Confronting France’s Jihadis

The official French response to repeated terrorist attacks in recent years continues to focus myopically on symbolic measures, embodied in a broadening sartorial crackdown on devout Muslim women. But France doesn’t need fewer burkinis; it needs more jobs and better domestic intelligence.


PARIS – France has become accustomed to terrorist outrages in the name of Islam, be it the murderous attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in January 2015 or this summer’s mass slaughter by a “jihadi” driving a truck through the Bastille Day festivities along Nice’s Promenade des Anglais. The question for France – and for Project Syndicate commentators – is what explains these assaults and what can end them.

Inevitably, the question has led to fierce debate among France’s “public intellectuals.” For one of the best known, Bernard-Henri Lévy, what is at stake is “the danger of an ideological victory for Salafism, the doctrine underlying jihadism, which views Europe (and, within Europe, France) as prime ground for proselytization.” In this respect, BHL, as he is widely known, echoes the view of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. But he goes on to castigate successive governments for refusing “to recognize that militant Islamic fundamentalism was actually Islamo-fascism, the third global variant of totalitarianism that diehard critics had been decrying for a quarter-century.”

Sciences Po’s Dominique Moisi makes the same comparison: today’s jihadist threat, he argues, targets “Western civilization itself,” just as fascism and communism did during the twentieth century. But he also highlights what may be at the root of France’s peculiar vulnerability: “The scars of colonialism are fresher in France than anywhere else in Europe; the country has Europe’s largest Muslim minority.”

True enough, and Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, reflects on the experiences of those immigrants from the Maghreb and their descendants. “One reason for France suffering more casualties than all its neighbors put together,” he points out, “is that the sense of exclusion and alienation felt by a large segment of France’s Muslim community has made it easier for ISIS to recruit in the country.” Nor is that sentiment groundless: a 2015 study on diversity in France revealed rampant discrimination in the labor market against people with Arabic-sounding names.