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Starting on Christmas Eve 1994, when four Algerian Islamists hijacked an Air France plane, France has suffered from a wave of violence carried out by Islamists of Algerian origins. The hijacking incident ended several days later when French commandos

Starting on Christmas Eve 1994, when four Algerian Islamists hijacked an Air France plane, France has suffered from a wave of violence carried out by Islamists of Algerian origins. The hijacking incident ended several days later when French commandos stormed the hijacked jet in Marseilles, killing the four Islamists. In reprisal, the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armée -- GIA) killed four Roman Catholic priests and it was presumably the GIA that engaged in a sequence of violent acts between July and September 1995, leaving in all thirty-five French dead and more than two hundred were wounded in this jihad (sacred war). The year 1996 did not witness spectacular incidents such as those of 1995, but smaller ones continue to take place, and the police discover underground cells and caches of arms.

Although this violence may appear to be an extension of the civil war that has wracked Algeria since January 1992, in fact the rise of Islamism in France is not an import from Algeria but is as French as is that country's high unemployment. In large part, Islamism results from French policies toward North Africa, and particularly from the immigration policies of recent decades. To understand how this is so requires knowing something about its context -- the nineteenth-century background, the bias against Muslims, the complete failure to absorb Muslims into French society, and the emergence of an ultra-nationalist and anti-immigrant movement.

The rise of Islamism in France is not an import from Algeria but is as French as is that country's high unemployment.

Historical Background

A long history lies behind this recent spate of violent acts. The first important crisis of the Franco-Algerian relationship took place in 1793-98 when two Algerian merchants, Bacri and Busnach, arranged shipments of grain and other goods to the southern French provinces and to Napoleon's armies in Egypt and Italy. These shipments were not paid for, a debt of some 10 million francs still remained outstanding in the 1820s. On April 27, 1827, when Husayn Dey, the ruler of Algeria, asked French Consul Pierre Deval why King Charles X of France did not respond to his inquiry about the French debt, Deval allegedly responded that the king could not lower himself to correspond with the dey. The latter struck Deval with a fly swatter and ordered him out of his palace.

Two weeks later, a French squadron appeared at the Algiers port demanding an apology for this famous coup d'évantail; when the dey refused the French commander's demands, he blockaded Algiers. Soon after, King Charles appointed as his prime minister Prince Charles de Polignac, an ultra-colonialist who saw an assault on the Barbary pirates as the first step in a strategy to extend French civilization to the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. On March 2, 1830, the king in his inaugural session of parliament declared war on Algeria. To strengthen the invasion, French emissaries crossed Europe invoking Christian solidarity against Arabs and Muslims.

Thus was a mere question of debt transformed into a clash of civilizations, which led to an exceedingly brutal invasion; and thus did a minor diplomatic incident precipitate a military invasion and an occupation that lasted until 1962.

Through those 132 years, French and Algerian processes of state-building were deeply associated with each other. In the nineteenth century, population pressures in France generated emigration of displaced peasants to Paris, where, underpaid or unemployed, they contributed to the chronic unrest of the French capital. The government deported to Algeria many of the proletarian revolutionaries of 1848, encouraged other Parisian workers to emigrate voluntarily, and deported still others rounded up after the Napoleonic coup d'état of December 1851. The southern shores of the Mediterranean, in other words, served as a safety valve for surplus urban workers and "trouble makers." A century later, the Algerian war of independence led to the fall of the Fourth Republic in France and the rise of the Fifth Republic in 1958, plus the subsequent emergence of Gaullism.

Since World War II, France has absorbed large numbers of immigrants for economic reasons, especially from its former colonies. The 1960s saw a steady influx of more than 100,000 workers a year. This immigration amounted to 3 million foreign workers by 1970 and 6 million in the mid-1990s. Without this cheap source of labor, France could not have modernized its economy. Today, however, as it makes the transition from an industrial economy to a service economy, France no longer needs unskilled or semi-skilled foreign labor.

More than that: as the French confront Islamism, some of them see Muslims once again on an inevitable collision course with the West. While this problem echoes conflicts going back to the Byzantine Empire, the Crusades, and modern European imperialism, the issue has changed. It used to concern control of territory; now it's primarily a matter of demographics. The Muslim population is growing more than five times faster than the European one, to the point that the world Muslim population will probably match the Christian by the year 2020. Europeans fear that sheer population size will be used as a strategic political weapon; then, coupled with the growing military capability of the Muslim world, this will pose a serious challenge to Europe. French intellectuals -- even those on the left -- agree on the existence of an "Islamic threat" to Western civilization.

While the European confrontion with Islamism echoes ancient conflicts, the issue has changed. It used to concern control of territory; now it's primarily a matter of demographics.

France vs. FIS

This outlook has clear foreign policy implications: it explains why France is the main enemy of FIS. When four Algerian terrorists hijacked an Air France plane in December 1994, the GIA issued a revealing statement, calling on Paris to end its "unconditional political, military and economic aid" to the Algerian government.

The sharp tensions that so often characterize the main decisions of French foreign policy (concerning, for example, Rwanda, Bosnia, and nuclear testing in the South Pacific) are absent when the subject is Algeria. French governments, whether the previous socialist government of François Mitterrand or the current Gaullist one of Jacques Chirac, agree on the need to provide help to the military-led government in Algiers. The slaying of the terrorists then turned the commandos who stormed the airliner into national French heroes. French opposition to an Islamist takeover has been consistent from the very beginning of the Algerian crisis. Mitterrand did not condemn the repression of student riots in October 1988, in which some five hundred teenagers were killed; and he heaved a sigh of relief when elections were suspended in January 1992 to prevent the Islamists from taking power. Pasqua, the former interior minister (and the official who directed Algeria policy much more than did Foreign Minister Juppé), denied the possibility of a "moderate" Islamism. He went so far as sharply and publicly to criticize the U.S., British, and German governments for "leniency" and "complacency" with regard to the Algerian Islamists. The interior minister's prominent role sent an implicit message that Algeria is a domestic French issue.

At the same time, this hard-line French policy toward radical Islam in Algeria puts it at odds with both its European partners and the United States. Juppé unapologetically acknowledged these differences: "One of the tasks we have assigned ourselves is to make the situation a little better understood, since we claim, as far as the Algerian file is concerned, to have a certain experience or expertise."

Bias against Muslims

Perhaps even more important, French fears of Islam explain why Algerians living in France face a variety of problems, including legal bias against them, against their places of worship, and against their wearing the clothes they choose.

Legal issues. Accordingly, the French authorities started to tighten up on the entry of North African immigrants in the early 1970s. Already in 1974, the borders were closed, and immigration became very difficult. Family reunion (regroupement familial), a very long bureaucratic procedure, is the only legal device available to those wishing to immigrate. A voluntary repatriation scheme was initiated in 1977; in 1980, the law was changed to allow French-born North Africans to be deported. The 1980 law forced approximately 4,000 migrants a year to leave; many of them had long lived and worked in France and had children with French citizenship. In 1986, Minister of the Interior Charles Pasqua approved a measure to remove the right of due process for immigrants facing deportation, and a year later, 17,000 such deportations took place. To top it off, hundreds of illegal people have been deported every month in the 1990s. In March 1993, Pasqua introduced further restrictions on immigration, with the widely quoted rationale that "France no longer wants to be a country of immigration." When the anti-foreign campaign in Algeria became more violent in 1993, Pasqua warned of further restrictions if French citizens were targeted by terrorists.

The wave of violence in 1995 forced Prime Minister Alain Juppé's government to reinforce an emergency plan, code named "Vigipirate," to mobilize as many as 40,000 police officers, including more than 5,000 soldiers, to security tasks throughout the country. Security agents check bags in the main government buildings and department stores. Identity checks on the street of two million individuals take place with skin color and personal appearance very much kept in mind (as during the Algerian war of independence). These security checks raise questions about the French government's commitment to the protection of civil liberties for resident North Africans. Detention and deportation of suspect activists without charge or trial contravenes both their civic rights and international law.

In November 1993, for example, the authorities unceremoniously deported a (non-French-speaking) Turkish imam who preached that, in the matter of wearing headscarves, "God takes precedence over French law." On August 31, 1994, the interior ministry deported thirteen Islamist activists to the West African country of Burkana Faso (formerly, Upper Volta), completely bypassing the normal channels of French justice. Jean-Louis Debré, the interior minister, said in September 1995 that France plans to expel 20,000 illegal immigrants every year, stepping up the current figure by 50 percent. Other steps taken against Muslims also contravene the law. Government authorities slapped a rare ban on a book on April 28, 1995, Yusuf al-Qaradawi's The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam, finding it "contrary to national values." Starting on November 9, 1993, and then repeatedly during 1994 and 1995, the police conducted a series of raids and arrested alleged supporters of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and Algerians in general (including myself), on the assumption that Algerians are potential terrorists. It hardly needs stressing that these abuses would not be tolerated in the United States.

Mosques. While mosques have mushroomed in France, so that they number approximately 1,200, proper mosques with minarets number only six in France -- this despite the Muslim community's numbering over 4 million, out of a total population of 56 million, making it the second largest religious community in France. Most mosques are no more than prayer rooms, many of them located in basements. Mosques provoke undue anxiety on the part of the Christian French. Take the story of the Grand Mosque in Lyons. When the idea of building this mosque was first broached in 1979, it prompted a heated debate. Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front fiercely opposed its building on the assumption that this mosque would become a breeding ground for extremist activities. Indeed, the Lyons mosque helped fuel the growing strength of his newly created ultra-nationalist party. Against all odds, the mosque's cornerstone was laid in 1992 and then only because King Fahd of Saudi Arabia took a personal interest in the structure. The Saudi government contributed two-thirds of its $6 million cost (in contrast to the local Muslim community's collecting only $60,000) and lobbied hard for permission to build the edifice. In October 1994, France's second largest place of Islamic worship finally opened. But the Lyons mosque hardly won a warm welcome; coming at a time of escalating violence in Algeria, the French perceived it as a triumph of radical Islamism as voiced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a fear to some extent well founded; and a symbol of hope in the event of a huge influx of immigrants from Algeria. The French expressed fear that their land might become "a space to conquer," just as had been the case in the eighth century. In fact, this mosque, like the country's five other real mosques, offers a focal point for Muslims on Fridays and religious days. The Grand Mosque in Paris has even emerged as a popular symbol of reconciliation among France's religions and ethnic groups.

Abdelhamid Chibane, the Lyons mosque's grand mufti, has lately been accused of indulgence toward Islamist militants. It seems that Chirane, an Algerian-born scholar who has spent the last thirty years in France, did not react when Islamists handed out fliers in the mosque component calling for the violent overthrow of the Algerian regime and the establishment of Islamic republics in Muslim countries.

The headscarf controversy. The most publicized confrontation with Islamists erupted in December 1989 around the question of laïcité, or the separation of church and state. It began when a high school principal banned three girls from wearing an Islamic-style headscarf inside the building on the grounds that this practice violated a tradition of secular education in France. The socialist government urged that the girls be persuaded to take off their scarves -- but be allowed to wear them if they insisted. When a government council ruled that the issue would be left to local school officials to decide, some girls were suspended by their principals.

The scarf has rapidly become an arena of combat for radical fundamentalists fighting secularism in France. In September 1994, a confusing ministerial recommendation was enacted that bans "ostentatious signs" of one's religious beliefs. The Federation of National Education supported this edict without restriction but it drew strong protests from groups that represent immigrants or civil-liberties organizations -- as well as from extremist fundamentalists. For many Muslim girls (and their parents), the scarf is not an "ostentatious sign" of faith but serves as a form of passive resistance against the exclusion and marginalization they face. Forty or so girls have been expelled from schools in four French cities for wearing Islamic headscarves, something that is not against the law in other Western countries (for example, England or Denmark). With the rise of the FIS, the number of Algerian girls wearing the headscarf has increased, as have the passions expressed in the media.

The Failure to Integrate Muslims


The second generation of North African origin, nicknamed the beurs, express frustration and despair at being second-class citizens. In a society that has more than 13 percent unemployment and that has become increasingly hostile toward immigrants, especially North Africans, they have little hope of upward mobility. According to many, France has never fully accepted North African immigrants, and the second generation perhaps even less than the first. That they speak French fluently and readily absorb French culture does not make them welcome in France as earlier waves of immigrants had been, including the Jews and Protestants, Italians and Russians. Even those Algerians who are relatively well integrated into French society, and who think of themselves as French or Westernized, find themselves sometimes treated differently than the indigenous French people. Most North Africans feel they are trapped in a hopeless downward spiral of joblessness, racial discrimination, and clashes with police. What the inner cities are to the United States, the banlieus (suburbs) are to France.

For example, on September 29, 1995, at the end of a long manhunt, French television viewers watched as the police cornered Khaled Kelkal, a 24-year-old beur accused of involvement in terrorists acts, into a dark street in Lyons. In the course of a shootout, the police killed him. Afterwards, one police officer kicked his body; to make matters worse, another screamed "Finish him off! Finish him off!" Many Algerians, while accepting the need to go after Kelkal, found the police actions excessive; "They shot him to death like a dog to teach all of us a lesson," was a widely heard comment.

It is an overstatement to say that French suburbs are swept by a radical Islamist wave; Algerians in France are no more Muslim than the French are Catholic. Islamists arrested for terrorist acts were born not in Algeria but in France; they had enrolled in French schools where, socialized in the shadow of Le Pen's National Front, they learned about "our ancestors the Gauls" with blue eyes and blond hair. Undoubtedly, some of them learned the arts of guerrilla warfare under Western auspices, part of the effort to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. These men returned to France and Algeria, where they fought for the GIA and engaged in attacks so savage they are beyond imagination. The crackdown of urban guerrilla cells during the spring of 1994 did not prevent the wave of violence that took place in mid-1995, for the fighters are immersed like fishes in the water in the Arab enclaves bordering the larger cities. In these enclaves, television satellite dishes, which mushroomed after the Kuwait war, help Muslim communities receive Arabic programming from overseas, including Islamist speeches.


By the end of the Mitterrand period, racial and ethnic integration had failed at every level of French society. This failure explains the large and increasing number of Islamic associations in France that attempt to "re-Islamize" Muslim communities. In the 1970s and early 1980s, these associations, such as Jama`at at-Tabligh (Society for the Spreading of Islam), financed essentially by the petrodollars of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, were involved in social and cultural activities (such as helping school dropouts and drug addicts, and giving financial assistance to needy families).

As a sign of the proliferation of associations, the Union of Islamic Organizations in France (UOIF) brought together just thirty associations in 1980 and approximately 200 in 1995. The UOIF attempts to win hallal meat (the Islamic equivalent of kosher) in school and factory cafeterias with substantial numbers of Muslims and tries to institutionalize the teaching of Arabic in certain schools. The Union of Young Muslims (UJM), a grassroots organization in Lyons, attempts to get North African Muslims more involved in local politics. FIS militants created the Fraternité algérienne en France (FAF) in 1991, preaching violence as the only language that Algerian officials understand and denouncing neither the slaying of intellectuals or foreigners in Algeria. Their bulletin, (called initially Critère, then Résistance, and finally Etendard) has not, however, been well received among Algerians, who do not appreciate its political stands. On the other hand, the Haut Conseil à l'intégration (High Council for Integration), established in 1990 to regulate problems of "integration," remains today a mere bureaucratic institution. Its failure has allowed Islamist militants to recruit from a vast pool of angry, alienated, and unemployed Arab youngsters, some of whom are ready to engage in acts of terrorism. Their life in the suburbs is a Hobbesian "all against all" existence of vice and violence. To develop a "French Islam" that is compatible with the French concept of laïcité, the authorities in January 1994 established the Institute of Theology at Nievre, which aims at promoting a "secular Islam" and at educating French-born imams to replace those brought from abroad. The UOIF and other organizations hope to control its teaching and syllabus.

The National Front

The National Front, founded in 1972, has emerged in the 1990s as the primary challenger to the Fifth Republic and its status as a liberal democracy. The common denominator of Le Pen's militants, like those backing any ultra-rightist party, is their hatred of immigrants, who are blamed for society's ills, like crime and unemployment. Within a single decade, support for this party rose from 1 to 16 percent of the electorate, even as all the other parties lost ground. The party's ideological influence is greater than its raw numbers suggest, for one out of three persons of voting age admits to agreeing with some of Le Pen's ideas, namely, the expulsion of three million Arabs. These ideas have become paramount in today's political discourse, even among parties of the Left.

This ultra-nationalist party represents a coalition of colonial war veterans, Vichy nostalgics, and fundamentalist Catholics. The growing fracture sociale of rising unemployment, social exclusion, and racial tension permits the National Front to attract those disappointed and alienated. A substantial number of those who used to support the Communist Party and the Socialist Party now support the proponents of xenophobic autarky. The areas where Le Pen has substantially progressed are strongly working-class, such as the defunct mining region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais. Le Pen's social base is shifting from the upper middle class to the lower middle class and the Lumpenproletariat. Between 1988 and 1995, blue-collar support for the Socialist Party fell from percent 42 to 21 percent, while that of the National Front grew from 16 to 27 percent. The Left as a whole is unable to reproduce itself in areas that were in the past its reservoirs of support.

The rise of Islamism explains why the immigration issue, peripheral in the 1970s and the 1980s, has become so central to French politics today. Old discussions about immigrant workers now concern solely Muslims or Algerians. The French justify their treatment of foreigners less on the basis of skin color than fear that their culture threatens French civilization and identity. Muslims are frequently accused of being an alien presence, fundamentally at odds with a "host society" presented as too merciful and tolerant. Immigrants are no longer rejected as unskilled but as different, so different they cannot be assimilated.

To recapture the support of voters lost to the National Front, the Chirac government (as well as its leftist opposition) has embraced harsh measures against Arab communities. It dispatches more money to the police to fight violence in the suburbs. Rather than create more jobs for young members of minority groups, the government favors more effective tools to fight social violence and terrorism. This "iron fist" policy in fact implements Le Pen's politics, just as the Socialists implemented the Right's politics in the past. If the socioeconomic crisis is further exacerbated, Le Pen could take power through democratic means, much as Hitler did in 1933. If he does, then the "old French stock" (français de souche) will seek their own "final solution," in this case meaning the deportation of foreigners, Algerians in particular.

The rise of the National Front is symptomatic of an identity crisis that has raised fundamental questions about France itself. Who is français de souche? Are Algerians born in France eligible to claim citizenship and then for political participation? Felt throughout the West, this crisis attains its purest expression in France, where cultural difference in the public sphere is seen most negatively, as most antithetical to the French tradition and to social cohesion. The "right to be different" rarely goes beyond the simple tolerance of other cultures.