Turning Tragedy Into War

The tragic attacks in Paris call for a politics of international solidarity and antiracism — not a new wave of war and repression.

Police patrol Paris over the weekend. Tolga Akmen / LNP

Less than two weeks ago, I was hanging out at le Carillon, a bar in Paris’s tenth arrondissement and one of the scenes of Friday’s horrific attacks. It’s a well-known place, just down the road from my apartment in Belleville, and only a block from the Saint-Martin Canal, where young Parisians and bobos (hipsters) like to gather to drink wine and bullshit. I met some friends at the bar, and we sat at a table outside talking about politics.

My friends, most of them longtime militants, were not optimistic about the situation in France. They worried about the state of the French left (not good these days) and fretted about the prospect of the far-right National Front making big gains in the upcoming regional elections. At the table next to us, an older couple, who seemed to be regulars, were chain-smoking and chatting with the middle-aged bartender. Right across the street, Le Petit Cambodge, a popular Cambodian restaurant, was filling up with late-evening diners.

This past Friday I was with friends at another bar in Belleville when we first learned of the attacks that were devastating the city. As news began to filter in — of bombings at the Stade de France, mass shootings on the rue de Charonne, hostages at the Bataclan Theater — it dawned on us that most of the killing was happening just down the street.

Eventually we decided to make our way to a friend’s place on the other side of the Place du Colonel Fabien (where the famous headquarters of the French Communist Party stands).

We ended up spending the night there, six of us in a cramped apartment, checking for news updates and sitting in stunned semi-silence as reports of more and more attacks came in. While the death toll mounted (it’s now at 130), my friends spent the evening trying to track down loved ones and keep up with rapidly changing events. The attack, which had moved from Saint-Denis (a suburban banlieue, immediately north of Paris) to close by where we sat in northeast Paris, was unfolding around us.

Between our apartment in Colonel Fabien and the Boulevard Voltaire, near Place de la Nation, there had been a series of shootings, and word was that the gunmen were driving around the neighborhood with machine guns. Among the first places that had been hit, I soon found out, were Le Carillon and the Le Petit Cambodge. It seems that the gunmen had driven up to that corner of the Rue Bichat and started firing on patrons in both places with their Kalashnikovs. At least fifteen people died, and ten more are still in critical condition.

In retrospect, the violence at le Carillon was only a foreshadowing of the credible carnage that would be unleashed at the Bataclan. But it stood out for me, because I knew the place and had spent evenings just like that one sitting at its tables. My horror, rooted in this sense of nearness, paled in comparison to what many others I knew were experiencing; these were streets they had walked for years, bars and restaurants they knew intimately. Some of them would later find out that their own friends and acquaintances were among the victims.

The awful feeling we shared was compounded by recognition of what would come next.

At a certain point in the evening, someone put on President François Hollande’s national address. Hollande, his voice shaking with emotion, declared a state of emergency in all of France. The borders would be closed, demonstrations and large gatherings were banned, and the government ordered 1,500 soldiers to Paris. Hollande promised that he wouldn’t stop until the terrorists who organized these attacks were vanquished. France would be strong, he said. Later he identified ISIS as the perpetrators and promised to wage a “pitiless war.”

On Monday the New York Times reported that Hollande is seeking new rights to conduct warrantless searches and conduct police raids and enforce house arrest with more flexibility. Hollande also called for a constitutional amendment, allowing the French government to strip convicted terrorists of their French citizenship if they hold another passport.

Hollande’s tough talk is matched by other French politicians. Hollande’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, for instance, announced that he would seek special measures to have radical imams — and all those who would do violence to the “values of the French Republic” — expelled from the country. He went on to promise “great determination and a will to destroy” in the war against ISIS.

Laurent Wauquiez, secretary general of the mainstream conservative party Les Républicains, called for the arrest and detention of up to four thousand suspected Islamic extremists. The government should build special internment centers for that purpose, Wauquiez said.

More predictable were the responses of the head of the Republicaines, former president Nicolas Sarkozy. A favorite for the 2017 presidential elections, Sarkozy called for a “total” war against the “barbarian  jihadists.” Sarkozy proposed placing more than 11,000 suspected extremists under house arrest and forcing them to wear an electronic tracking device.

Meanwhile, National Front head Marine Le Pen, now leading in many polls for the 2017 election, said France needed to take back control of its borders from the European Union. She continued: “Islamist fundamentalism must be annihilated, France must ban Islamist organizations, close radical mosques, and expel foreigners who preach hatred in our country as well as illegal migrants who have nothing to do here.”

Le Pen, who recently garnered attention when she promised to stop “bacterial immigration” — which she claimed had flooded French hospitals with “non-European contagious diseases” — currently has the support of a third of the electorate in polls.

The events of last Friday have clearly put wind in the sails of the populist, xenophobic right across Europe. In France, voices from the mainstream right joined the call for Hollande to take a tougher line on immigrants, refugees, and “Islamic extremism.” One editorial from the newspaper Le Figaro urged Hollande to take a page from ex–French President Georges Clemenceau, who once said, “I make war at home. I make war abroad. I always make war.”

Just what is being demanded of Hollande isn’t clear since, as several commentators have pointed out, he’s actually sent French troops into several major conflicts: Mali, Libya, and, most recently, Syria. France has also taken in very few refugees; it has left thousands of refugees stranded by the Chunnel to England, where they live in a makeshift camp, facing sometimes violent repression by authorities and provocations from the far right.

Nonetheless, there’s a major push to further tighten immigration restrictions to strengthen France’s already muscular foreign policy. After news of Friday’s attack broke, the Hollande administration immediately declared it an “act of war” and began preparing for a ratcheting up of the military campaign against ISIS within Syria.

This escalation of France’s military presence in the Middle East is to be combined with an intensification of domestic repression — the “war at home,” as it’s being called. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, for instance, has said that he’ll use the extraordinary powers offered by the state of emergency (which Hollande says he wants to extend to three months) to shut down mosques and cultural associations that promote radical Islamism. The government is making preparations to kick out clerics who they accuse of inciting young people to violence.

None of this is entirely out of the blue; in fact, many of these moves have been in the works for some time. Fears that young French Muslims are being radicalized by imams has grown since January, when two French-born brothers spearheaded the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket. The discovery that at least some of last Friday’s killers were French citizens who had been recruited to ISIS and trained in the Middle East will only fuel those concerns.

It’s clear that the events in Paris last weekend are going to be used to justify more repressive measures. As before, there will likely be demands for a renewed effort to root out a perceived influx of Islamic militants and defend republican values of laïcité and free speech. That will spur a crackdown on young people in the segregated suburban banlieues, whose alleged social and political pathologies have become a source of chronic handwringing by the French establishment during the past two decades.

This is the pattern in French politics: whenever there is some kind of crisis involving people of African or Middle Eastern descent, the newspapers are suddenly filled with anguished discussion of “social exclusion” in the banlieues. Why, it is asked, won’t the youth in the suburbs integrate into French society? But rather than seriously addressing residents’ concerns about unemployment, lack of adequate housing, chronic discrimination, and police brutality, authorities have responded with beefed-up security, workfare, and lectures about the need to embrace French values.

In recent years, Le Pen has led the charge to denounce immigrant “self-segregation” — embodied, she says, in residents’ high rates of joblessness and in cultural practices like the consumption of halal food and the wearing of headscarves.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, these dynamics fed into an atmosphere of repression from which not even the youngest schoolchildren were immune. Refusal to abide by the moment of silence for the victims of the attack was interpreted as a sign of Islamic extremism. Even the smallest comment could earn someone a police visit.

The consequences of Friday’s attacks for residents of the banlieue will undoubtedly be grim.

Yet ISIS’s claim that it carries out its attacks in the name of the West’s Muslim victims doesn’t hold water. ISIS has no problem killing Muslims, in Paris (where many were among the victims of Friday’s attack), Beirut, or anywhere else, and the strong likelihood that the existence of ordinary Muslims will become much harder because of the massacre seems inconsequential to their crusade.

In the larger sense, then, French Muslims and working-class kids of color also belong on the list of ISIS’s targets, which in Friday’s attacks seemed totally random. Indeed, it was the randomness of the violence that made it even more frightening; there appears to be no particular religious, symbolic, or ideological basis for the selection of targets. If anything, the violence was directed at neighborhoods known for being racially and economically mixed: of the victims who have been identified so far, there are many foreigners and a fair number of non-white people.

Why this set of targets when others would seem to have no symbolic power?

For the most part, French officials have no problem answering that question: ISIS is composed of irrational fanatics who think they’re going to reestablish the caliphate and loathe the French Republic and its values to the core of their being. For them, it is enough to point to ISIS’s “savagery,” and its embrace of a clash of civilizations narrative to explain the violence it commits.

Others have pointed out, however, that while ISIS may be evil, reactionary, and capable of the most awful brutality, it is still an essentially political group that pursues definite aims based on a relatively clear agenda. Indeed, against the idea that they were motivated by a desire to destroy “French values,” the people who carried out the attacks offered a less prosaic explanation. They were, as one gunmen at the Bataclan apparently yelled out, exacting revenge from the French population for the French government’s foreign policy. “Blame your president,” he supposedly said as he slaughtered innocent concertgoers.

Similarly, ISIS’s communique after the massacre said that it was Hollande’s role in leading the charge to intervene in Syria that made France a target.

To a point, we have to take that explanation seriously. Certainly French intervention in Syria made it a target for the Europeans who traveled to Syria to join ISIS. And without the US war in Iraq, and the combination of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutality and Western intervention in Syria, ISIS wouldn’t have the influence it does.

Some have said that the events of Friday represent horrible retribution for French imperial overreach — blowback from Hollande’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy, which has included a series of interventions in Africa and the Middle East. The attacks were, from this perspective, a reactionary and misdirected but still explicable response to the policies of the French government.

But the targets selected had no political significance.

Friday’s attacks were directed at hip, progressive neighborhoods that are gradually becoming gentrified, but still have a significant working-class presence. These aren’t elite areas, like the wealthy neighborhoods in western Paris. They’re not centers of finance or government like many of those in central Paris.

The République neighborhood, for example, is a commercial and transportation hub for people traveling to central Paris from the “popular neighborhoods” on the city’s periphery (as well as a hangout spot for teenagers and twenty-somethings).

Belleville, just up the road, has historically been a linchpin of working-class life (and left-wing radicalism) in Eastern Paris. There are still large pockets of working-class residents, many of them immigrants from Asia, Africa, and the Arab world.

If you walk up the rue de la Fontaine au Roi (where a plaque marks the site of the last barricade of the Paris Commune) past where nearly twenty people were gunned down on Friday, you’ll soon find yourself in a neighborhood where kebab shops are as common as cafés, where Arabic mingles with French in street corner conversations.

The Bataclan Theater, Le Carillon, Le Petit Cambodge — these venues may attract professionals, but they also cater to many other kinds of people: young people stuck in shitty jobs or scraping by on a student income. Older people who have lived in the city for decades. Wealthy professionals and underemployed post-graduates. French people and foreigners (who made up a substantial portion of those killed at the Bataclan). White kids and the children of migrants from France’s old colonial empire.

As for the Stade de France, it sits on the edge of Saint-Denis, one of the biggest of Paris’s banlieues, known for its large Arab and black immigrant populations and famous as a traditional stronghold of the left.

Why would ISIS choose these as the targets of its violence?

Such a random campaign of terror makes more sense if the aim isn’t just to exact revenge, but also to generate a wave of repression and militarization. The goal, at least in part, seems to be to further marginalize French Muslims and banlieue residents and exacerbate their isolation from the rest of French society.

By inviting greater levels of racism and a crackdown by the state, the attacks will likely deepen the split between France’s Muslim immigrant residents and the institutions of French social life. The intended result is a vicious cycle of repression, social polarization, and political radicalization — a division that, in the long run, can help create more fertile ground for a group like ISIS.

For now, though, it’s important to emphasize that ISIS’s audience in a country like France is tiny — out of the six million or so French Muslims, perhaps only a couple of hundred have joined the group. But it’s in this environment of growing polarization that it can start to gain a hearing (even if, in the short term, its credibility takes a hit). Ultimately, ISIS benefits from anything that will facilitate polarization: for them, a Le Pen victory in the 2017 presidential election is a best-case scenario (with another Sarkozy administration a close second), precisely because for most Muslims in France, it would be such a disaster.

Seen from that perspective, both ISIS and the National Front benefit from the devastation that Friday’s attacks have left behind. The irony is that by responding with heightened repression and militarism, the French state is feeding the growth of the very currents it wants to combat.

In the same way, every time French officials launch a crackdown on the headscarf, the veil, or Muslim religious prayer, they help politicize a certain Islamic religious identity — an identity defined in opposition to French society as a whole.

Le Pen is now able to mobilize huge numbers of supporters around the demand that pork be required in school lunches. No wonder a handful of kids from the banlieues are attracted to strands of Islam that offer a total rejection of what’s trumpeted as “French values.”

In fact, studies show that most French Muslims who travel to Syria to join ISIS were not particularly religious when they were young — the vast majority came from families of non-believers. And, based on the scant evidence available, their radicalization seems rooted in political grievances — such as Western intervention in the Middle East — rather than religious indoctrination.

To recognize the deep social and political roots of Friday’s carnage and move forward in a way that doesn’t create more killers and more victims, we need a radical shift in the direction of social policy, not stern lectures about republican values or calls for a war against the “enemies of France.”

Of course, when French politicians call for war, at home or abroad, they quickly follow it up with pleas for “national unity.” We heard the same talk from Hollande and Valls in January. In the end, however, those phrases proved meaningless: “universal” French values like free speech, it turned out then, didn’t apply to everyone.

Demonstrations for Palestine were banned in the name of “not importing the Israel/Palestine conflict into France and inflaming friction between ‘communities.’” Charges of antisemitism became a cover for attacks not only on Muslims, but the internationalist left — while Le Pen’s Islamophobia was, in effect, treated as a normal part of French political discourse.

Today, we’re hearing those phrases again. Now more than ever, an alternative vision of politics is needed: one which priorities international solidarity over national unity; one that focuses on the sources of the so-called “social fracture,” rather than a new wave of war; one that offers a substantive political universalism, based on opposition to racism and Islamophobia, rather than the narrow “universalism” defended by Hollande, Valls, and Sarkozy.

Many French leftists haven’t always been consistent in its approach toward these questions: at times in the past, their commitment to the idea of laïcité led many to accept repressive measures, such as the 2004 headscarf ban and the 2010 prohibition of the veil (on which the Left was split in both instances, particularly the first).

One wonders how much this political confusion has contributed to the Left’s current marginalization from many working-class communities: in the banlieues, like Aubervilliers, Bobigny, and Saint-Ouen, around  Paris — all of them once far-left strongholds. The Right has returned to power in recent years, in part by appealing to large immigrant and Muslim communities that have grown increasingly distant from the French left.

To be fair, the statements published by many of the key left groups since the attack are attuned to these issues. And that’s a good sign — one of the few good signs in these awful days — because as I write this, reports of “massive” French airstrikes in Syria are appearing on the news. I don’t know what the government plans to do with its latest war — nor, I think does Francois Hollande — but it will be almost certainly produce terrible destruction.

Those who wish to gather, to voice their anger and dismay at the airstrikes and demand a different response, have been silenced by the government’s ban on protest.

So for now, Paris mourns and its government wages war.