Thursday, January 22, 2015

Some Post-Charlie Surprises

In the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks, the assumption was that the big winner would be Marine Le Pen. Few if any observers predicted that François Hollande would double his approval rating from 19 to 40%. Fewer still foresaw that 67% of those polled would say that Marine Le Pen had not "measured up" in her response to the attacks.

What is more, the ensuing weeks have revealed a deep split in the Front National. The head of the FN's EU delegation, Aymeric Chauprade, has been removed from his post for blurring the message that MLP wished to send to her countrymen. Chauprade announced that France "was at war with Muslims," that the Muslim minority constituted "a fifth column" inside France, and that Islam posed a "grave threat" to French values. This contradicted MLP's desire to soften her Islamophobic image by directing her fire against only those Muslims who opted for militant jihad. To complicate matters, her father, honorary president for life of the party, backed Chauprade (after adopting for himself the slogan "je suis Charlie Martel"), as did her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, one of the party's two deputies. So, contrary to all expectation, the attacks have been devastating for the FN.

As for the UMP, Nicolas Sarkozy appeared yesterday on France 2, carrying on as if he had never left the presidency and abetted in his comeback by anchor David Pujadas, who allowed the former president to speak for minutes on end without interruption--minutes in which he indulged his penchant for rhetorical excess and muscular hyperbole: France was engaged, he said, in a "war" to defend "civilization." But Sarkozy erroneously portrayed his own record (claiming that he had not reduced the size of the police force during his presidency, even though Pujadas's own program had presented figures the night before showing that he had). He also called for reinstating police overtime, which doesn't need reinstatement because it already exists. Rather than looking presidential, he seemed confused and hapless, an appearance compounded by his uncharacteristically hesitant delivery.

Meanwhile, Manuel Valls made headlines by declaring that France suffered from being an "apartheid" society. The term was immediately challenged, not least by Sarkozy, who called it an error--which, in a literal sense, it was, since there is certainly no legal regime of segregation in France. But Valls chose the term deliberately to provoke, and his use of it got the attention he desired. It also gave him an opportunity to hit back at Sarkozy, which he did by playing the statesman card: in this time of national danger, leaders ("those who govern and those who governed yesterday," he said, leaving no doubt about whom he had in mind) must rise to the occasion and not descend to petty polemic, etc. etc. Insincere, perhaps, but effective. And the issue of the abandoned banlieues and their role in alienating a generation of Muslim youth is now squarely on the table.

Finally, François Hollande continues to live in a state of grace, as though his presidency had been reborn. He has been dignified, but, more importantly, he has not succumbed to the temptation an "all guns blazing, with us or against us" response. He has allowed his ministers to emphasize the need for a social as well as a security response to the crisis. In short, he has at last been able to appear presidential and has something to do other than seem inadequate in the face of economic crisis. I hesitate to use the phrase "divine surprise," knowing its history, but it seems remarkably apt.

The Generational Divide

Suddenly, everyone is worried about the younger generation--younger Muslims in particular. François Hollande announced new measures for the schools today, includying "lay instruction about religion as social fact," a proposal that immediately drew negative commentary from teachers: "He wants us to teach the sociology of religion to ten-year-olds," one said. "Let him try it."

Politicians of course need to come up with quick fixes. But two sharp-eyed observers of the French scene, Judah Grunstein and Gilles Kepel, see a much deeper problem of social alienation affecting the 30-something generation in particular. Grunstein puts it this way:


There are many reasons why the 30-something generation represents a dividing line within France’s Arab and Muslim population, separating an older and more resigned population from a younger and more alienated one. Part of it is a socio-biological phenomenon: After all, 40-somethings have families, responsibilities, more maturity and less of a chip on their shoulder. They also have an accumulation of lived experience that makes them less prone to appeals rooted in quests for meaning and identity. But part of why the 30-something and younger generations seem so at odds with the country that surrounds them surely has to do with the very different social landscape in which these younger generations grew up.
Kepel, an authority on political Islam, also notes a generational shift of a somewhat different order:
La société musulmane en France a changé depuis la guerre civile algérienne des années 90. La génération des pères, des «darons», n’est plus aux manettes. Les manettes sont désormais, pour les plus religieux, entre les mains de quadras qui ont réussi, notamment ceux que j’appelle les entrepreneurs du halal, qui gèrent les sites de «vigilance islamique» en ligne. Pour eux, il est très important de se poser en défenseurs de la religion «intégrale», comme ils disent, et il en va de leur légitimité communautaire de combattre Charlie Hebdo. En revanche, il leur faut traiter au quotidien, ne serait-ce que pour faire du business, avec d’autres Français, juifs notamment. Qu’ils exècrent les «impies» et les «sionistes», c’est dans un autre registre. Cela différencie l’impact symbolique des deux attaques, dans ce qui apparaît sinon comme une tragédie unique.
The problems that Grunstein and Kepel highlight cannot be addressed by tweaks to the school curriculum. France will have to change the way it looks at its immigrant communities. The shock of the attacks may have started that change in motion. At least people are talking about the problem much more openly than before. More Muslims need to join the conversation, however. We need to hear from the inside what is going on.