France, ISIS and the Way Ahead: Michel Gurfinkiel Looks at the Challenge


2016-01-28 The November 13th attacks on France reminded the world once again that the battle with ISIS and Islamic terrorism is at once a domestic and a foreign policy challenge.

As Murielle Delaporte wrote from Paris, shortly after the November 13th attacks:

A new reality is born from the bloodshed which occurred in the streets of Paris last Friday.

8 terrorists, 7 points of attacks, 30 minutes, close to 500 persons hit by Kalashnikovs or explosives, more than 2000 relatives mourning a loved one, 64 million people determined to win the war against barbarism.

The French are starting to put the dots between the war lead against Daesch by the Hollande government with the Chammal operation started a year ago and the growing domestic terrorist threat.

What makes the situation difficult to comprehend is the hybrid nature of the enemy: hybrid by the military means he uses, hybrid by its status.

As the French minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve stressed in a televised interview, the enemy is a terrorist movement, but with the power of a state, since it can tap into the territory, the oil and banking reserves of the two countries it has started to take over.

The first debate therefore has been to answer the question: how do you fight a war against a non- state actor which has resources like a state?

Later in the year, she met with the well-known political analyst Michel Gurfinkiel and he gave us permission to republish his piece “No Surrender This Time,” which provides a clear insight into the challenges and the way ahead.

France has stepped its strikes against ISIS infrastructure in the Middle East, and has cracked down on internal threats simultaneously.

Some Mosques have been raided and shut down in part because lethal weaponry has been found in several of the raided mosques.

France has stepped up its role in air strikes in Iraq and Syria. Credit Photo: AP
France has stepped up its role in air strikes in Iraq and Syria. Credit Photo: AP

The French government is operating under a clear assumption that free speech is protected, but that those who are preparing and inciting French citizens to kill their fellow citizens on religious grounds are not engaging in free speech.

One is reminded of the famous test which Justice Holmes suggested at the beginning of the 20th century concerning free speech.

The case in question involved a defendant’s speech in opposition to the draft during World War I and which Holmes felt was not protected free speech.

“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

Apparently, the Holland Administration agrees with Justice Holmes.

And the Hollande Administration is putting money into building up French domestic security capabilities as well after a period of decline generated by many factors, notably the budget deficit.

No Surrender this Time

France faces a future of ethnic civil war at worst, and periodic terrorist attacks and political tumult at minimum.

Yet its difficulties—both geopolitical and demographic—can be overcome with patience and determination.

By Michel Gurfinkiel

The November 13 killing spree in Paris came as no surprise.

The Islamic State (ISIS) had threatened France explicitly and repeatedly for more than a year, and French government officials high and low issued warnings as well.

Most pointedly, Judge Marc Trevidic, who was in charge of antiterrorist investigations in France for ten years, disclosed in September that ISIS was planning “something big” against France.

He spoke of an “overbid logic” among competing jihadi groups:

“Each group is eager to strike further and in a heavier way than other groups. They all want to win the Pulitzer prize of terrorism–that is to say to do something as grand and as lethal as 9/11.”

Hence ISIS in Paris on November 13, and al-Qaeda in Bamako on November 20.

If the French were not surprised by the November 13 atrocities, they were nevertheless bewildered.

We thought we understood terrorism well, and we thought, especially after the January Charlie Hebdo attack, that we were mobilized and able in our own defense. We had activated a low-key state of emergency, Plan Vigipirate, following the 1995 bombings by Algerian Islamists in Paris, and maintained it constantly ever since.

After the Charlie Hebdo attack, Vigipirate was supplemented by another security program, Sentinelle.

However, November 13 was different: It was not merely terrorism, but war: not just in the sense that this enemy controls territory in the Middle East and is undertaking a state-building and governing process such as no previous terrorist enemy has ever done; but also in the sense that it trains military style units to operate among us, using complex and sophisticate plans, and ultimately to secure enclaves or bridgeheads on our soil.

Nonetheless, people here wonder why, if French officials knew so much and talked so much about the threat, they failed to neutralize it?

French security forces mobilized after the November attacks to prevent further attacks and to find the culprits.
French security forces mobilized after the November attacks to prevent further attacks and to find the culprits. Credit: AP

And even deeper questions are still in the process of being formed and answered.

First, as has been widely remarked, to some extent the failure to prevent the attack came down to the failure of the state to keep up with the threat level.

Governments usually move much slower than non-state actors on the prowl. So the combination of the outflow of the Syrian civil war, the power vacuum in Libya, and the increasing pace of French engagement against terrorism (in Mali and in the Levant most prominently) combined to overwhelm the budgets of the security services. All true, but the problem goes beyond that.

The French people are slowly coming to appreciate that the state lacks the tools required for war, on either the domestic or the foreign front.

The deficit starts with numbers. According to Vincent Desportes, a former Army general who now teaches at Sciences Po in Paris and author of La Dernière Bataille de la France (France’s Last Battle), the French security apparatus has been overstretched since before the Syrian civil war.

Operational strength fell by 25 percent under the conservative Administration of Nicolas Sarkozy (2007–12), and by another 25 percent under the first three-and-a-half years of the socialist Hollande Administration.

These cuts together have shrunk the force from 200,000 combat-able personnel to just a bit more than 100,000 in a delayed French version of a “peace dividend”—but it has been a reduction in truth propelled more by recent anxieties about a growing national debt, a consequence of the very difficult math involved in reconciling a still-generous welfare state with a stultified economy.

On the other hand, France is still eager to be seen as a global military power, so much so that about a third of its remaining combat force—30,000 men and women—are dispatched to permanent or semi-permanent missions abroad, from the Sahel countries to the Middle East to Afghanistan.

A video purportedly released by the Islamic State in 2014 has reemerged online after the latest attacks on Paris.
A video purportedly released by the Islamic State in 2014 has reemerged online after the latest attacks on Paris.

To have nearly a third of the country’s active-duty military forces overseas in the absence of a major war is unprecedented, and it is both expensive and dangerous.

Beyond the armed forces proper, the French rely on the Gendarmerie, a semi-militarized police corps originally in charge of the rural areas but now active in urban areas as well, and the regular police, each over 100,000 strong in terms of operational personnel.

The operational defense and security apparatus as a whole can thus be estimated to be about 300,000 or so, which is barely enough, by any standard, for a population of 67 million (overseas territories included) in a state of multilateral war.

Security personnel, including army personnel, involved in the post-Charlie Hebdo Operation Sentinelle, the protection of places deemed “sensible” (sensitive, i.e. more likely to be attacked), have consistently complained of being overworked.

What about the much broader assignments they now face now under a heightened state of emergency?

True, the Hollande Administration decided in the wake of November 13 to reverse the previous trends and expand the security forces: some 8,000 troops are to be recruited to start with. Another project is the formation of a voluntary reserve force, already dubbed the National Guard.

Yet such things cannot be implemented overnight. New organizations must be adjusted to the larger defense and security structure, and of course all new personnel must be trained and equipped.

A second major difficulty arises from the ethnic and religious diversity of contemporary France, the discussion of which has taken on a different, and more frank, tone since November 13.

Whereas the November 13 terrorists in Paris were apparently Muslim French or Belgian citizens of North African descent, their victims were overwhelmingly ethnic French. Some media attempted to conceal these facts, if only by highlighting the presence at Bataclan and other places of some people of North African or African descent.

However, such intimations melted away before the fairer faces of the majority of victims and missing persons, seen across the web and on social networks. The unsettling sense that the terrorist attacks contained an element of minority-versus-majority genocidal intent has become very widespread, not so surprising really in what is, despite centuries of attempted transcendence, a country with a bloodline-based nationalism.

Also dawning is the uneasy realization that a war on terror might escalate into a kind of civil war between the ethnic French and the French Muslims, even if the security forces are thoroughly integrated and in fact list a high proportion members of the ethnic and religious minorities, including observant Muslims. Again, the numbers seem to matter.

Due to a combination of immigration and natural increase, the French Muslim community grew from about 5 percent of the total population of 60 million in 1997 to 9 percent of 67 million in 2014. Where in 1997 there were 3 million French Muslims there are now 6.5 million.

Moreover, some places—big cities as well are rural areas—now have Muslim majorities. And in younger cohorts, thanks to greater fertility or the inflow of immigrants, the proportion of Muslims is much higher than the national average: Fully a fifth of French citizens or residents under age 24 are Muslims.

Once one sees these demographic, geographical, and generational factors together, the likely consequences of an internecine conflict become clear.

For instance, in the département (county) of Seine Saint-Denis in the northern suburbs of Paris—of which Saint-Denis is the administrative center—around 30 percent of the population and about 50 percent of the youth are Muslim. Since war, including civil war, is fought by young persons (usually young men) in their late teens and early twenties, the Muslim/non-Muslim ratio there would not be 1 to 9, as the overall demographic data would suggest, but closer to 1 to 1.

Which raises a further question: How central is radical Islam to the lives of French Muslims, and, by implication, how “French” do they feel ? According to a comprehensive investigation published just one year ago by Fondapol (the French Foundation for Political Innovation), a political science think tank, French Muslims split into three group: “observants”, believers, and “French citizens of Muslim origin.”

A photograph of the theater hall reveals the bloody horror that unfolded when terrorists opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers at The Eagles of Death Metal rock concert on Friday night. Credit: Daily Mail
A photograph of the theater hall reveals the bloody horror that unfolded when terrorists opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers at The Eagles of Death Metal rock concert on November 13. Credit: Daily Mail

The first group, which enforces strict religious practice among its members and is largely influenced by Wahhabism and other fundamentalist movements (more often than not, its mosques are funded by Saudi Arabia or Qatar), grew from 36 percent in 2001 to 42 percent in 2014.

It is much more likely than the two other groups to entertain negative views of non-Muslims.

The second group, whose members advocate a measure of compromise between traditional Islam and the French way of life, and entertains slightly less negative views against non-Muslims, fell from 42 percent in 2001 to 34 percent in 2014.

The third group, whose members clearly identify with French culture, human rights, and French democratic patriotism, and which tends to be more positive toward non-Muslims, including Jews, fell from 25 percent in 2007 to 21 percent in 2014. All in all, religious assertiveness is clearly growing among French Muslims and, in a political age, is bound to be politicized before long and at least to some extent.

These trends are leading to the increasing de facto segregation of Muslims from non-Muslims, a condition that Muslim communities increasingly seem to choose.

It is now frequently the case that neighborhoods with Muslim majorities are “no-go zones” where the even the police fear to tread. Christine Angot, a liberal-minded best-selling writer, participated this past summer in a television program at the working-class neighborhood in Chateauroux in central France, where she was brought up. She realized that the place had become such a Muslim “no-go zone.”

She described her experience in Le Monde on October 1:

When we arrived—all of us, the TV crew complete with their cameras and sound booms, and the writer who grew up there—we had to account for ourselves, to show our identity cards, to prove who we were, to state exactly where I had lived. . . .

And then, the director’s first name—David, his full name being David Teboul—supplied material for unsavory jokes. . . .

Some of the locals tried to intimidate us, saying that television was a cartel of the Jews. . . .

All this was uttered in a very menacing tone. . . .

We shot a few scenes under a running fire of jibes and jeering, and as we left we were told to pay our compliments to the Talmud. . . .

I swear we felt most uncomfortable.

The talk of a civil war may be somewhat paranoid, but the prediction that internal support for terrorism will grow has already been borne out by events.

Most observant and traditional Muslims are peaceful citizens, and understand well that Islam benefits from French-style democracy. They perceive a vested interest in keeping it functioning, but some still cannot help but entertain sympathies for radical groups outside of France.

According to an ICM Research poll released in 2014, 19 percent of French Muslims expressed “positive” or “very positive” views of the Islamic State. Among those under the age of 24, the figure was 27 percent. Evidently, this is the milieu that provides volunteers for ISIS training camps in Syria and Iraq.

Some experts think that the Islamic State’s ultimate goal in the current terror attacks actually is to arouse more suspicion and hostility among ethnic French about French Muslims, and as a consequence create a more polarized atmosphere that will drive more French Muslims to identify with ISIS—thus making the prospect of a ghastly civil war more likely.

The jihadi calculation, according to this thesis, is that France will not risk such an outcome and will instead surrender, by withdrawing its forces from Africa and the Middle East.

It could be, but France’s resilience may be stronger than its enemies think.

This is the photo which appears with the version of the article published on The American Interest and is credited to them.
This is the photo which appears with the version of the article published on The American Interest and is credited to them.

The French are learning anew the importance of national sovereignty, identity, defense, and solidarity, and even the value of their Christian heritage as well. This may translate into a political upheaval: the rise of either the classic Right or the National Front, or of a new brand of liberal or leftwing patriotism.

Either way, the upheaval could translate into a simultaneous cultural revolution that could include the abandonment of multiculturalism, the return of Christian pride (Catholic churches are now packed on Sundays), and the rehabilitation of family values.

The very notion of surrender or appeasement of militant Islam is becoming so repugnant that the French are increasingly willing to bear very high costs to avoid it.

In recent years Jews have been a main target of jihadi violence in France, from the Jewish school massacre in Toulouse in 2012 to the HyperCasher massacre in 2015. It goes on: Four days after the November 13 attacks, a Jewish teacher was stabbed in Marseilles by three men wearing pro-ISIS t-shirts. u

While the government and the political class constantly expressed their concern, and the police have provided large-scale protection to synagogues and other Jewish public places under the Vigipirate and Sentinelle programs, many Jews wondered whether parts of the public are not in fact indifferent, ready to wave away Muslim anti-Semitism and terrorism, even in France, as an outcome of an alleged Israeli unwillingness to come to terms with the Palestinians.

The new patriotic mood that has been emerging since November 13 seems to have muted this “argument.” Since everybody feels threatened now and everybody demands protection, there is much greater understanding and sympathy for the special case of the Jews. Israel is no longer described in the media as a country engaged in a colonial war of sorts against the Palestinians, but rather as a victim, along with France, of jihadi terrorism—and even sometimes as a positive example of successful antiterrorist mobilization.

For all that, the long-term consequences may not be positive for Jews, and French-Jewish emigration, either to Israel or North America, will likely not subside. One reason is that greater ethnic and religious polarization means less toleration of all third parties.

Jews are seen as enemies, just as Christians are so seen, by radical Muslims—and the fact that Jews and Muslims have a lot in common religiously is irrelevant. Jules Renard, an early 20th-century writer, noted how difficult it was to teach cats to chase mice but leave canaries alone: “A subtle point, and even the smartest cats do not quite get it.” Alas, radical Muslims are rarely well educated in their own traditions; they are far from being the smartest cats.

The geopolitical consequences of November 13 might be problematic as well.

There is a near-consensus in France that ISIS must be punished and destroyed. There is also a temptation, due to the present eclipse of American power and influence in the Middle East, to enter into a broad anti-ISIS coalition with Russia, Iran, the Assad regime in Syria, and Hizballah in Lebanon.

This would be disastrous. Russia is everything but a reliable geopolitical partner for Western countries, and seems to be more interested in asserting itself or strengthening its vassals than in fighting the Islamic State.

As for Iran, the Assad regime, and Hizballah, they have been heavily involved for decades in religious and political radicalism and terrorism, not just in the Middle East, but in Western countries as well, from France to Argentina.

The French Parliament, November 17, 2015. Credit" Murielle Delaporte
The French Parliament, November 17, 2015. Credit: Murielle Delaporte

As for Israel and Judaism, Russia’s present stand is outwardly not negative, but the three other partners in the Russian-led coalition are rabid enemies of the Jewish State and among the contemporary world’s main purveyors of anti-Semitism. To throw France’s lot in with such allies may be no improvement on surrendering to the jihadists.

France’s ideal allies in the fight against the Islamic State are the United States, because it is powerful and tends to see the problem in more or less the same way, and Turkey, because it is close by, locally potent, and has recently been savaged by ISIS attacks itself.

Alas, both the present American Administration and the present Turkish government have been wavering in their strategic priorities and neglecting their obvious national interests.

Moreover, the Russian-Iranian-Alawi axis complicates and deters the formation of an effective coalition more than it helps it. The complications could be overcome were strong U.S. leadership brought to bear, but that leadership apparently will not be forthcoming until at least January 2017.

The time between now and then will be difficult. France must therefore be patient as well as resolved.

© Michel Gurfinkiel & The American Interest, 2015

Michel Gurfinkiel, a French journalist and public intellectual, served as editor-in-chief of Valeurs Actuelles from 1985 to 2006, and authored several books on geopolitics, international relations and culture. He is the Founder and President of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, a conservative think thank, and a Shillman/Ginsburg Fellow at Middle East Forum.

For a look at the intersection of domestic and foreign policies in shaping an approach to Islam within France and in the region, see the following article published in 1997 on France and Islam.

The article provides a look at the evolving French perspective long before 9/11 or the Gulf Wars.

France and Islam