Thanks to the war in Iraq, much of the world sees the British government as resolute and tough and the French one as appeasing and weak. But in another war, the one against terrorism and radical Islam, the reverse is true: France is the most stalwart nation in the West, even more so than America, while Britain is the most hapless.
British-based terrorists have carried out operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kenya, Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel, Morocco, Russia, Spain, and America. Many governments - Jordanian, Egyptian, Moroccan, Spanish, French, and American - have protested London's refusal to shut down its Islamist terrorist infrastructure or extradite wanted operatives. In frustration, Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak publicly denounced Britain for "protecting killers." One American security group has called for Britain to be listed as a terrorism-sponsoring state.
Counterterrorism specialists disdain the British. Roger Cressey calls London "easily the most important jihadist hub in Western Europe." Steven Simon dismisses the British capital as "the Star Wars bar scene" of Islamic radicals. More brutally, an intelligence official said of last week's attacks: "The terrorists have come home. It is payback time for … an irresponsible policy."
While London hosts terrorists, Paris hosts a top-secret counterterrorism center, code-named Alliance Base, the existence of which was recently reported by the Washington Post. At Alliance Base, six major Western governments have since 2002 shared intelligence and run counterterrorism operations - the latter makes the operation unique.
More broadly, President Chirac instructed French intelligence agencies just days after September 11, 2001, to share terrorism data with their American counterparts "as if they were your own service." The cooperation is working: A former acting CIA director, John E. McLaughlin, called the bilateral intelligence tie "one of the best in the world." The British may have a "special relationship" with Washington on Iraq, but the French have one with it in the war on terror.
France accords terrorist suspects fewer rights than any other Western state, permitting interrogation without a lawyer, lengthy pre-trial incarcerations, and evidence acquired under dubious circumstances. Were he a terrorism suspect, the author of Al-Qaida's Jihad in Europe, Evan Kohlmann, says he "would least like to be held under" the French system.
The myriad French-British differences in treatment of radical Islam can be summarized by the example of what Muslim girls may wear to state-funded schools.
Denbigh High School in Luton, 30 miles northwest of London, has a student population that is about 80% Muslim. Years ago, it accommodated the sartorial needs of their faith and heritage, including a female student uniform made up of the Pakistani shalwar kameez trousers, a jerkin top, and hijab head covering. But when a teenager of Bangladeshi origins, Shabina Begum, insisted in 2004 on wearing a jilbab, which covers the entire body except for the face and hands, Denbigh administrators said no.
The dispute ended up in litigation and the Court of Appeal ultimately decided in Ms. Begum's favor. As a result, by law British schools must now accept the jilbab. Not only that, but Prime Minister Blair's wife, Cherie Booth, was Ms. Begum's lawyer at the appellate level. Ms. Booth called the ruling "a victory for all Muslims who wish to preserve their identity and values despite prejudice and bigotry."
By contrast, also in 2004, the French government outlawed the hijab, the Muslim headscarf, from public educational institutions, disregarding ferocious opposition both within France and among Islamists worldwide. In Tehran, protesters shouted "Death to France!" and "Death to Chirac the Zionist!" The Palestinian Authority mufti, Ikrima Sa'id Sabri, declared, "French laws banning the hijab constitute a war against Islam as a religion." The Saudi grand mufti, Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, called them a human rights infringement. When the "Islamic Army in Iraq" kidnapped two French journalists, it threatened their execution unless the hijab ban was revoked. Paris stood firm.
What lies behind these contrary responses? The British have seemingly lost interest in their heritage while the French hold on to theirs: As the British ban fox hunting, the French ban hijabs. The former embrace multiculturalism, the latter retain a pride in their historic culture. This contrast in matters of identity makes Britain the Western country most vulnerable to the ravages of radical Islam whereas France, for all its political failings, has held onto a sense of self that may yet see it through.
Mar. 1, 2013 update: A book has appeared making my argument writ large. Countering Terrorism in Britain and France: Institutions, Norms and the Shadow of the Past (Cambridge University Press) by Frank Foley of the Centre for Political and Constitutional Studies in Madrid argues that
Though Britain and France have faced a similar threat from Islamist terrorism in the years following September 11, 2001, they have often responded in different ways to the challenges it posed. This ground-breaking work offers the first in-depth comparative analysis of counter-terrorist policies and operations in these two leading liberal democracies. Challenging the widely held view that the nature of a state's counter-terrorist policies depends on the threat it is facing, Foley suggests that such an argument fails to explain why France has mounted more invasive police and intelligence operations against Islamist terrorism than Britain and created a more draconian anti-terrorist legal regime. Drawing on institutional and constructivist theories, he develops a novel theoretical framework that puts counterterrorism in its organisational, institutional and broader societal context.