instead of focusing on Islamic radicalization, the French government continues to divert the discussion to the dangers of the "radical right" - a threat that, in the eyes of the majority of the public, is seen as irrelevant.

Caricature in Charlie Hebdo: "The art of living. To end the party with stabbing, isn't it the best proof of integration into the French boobery!"

The French public knows what the real dangers are. According to one of the latest surveys, the absolute majority of the country's citizens - 87% - fear a civil war scenario in France as a result of a loss of control due to continued immigration and Islamic radicalization. The phrase "civil war" stars in the public discourse and comes from all ends of the political spectrum in the country, including the interior Minister in the previous government of President Macron, whose warnings on the subject were recently published. While the representatives of the extreme right, Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, express the views of the concerned citizens, President Macron and his government seem at a loss, unable to rise to the magnitude of the hour.

Since he entered the Elysee Palace 6 years ago, Macron has not been able to present a clear and determined policy on the issues of immigration and radical Islam in France. His efforts have been focused on trying to maintain quiet in the "suburbs" and "popular towns," washed-up terms for the places of residence of the Muslim immigrant communities. Although Macron was able to overcome protests of an economic-social nature (the "yellow vests," strikes against pension reform) and was efficient in managing the coronavirus crisis thanks to his skills as an economist and manager, he showed weakness every time he had to deal with the crisis of immigration and radicalization, including the one that is happening now.

The French President, who usually cultivates his image in the media, has disappeared from the public discourse surrounding the incident in Crépol and the recent terrorist attacks. Instead of taking the reins, he let the Minister of the Interior, Gerard Darmanin, and the government spokesman, Olivier Véran, manage the media and public messaging. The President was also absent from an event of great national importance - a demonstration of solidarity with the Jewish community and against anti-Semitism initiated by the President of the Senate and the President of the French Legislative Assembly. The event took place against the backdrop of a sharp increase in anti-Semitism in France following the massacre in Israel (about 1,600 anti-Semitic incidents in the last month and a half, compared to 450 in the entire year of 2022). His non-participation in the demonstration harmed the organizers' attempt to create a unified national front in the fight against anti-Semitism and aided the efforts of the extreme Left to present the event as biased and controversial. So much so that the leader of the extreme left party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who refuses to condemn Hamas, derives most of his electoral support from the Muslim community in France, and who himself boycotted the solidarity demonstration, complimented President Macron for not participating in it. It seems that Macron is walking a tightrope between his desire not to anger the suburbs too much and to be clear about his support for Israel and the security of the French Jewish community.

The President's absence from the demonstration damaged his image and helped his primary opponent, the leader of the right-wing party "Rassemblement Nationale" Marine Le Pen, gain legitimacy among the Jewish community. From the first days of the war in Gaza, Marine Le Pen expressed solidarity with Israel's struggle against Hamas and announced her participation in the demonstration. Government representatives declared she was not welcome to join the rally, but their position led to the opposite result. A few influential public figures, Jewish and pro-Israel, praised Le Pen for joining the demonstration, contributing to her efforts to gain broad public legitimacy. According to the latest public opinion polls, Marine Le Pen is seen as the second favorite political personality in France (the first is former prime Minister Edouard Philippe, a possible candidate for the presidency in 2027), and her party leads by a considerable margin against the ruling party ahead of the European Parliament elections next year.

Balancing opposing interests results in an inconsistent position in French foreign policy. After the October 7 massacre, the French President expressed support for Israel's right to self-defense. However, he was not among the first leaders to visit Israel in solidarity. On October 24, Macron visited the region and met with the Prime Minister of Israel, the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, and the King of Jordan. During the visit, Macron surprised many, including his Foreign Ministry, when he announced a French initiative to establish an international coalition against Hamas, similar to the coalition against ISIS. The initiative, a complete improvisation of President Macron, was quickly dropped and replaced by the opposite position. Two weeks after he visited Israel, in a televised interview, the French President called on Israel to immediately stop the murder of innocents in Gaza. At the COP28 conference in Dubai, he even claimed that eliminating Hamas is not an achievable goal and "could take ten years." Contradictory statements by the President aside, France focuses its primary efforts on providing humanitarian aid. On November 9, Paris convened an international conference to reconstruct Gaza, in which the countries pledged to create a one billion dollar aid fund. A few weeks ago, France sent a mobile hospital aboard a helicopter carrier to the Eastern Mediterranean and is now working to establish a field hospital south of the Gaza Strip.

It would not be an exaggeration to claim that President Macron looks at the Middle East through the prism of the explosive social situation in his country. As a result, he prefers to portray himself as someone who works for an immediate ceasefire and multiplies efforts in providing humanitarian aid to the Gaza population while distancing himself from Israel. It seems that, in his opinion, this position will help him not to be perceived as a collaborator of Israel in the eyes of the Muslim population in his country. The effectiveness of this policy is questionable, but it looks like this is the kind of advice Macron receives from his close confidants, such as the famous comedian of Moroccan origin, Yassin Belattar, who helps him, as reported in the press, to understand the prevailing mood in the suburbs.

The recent events reveal the French government's strategy for dealing with social tensions - balancing opposing interests to prevent escalation and slide into violence. This balancing act is a difficult task in a country with the largest Muslim population (about 7 million people) and the largest Jewish community in Europe (about 450 thousand people) when the security of the Jewish community and even its continued existence in France are at stake. Beyond the fate of the Jewish community, Islamic radicalization undermines the French way of living and the fundamental values of the country, first and foremost, its famous concept of secularism (laïcité). It also produces a political dynamic of social polarization and the almost inevitable strengthening of Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, classified as extreme right, even though their positions are gaining increasing public support. Due to its central position in Europe, political and social developments in France will have effects throughout the continent and beyond.

The Israeli strategy for managing its relations with France should consider the abovementioned trends. We must strengthen bilateral cooperation with France, whose leaders appreciate Israel's technological excellence. It is crucial to support the efforts of the French government to maintain the safety of the Jewish community and fight anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism associated today with the extreme Left's alliance with radical Islam. It is also essential to be attentive to the transformations taking place in the French right-wing camp, to its position on the fight against anti-Semitism and support for Israel, and the transformation of Marine Le Pen's party into a legitimate player on the political field. These issues require new thinking and policy adjustments ahead of looming challenges.

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