“France on Fire”

Summary:  Right-wing extremists in the US warn of jihadists and creeping Sharia, with as  little basis as their warnings of a 5th column during the Cold War). But it is a problem for France, with their larger Islamic populations and lower abilities to assimilate people from foreign cultures. Making a bad situation worse, France has alienated them, treating them as second class citizens fenced into communities ringing their cities. Today we have a status report on the small blaze burning there which might erupt into a wildfire.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Muslims burning French flag

France on Fire

By Mark Lilla
From The New York Review of Books, 5 March 2015.

On January 13, two days after millions in France marched to commemorate those assassinated by Islamist radicals the week before, Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls gave a stirring speech in the French National Assembly that was celebrated by socialists and conservatives alike as among the best in recent memory. He was firm and balanced. He first praised the police and expressed the government’s resolve to put in place security measures to win what he was not shy about calling a “war on terrorism, jihadism, and Islamist radicalism.” He then insisted that France was not at war with a religion and must stand firm on its principles of toleration and laicity — that is, the separation of religion and state. He received a standing ovation. Then, to the nation’s surprise, the deputies broke spontaneously and unanimously into the Marseillaise, the first time this had happened since the signing of the armistice ending World War I in 1918.

On the question of security, this unity is likely to last. There is a solid consensus that more resources will have to be devoted to tracking suspected terrorists and monitoring the Internet for signs of trouble. Legislation will be required to give the government sufficient legal leeway to accomplish that, which it will get, since all parties recognize the deficiencies yet none wants to reproduce the American Patriot Act.

So firm has the government of François Hollande been that the leading conservative opposition party, the UMP, and its mercurial leader, ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, have found few plausible grounds for dissent. Even his party’s more muscular demands — isolating Islamists in prison, stripping binational jihadists of their French citizenship, limiting the civil rights of nationals who get involved in jihadist movements (as was done with Vichy collaborators after World War II) — are under serious consideration by the government.



By the end of January, 117 people had been placed under indictment for making statements justifying terrorism, and 28 had been sentenced to prison terms. Among them is the poisonously anti-Semitic performer and activist Dieudonné M’bala M’bala.

On the questions of toleration and laicity, however, France is anything but united. For the past quarter-century a political and intellectual culture war over the place of Islam in French society has been bubbling along, and every few years some event — a student wears a burka to school, riots erupt in a poor neighborhood, a mosque is attacked, the National Front wins a local election — renews hostilities. Now, though, nearly one thousand French citizens are believed to have traveled to Syria to join other Islamist militants there, and heavily armed jihadists pledging allegiance to ISIS and al-Qaeda in Yemen have massacred 17 people in Paris.

Given the enormity of the crimes, it is hard to escape the feeling that a major battle is beginning and that it will overshadow economic and other issues here for months and years to come. And the battleground, as is typical in France, will be the schools.

Immediately after the murders the French press focused almost exclusively on the killers and their milieu: the poor neighborhoods, the radical preachers, imprisoned terrorists, and the international jihadist network that furnished arms, training, and indoctrination. While disturbing, none of this news was surprising (though the French had greatly underestimated the effect of the prisons, where young men who commit petty crimes fall under the spell of radical fundamentalists with terrorist connections). Western countries have had enough experience with Islamist terrorism to know how it breeds. …

Read the full article here. This is the first of three articles.


Mark Lilla

About the author

Mark Lilla is a Professor of Humanities in the History Department at Columbia, and currently a Fellow of the Paris Institut d’Études Avancées. See his bio here.

He is author of The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (2001) and The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (2007). See his reviews and posts at the New York Review of Books.

For More Information

See all posts about Islam, and these posts about France:

  1. The Rioting in France and the Decline of the State. About the previous round of riots in 2005.
  2. France volunteers itself as a front line in the clash of civilizations.

6 thoughts on ““France on Fire””

  1. What Mark fails to tell us is significant. Muslims all over France do not want to nor exhibit willingness to assimilate. Not just in Saint Denis but all over rural France one finds deeply polarized ghettos.


    1. Breton,

      “Muslims all over France do not want to nor exhibit willingness to assimilate.”

      I don’t believe that is really accurate. They assimilate quickly enough in America, hence the local society is the determinative factor — not their unwillingness to assimilate.

  2. In the USA many thousands of prisoners have been converted to Islam who have been radicalized by Imams and others during their incarcerations in american penitentiaries.

    This is not hype, it’s fact … a homegrown fifth column of millions manufactured in the heartland of the USA ready to form sleeper cells when they get out.

    So far this dire problem seems to be kept out of the media with attention to this massive national security problem diverted elsewhere.

    Do you plan to examine this very real and very sensitive issue in a future newsletter?

    1. Chuck,

      “In the USA many thousands of prisoners have been converted to Islam who have been radicalized by Imams and others during their incarcerations in american penitentiaries.”

      Your evidence for that number? Also, what fraction of these “radicalized” people will do anything of size?

      Let’s have a reality check. The Census gives the number of self-identified Muslims in America as 1.3 million as of 2008, vs almost 20 million in Europe (15x that of the US). The fraction of radicalized Muslims is, by most accounts, far higher in Europe — due to their alienation vs. their mostly successful assimilation in the US.

      Europe might have 30x or 50x the number of radicalized Muslims as America (who knows?), yet has had little Islamic terrorism (still smaller than, for example, separatist violence). So the number of radicalized Muslims in the US might increase 1000x and still remain a smaller cause of bloodshed in America than that we uncaringly administer to ourself from gun violence.

      So this remains one of our legion of possible serious problems, but theoretical so far.

  3. The article is interesting, but misses some crucial aspects that substantially alter the analysis about the danger of muslim radicalization. Here they are:

    1) It is not a problem about France. Muslims from basically every advanced EU country are joining Al Qaeda or ISIL. UK is reputedly sending the most jihadists, but Belgium has supposedly the highest number of jihadists per capita. Even people from economically more successful countries like Denmark and Germany are joining by the hundreds. Notice that all those countries have vastly different integration policies, traditions and constraints; the common factor is elsewhere.

    2) A country like Tunisia, from which traditionally jihadist volunteers originated in no meaningful numbers, is now seeing plenty of young people moving to Libya or Syria to fight under the banner of Al Qaeda or ISIL. Can’t Muslims integrate in their own Muslim country?

    3) From what the French government states, 20% of those joining the jihad are converts. Some have gained an ephemeral notoriety, like Maxime Hauchard or Raphaël Amar — clearly not the expected dark-skinned individuals from North-African descent. Actually, the second one was originally a Jew…

    4) Nobody joined the Palestinians to fight Israel — despite the apparent rigtheousness of their cause. Nobody, except people from the Arabian peninsula or Chechnya, joined Al Qaeda when it was led by al-Zarqawi, who used exactly the same methods as the current ISIL, actually set up the group and infrastructure from which ISIL originated, and had a similar extreme ideology. Now everybody declares allegiance to ISIL or Al Qaeda, or goes on a rampage in Belgium, France or the UK.

    What happened?

    My interpretation: a conjunction of three main factors.
    a) The relentless, planned, all-out offensives against Muslim territories and populations: operations cast lead, pillar of defense, protective edge against Gaza; the drone war in Afghanistan, Pakistan Yemen, etc.
    b) In Europe, an increasing islamophobic pressure, including an accumulation of laws specifically targeting Muslims (veil prohibition, minaret prohibition) and their reinforced application, widespread anti-muslim discourse in the MSM and continued discriminations in daily life.
    c) The consequences of the crisis: the rise of unemployment amongst young people to unprecedented levels (about 24% in France, and it is not the worst case), with little perspective for stable, reasonably paying jobs (unpaid internships and low-pay temporary jobs are the norm), governments imposing endless austerity, while the EU lavishes trillions on banks involved in LIBOR fraud, exchange rate fraud, tax fraud, money laundering, etc. The situation is much worse in North Africa itself.

    Notice that those parallel evolutions really started or accelerated at about the same time, from 2007-2008 onwards.

    Now there is an ideology that promises a virtuous future through a violent purification; for young people despairing of their situation, having the opportunity to lash out with unbriddled fury against what they view as a corrupt, degenerate society, even destroying its cultural artefacts (in their logic, what a corrupt society respects and reveres can only be corrupt), cleaning the slate, getting the chance to build a new rigorous social structure, must be attractive in some frightful way. I do not think it is happenstance if this resembles what took place with nazism long ago.

    So a fraction of the population (still a small one), subject to particular cultural and economic stresses, is snapping. Knowing that more of them risk writing off the discourse and the ideas presented to them (whether it is liberal values, “liberté, égalité, fraternité”, integration, rule of law, European unification, etc), what can be done? And this ties up with an earlier comment on the tech revolution and how to make it work.

  4. Pingback: WWII dog tag, lost in France, finds its way to widow - News Report - Doodle Inc Australia

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