Social roots for radical Islamism France has accommodated its almost 5 million Muslims badly. The result has been tension, violence, and radicalization, both among the French right, and among Muslim activists. Today, France experiences that clash across the board: from the economic isolation of Muslim families; to the episodic upsurge of street confrontations between authorities and young men in Muslim neighborhoods, especially on the north side of Paris; to the legal battles over the veil. The two populations, France’s secular and Christian, and France’s Muslim, scarcely mix.
First-generation postwar immigrants to France faced considerable racism. The second generation was less willing than their parents to accept passively social discrimination and police brutality. They organized, largely through secular movements and took to the streets in violent protest. In autumn 2005, riots swept through French banlieues and cities as youth and police fought pitched battles.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, the French authorities had taken a relatively laid-back stance on multiculturalism, generally tolerating cultural and religious differences, at a time when few within minority communities expressed their identity in cultural or religious terms. The then president François Mitterrand even coined the slogan “droit à la differénce” (the right to be different).
As tensions within North African communities became more open, and as the far-right Front National emerged as a political force, so the “droit à la differénce” was abandoned for a more assimilationist approach, with the problems of North African communities presented in terms of their “difference.” Few of the youth who rioted in 2005 saw themselves as Muslim. But the authorities portrayed the riots and the disaffection they expressed less as a response to racism than as an expression of a growing threat to France – that of Islam. The French authorities treated North African migrants and their descendants as a single community, and primarily as a “Muslim” community. Islam became symbolic of the anxieties about values and identity that now beset France.
A much-discussed 2013 poll conducted by Ipsos and the Centre for Political Studies Sciences (Cevipof) described a “fractured France”, divided into tribal groups, alienated from mainstream politics, distrustful of their leaders and resentful of Muslims. The main sentiment driving French society, the report concluded, was fear.
Far from including North Africans as full citizens, French policy has tended to ignore the racism and discrimination they have faced and institutionalized their marginalization. Many in France look upon its citizens of North African origins not as French but as “Arab” or as “Muslim”. In fact, the second generation within North African communities is often as estranged from their parents’ cultures and from mainstream Islam, as they are from wider French society.
Clearly Islamic extremism is a proximate expression of this underlying rage of the colonized, a message and text that gives voice to that humiliation and the desire to stand up against it. And the consequences are frightening. But religion is only part of the problem; overcoming the colonial legacy is an even bigger part.
The Belgian connection The Paris attacks and the severe terrorist alert which followed and closed down the capital Brussels also brought into the light the Belgian connection, since Molenbeek, a suburb of Brussels, came again to attention as a nest of European jihadism. One of the Paris suicide-bombers, Brahim Abdeslam, was a French citizen who lived in the area. His younger brother, Salah, is believed to have fled back to Belgium after the carnage. The presumed mastermind of the attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian of Moroccan descent, also grew up in Molenbeek.
Molenbeek has a longer association with jihadism. Former residents of north African extraction include: the killers of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the commander of Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, assassinated in 2001 before al-Qaeda’s attacks on America on September 11th; a man involved in the Madrid train bombings in 2004; a man who killed four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014; the connections with the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January and a man who tried to kill passengers on a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris in August.
While France has the biggest number of Muslim citizens in the European Union, and the largest number of foreign fighters in Syria, Belgium has the highest proportion of those fighters as a share of its population. It is estimated that Muslims make up 6 percent of the Belgian population, but that figure is 25 percent in Brussels and 40 percent in Molenbeek. The unemployment rate in the district is 30 percent, but it is believed to be even higher among immigrants.
The Brussels region provides home to people from over 100 different countries: from Congo and Morocco, but also increasingly from the Middle East or Chechnya. New immigrants arrive in a traditionally Catholic country, with Jewish and Muslim communities growing, and a state that has been suffering from extremely high sovereign debt levels since the mid-1980s.
Whether or not Belgium has a worse problem with radicalism than elsewhere, it is clearly struggling to cope with it. Its police and intelligence forces are, like most of the country’s institutions, fragmented and under-resourced. It has long had a reputation as the way-station for drug- and gun-smuggling between the Netherlands and France. Another problem is that Belgium lies at the heart of the Schengen zone area. Once a gun is smuggled across the external border of the free-travel area, typically from the Balkans, where they are plentiful, it can be taken freely across much of Europe. Black-market prices suggest that automatic weapons are cheapest in the Balkans and most expensive in Britain, which is outside Schengen.
November 20 in Mali: shortcomings of the French “African approach” The hostage-taking at the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako (Mali), coming only a few days after the 13 November Paris attacks, was claimed by al-Mourabitune, a branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) , against which France launched several military operations in the last three years. That is why this attack is seen as another indication of the shortcomings and failures of the French African policies. Establishing a French and UN military presence across northern Mali has not proved to be the same as restoring a Malian state presence in all of these areas, nor of guaranteeing peace there. The Malian state has actually lost ground to the rebel armed groups with which it was supposed to conclude a peace agreement. The escalation of state collapse in Libya also suggests that the Sahel-Sahara region is no less a safe haven for jihadist groups than in 2012.
From Serval to Barkhane: high costs, strategic failures In early 2013, France deployed 4,500 troops on the ground in Mali, managing to defeat an Islamic insurgency’s raid to the country’s capital and stabilize the country. France did so again in December 2013 in Central African Republic.
The military operation code-named Serval (named after a medium-sized African wild cat species) was launched after a distress call by the Malian President and in accordance with the U.N. Charter. The degradation of the internal situation in Mali and the growing risks of terrorism in Mali and its spread throughout the Sahel have been the reasons behind the French intervention.
Since the beginnings of the operation, several reports were underlining concerns in London and Washington about the feasibility and success rate of the mission. The French intervention was based on the commitment that neighboring countries, such as Senegal, Niger, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, would contribute to the effort of war by sending troops in Mali. The delays in sending such troops could not only affect the chances of success, but increase the risks and challenges confronted by the French army already on the ground.
The goal of the ground operation was to dislodge the rebels estimated at 1000 to 1500 terrorists. The French intervention in Mali was seen as the beginning of a lengthy and costly war – financially and human. The operation ended on 15 July 2014 and was replaced by the Operation Barkhane launched on 1 August 2014.
Barkhane, named after a crescent-shaped dune in the Sahara desert, was supposed to become the French pillar of counterterrorism in the Sahel region, with a French 3,000-strong counterterrorism force over five countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, also known as the ‘G5 Sahel.’ In addition to the troops, there are six fighter jets (Rafale Mirage 2000), twenty helicopters, 200 armored vehicles, ten transport aircrafts, and three drones (as described by AllAfrica.com, RFI, and African Defense Review).
The purpose of Operation Barkhane was to “regionalize” the counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel, as well as bolster “cross-border and region-wide securitization efforts.” According to the Ministry of Defense of France, Barkhane’s objectives are to assist the G5 Sahel armed forces in fighting terrorist networks in the Sahel-Sahara region and contribute to the prevention of terrorist safe-havens in the region.
Besides Barkhane, since early 2015, France has been engaged in other significant military operations, all directly connected to the terrorist threat. (The operation ongoing in the Central African Republic is not directly related to the fight against jihad). Operation Sentinel – which includes 10,000 French troops stationed throughout France protecting the country’s sensitive sites, in particular religious ones – was first deployed immediately following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015. Operation Chammal, which carried out the strikes in Raqqa, involves about 1,000 French military people engaged in operations against Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
Analysts noted several strategic failures of the African French or French-directed operations that are supposed to affect their chances of success:
(1) The French diagnosed the problem in Mali as an incidence of jihadist terrorism rather than a domestic political crisis. The French intervention did not resolve the prior armed conflict between the Malian state and secular Tuareg separatist groups, which regained control of Kidal district. Until defeated decisively in its renewed offensive on Kidal in May 2014, the elected Malian government interpreted the French military spearhead and UN shield in its three northern regions as a reason not to pursue a peace process with the separatists.
(2) While the French were able to use superior conventional forces to repulse a conventional offensive and recapture territory, they have not so easily been able to hold that ground against the asymmetric and unconventional tactics of a dispersed terrorist adversary. Successive reports in 2014 by the UN Secretary-General on Mali have attested to deteriorating security conditions in the north as French forces have drawn down and jihadist groups and cells have reorganized. These groups contain both Malian and foreign militants from new combinations of factions created through the shaking of the Saharan kaleidoscope that Opération Serval entailed. Al-Mourabitoune, which claimed the Radisson Blu hostage-taking in Bamako, was created in 2013 from a dissident faction of AQIM and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).
(3) Another shortcoming was the attempt to destroy highly mobile transnational armed groups with a campaign limited to one country that has completely open borders. Thus, Opération Serval displaced the jihadist problem from Mali into neighboring countries, especially Niger – where there was a series of attacks in mid-2013 by groups formerly operating from Mali – southern Libya, and northern Nigeria. Some AQIM splinter factions appear to have gained in strength and, like Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Libya’s Ansar al Shari’a, and may be making common cause with Daesh. While France took a more integrated regional approach with Opération Barkhane, this is still a military-first approach and the visibility of foreign “crusader” or “neo-colonial” troops in the region is likely to propel a backlash.
(4) Rooted in a concept of ‘partnership’ with Sahel militaries and governments, Barkhane is seemingly blind to the toxic nature of these partners. All the five armies of the target states have overthrown or risen against their own governments in the last decade. They may be seen more as pariahs and predators than partners by the local population.
The same aspect may be seen in the case of the governments, since the pursuit of counter-terrorism operations across the Sahel-Sahara is dependent on maintaining relationships and status of forces agreements with national governments. This has strengthened a number of non-democratic regimes since the “reliable partners” in the “war on terrorism” seem to be authoritarian regimes which invest in their security forces.
The Algerian Pouvoir, the quasi-military Mauritanian government and especially the Déby government in Chad are thus pillars of French (and, increasingly, US) counter-terrorism strategies for the Sahel-Sahara.
In a situation strongly analogous to uncritical Cold War alliances, such dependence makes them largely immune from pressure to improve their repressive treatment of citizens and political opponents. Violent Islamism has been one outlet for the political and social pressures that similar authoritarian regimes and state-corruption have built up in Nigeria and across the Maghreb.
Losing Francophone Africa The shortcomings in the military field are seen to match a less visible but not less worrying process, in which France is “losing ground” in the economic, social and even cultural fields, with many of its francophone African former colonies, as well as non-African francophone countries such as Georgia and Armenia – which constitute, in geopolitical terms, a rimland for France – are seen to shift their interest in the direction of the Anglophone world, particularly the United States.
France’s colonial ventures date back to the 16th century, when French explorers arrived in North America, the Caribbean and the northern tip of South America. Over the following four centuries, France conquered territories in North, West and Central Africa and, to a lesser extent, East Asia. Because of its key geographical position, northern Africa became particularly important for France. Taking advantage of the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the French captured Algiers in 1830 and used it as a platform for regional expansion.
By the early 20th century, France had expanded its dominions in Central and West Africa to the modern states of Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Ivory Coast, Benin, Niger, Chad, the Central African Republic and the Republic of the Congo. France’s presence also extended to the coastal enclave of Djibouti, the island of Madagascar and other islands on the Indian Ocean. Along with the establishment of trade networks and secure access to strategic industrial commodities, France saw itself as a civilizing force in Africa. Paris set out to introduce the French language as well as its customs to its colonies, with varying degrees of success.
After World War II, when France lost control of most of its African colonies but still needed strategic commodities, Paris sought to maintain strong economic, political and military ties with its former colonies. France’s interests in Africa were confirmed by former presidents as François Mitterrand, who prophesied in 1957 that “Without Africa, France will have no history in the 21st century”, and Jacques Chirac, who acknowledged in 2008 that “without Africa, France will slide down into the rank of a third [world] power”.
To consolidate its presence and influence in Africa and elsewhere, France developed the concept of “Francophonie”, based on a term coined by French geographer Onésime Reclus in 1880 to refer to the community of people and countries using the French language, and taken over in 1962 by the Senegalese writer and political leader Léopold Sédar Senghor, founder of the Négritude movement, who assimilated it into humanism. Starting as the Agency for Cultural and Technical Co-operation in 1970, based on a convention signed by 21 heads of state, the modern Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (Agency of International Organization of the Francophonie) comprises 57 member states and governments, 3 associate members and 20 observers, in a network of private and public organizations promoting special ties among all France’s colonial ambitions with other nations in its history.
France was motivated by three main goals, namely privileged access to raw materials such as oil and uranium (through French multinational companies that expanded their business in the region); preserving its role as an international actor by keeping a network of allied countries; keeping a military presence in its former colonies to support its economic and political interests.
While France wants to remain an influential player in Africa, particularly among its former colonies, its wishes may surpass its ability. In the context of the European economic crisis, French exports were losing ground in Africa as a result of decreased competitiveness at market and increased presence from other players, including China, the United States and Germany. In the last decade, France shifted from being the main exporter to the region, to the fifth place after China, India, the United States and Germany. French banks currently account for around 16 percent of the credit supply in West Africa, compared to 37 percent a decade ago.
This decrease was explained by several economic factors, but also by the fact that former Francophone colonies have increasingly sought non-French investment partners to reduce their dependence on Paris. Currently, France can no longer depend on its former colonies as closed systems for the benefit of French companies, the way it once could. China is now Africa’s largest trading partner, providing a cue for other emerging economies, including India and Brazil, which have also scaled up their diplomatic and economic presence in the continent.
Growing US influence In this context, analysts note a process in which Francophone African nations are shifting their cultural allegiance from their old colonial master to America.
In the recent years, it was noted that many Francophone countries that once sent their most ambitious immigrants almost exclusively to France, experience a steady outflow people to the U.S., which reflects a shift in the relationship of sub-Saharan Africa to France and to the U.S.
In the case of Cameroon, the young educated people were increasingly turning to English. Partly the reason was pragmatic. For too long, France had exerted enormous economic dominance among its former colonies. Learning English gave the business class new access to the Anglophone capitalist world and to American capital especially. They stressed that the pragmatism and openness of American capital differs sharply from France’s more closed, status-oriented managerial culture.
During the period when France experienced a wave of protests by African immigrants (2005), university-educated Africans living and working in Paris complained about racial bias and about limits on the potential of even highly talented to immigrants to advance up French corporate ladders. The contrast with America’s embrace of talented immigrants was impossible to ignore.
Another significant case is that of Rwanda, a Francophone country, which added English as its third official language after the trauma of the 1994 Tutsi-Hutu wars and genocide, signaling a shift in linguistic allegiance.
The shift worked mainly because during the years of persecution, a Tutsi diaspora had flourished in the U.S. These Rwandans spoke fluent English, had acquired skills in America, and understood American business culture. Today, the Rwandan government is one of the closest allies of the U.S. in the region, underscoring the distinct shift away from France.
In Gallup polls of global attitudes towards American leadership, sub-Saharan Africans express the highest degree of approval, topping 75 percent of those polled in 20 countries. In seven French-speaking countries – including Burundi, Chad, Senegal Mali and Ivory Coast – approval ratings exceeded 85%. American relations with African countries, while shaped mostly by concerns over access to oil, the need to combat terrorism, and the importance to American voters of humanitarian concerns, are increasingly influenced by the presence of more than 1 million naturalized Americans born in sub-Saharan Africa.
Losing on the African economic ground: CFA vs. IMF France’s difficulties on the military and counterterrorist efforts in Africa are matched by the economic evolution in the former colonies, which are more and more aware of the economic losses dues to the Franc CFA system imposed by France on the 14 African francophone states.
For the former French colonies, the use of the so-called Franc CFA means that they are not independent from the monetary point of view. The Franc CFA, together with the francophonie, is considered the main means for France to maintain effective control over its former African colonies.
The Franc CFA was introduced in 1945, and meant “Franc des Colonies Françaises d’Afrique”. Now it stands for “Communauté Française d’Afrique.”
Contrary to other former colonial powers, France managed to install its commissars at the heart of its former colonies economic and monetary system and it still maintains almost unchallenged control over them. The system was created by German National Socialists during the 1930s and 40s. It was used to usurp France and other German occupied nations.
On 9 May 1941, Hemmen, the German Ambassador to France declared that he had signed a treaty with the French Admiral Darlan, by which Germany would place commissars within the French National Bank’s departments for foreign currencies and international commerce. The treaty was negotiated under the auspices of German Minister of Finance Hermann Göring, whose father, Heinrich Ernst Göring, was Governor of German West Africa, today’s Namibia, from 1885 to 1890. At the end of World War II, French President Charles de Gaulle created the CFA Franc as a currency for the western African colonies, as well as a monetary union whose functions of control were based on the model of commissars Germany had used to usurp German occupied France. The system persisted even after the countries’ independence.
The placement of French commissars within the heart of the nations and the union’s banking system creates an obvious contradiction between the apparent sovereignty of the union, its constituents, and direct control from the previous colonial power. The number and placement of the commissars gives them a Veto right at the board of each of the Central Banks. No decision can be made without their approval and France can enforce its policy by threatening to deadlock the economies unless decisions are made in compliance with French suggestions.
While the primary instrument of control is through the commissars, the primary instrument for usurping the 14 francophone African economies is their current accounts. The member states agree to deposit their foreign currency reserves in a shared reserve fund. The foreign currency reserves are subject to deposition in an operations account at the French National Bank. Between 1945 and 1973, one hundred per cent of the foreign currency reserves had to be deposited in the operations account; in 1973 it was reduced to sixty-five, and on 27 September 2005 to fifty percent. Another fifteen percent is kept in a guaranty fund, so, in other words, sixty-five per cent of all foreign currency reserves of the nations and all revenue generated outside their territory is kept at the French National Bank.
The European Council stated that France is blocking any project of the European Central Bank that attempts to change the nature or the bearing of the French involvement in the western African Central Banks. The French approach to managing French-African relations is not only bleeding Africa. It is increasingly bleeding both the French and European economies which are missing out on the market potential of an emerging African middle class.
This situation increasingly forced the African countries to resort to International Monetary Fund (IMF) financing under harsh economic reforms’ conditions. Among such reforms there were privatization of the economy, cuts of public expenditures, opening the market for US and European goods, cutting state subventions for local producers.
Malawi, Cote d’Ivoire and Mauritania received IMF loans without interest, but in exchange to make economic reforms not easily accepted by their population. In 2013 Malawi received 156 million USD, but had to devalue with 100% its national currency. Cote d’Ivoire received in 2011 a credit line of 600 million USD and Mauritania 118 million USD from 2010.
However, after being strongly criticized for the harsh economic conditions for its loans, the IMF improved its African offer, creating a trust fund that made easier the access of the countries that needed money on a short-term basis, as well as giving more advice to the governments.
Backlash of Françafrique The Franc CFA system – currently challenged by the IMF – is only part of the complex strategy that France used to maintain its influence and deepen its interests in Africa since the end of colonization. This strategy, known as Françafrique, supported unpopular African politicians in order to advance and protect France’s economic interests, in a mix of neocolonialism and clientelism.
France’s post-colonial client relationships with Africa were devised by Jacques Foccart, Charles de Gaulle’s long-serving presidential counselor between 1958 and 1974, who soon acquired the epithet ‘Mr. Africa’. He developed a three- dimensional military schema: the first entailed the signing of secret defense agreements; French assistance could then be requested by any client regime deemed to be a ‘friend of France’ should it be faced with otherwise uncontrollable disorder. The second was the military cooperation. French paratroop battalions were deployed throughout the former French colonies, established at permanent military bases. This longstanding military presence also presented the opportunity to promote French officers as African presidential counselors. The third component of Foccart’s client politics was the construction of security ties founded on privileged intelligence provision, reflecting his own training in France’s intelligence service. Colonel Robert, Head of the African Department within the French overseas security service, the SDECE, envisaged an intelligence network, partly based on cooperation in matters of counter-intelligence and counter-subversion with client African intelligence services, and partly based on black operations, which were exclusively conducted by the French security services.
Foccart was well aware that these military instruments counted for nothing until they were harnessed to a discreet political program. The critical change in this context took place in the late 1960s. In 1969, after a preliminary operation in August 1968 (an event largely overlooked by a French public still reeling from the events of May ’68), France launched its first war in Africa since the end of the Algeria war — this time in Chad. Known as Opération Limousin, this intervention would last for three years. With it, an important precedent had been set. In 1978, President Giscard d’Estaing thereafter launched Opération Tacaud in pursuit of a hidden war against Colonel Gaddafi’s Libyan regime. Giscard’s successor, François Mitterrand ultimately followed suit – illustrating an important continuity in what was depicted as French presidential pragmatism in African affairs. During the 1970s and on into the 1980s, France continued its efforts to undermine the Libyan regime through military actions in Chad.
This specific colonial and post-colonial history helps explain current French military policy in Africa, one whose continuities have survived seemingly decisive changes of presidency in the Fifth Republic. It took the shock of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 for the intrinsic flaws of the Foccart system to be exposed. Their exposure opened a new era and new arguments over French military interventions just after the end of the Cold War – interventions that continue to the present day.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, African leaders suddenly saw the balance of power shift in their favor, in a process that some analysts, including former DGSE director Pierre Marion called “reverse colonization”. African leaders, well aware of France’s need for their countries’ resources, adopted the same manipulation tactics once used on them. Some African leaders even insisted on selecting French ministers and ambassadors. Presidents like Omar Bongo of Gabon and Mamadou Tandja of Niger realized that they could leverage their natural resources to sway French decision-making. Bongo threatened to sign drilling contracts with the Americans when Elf temporarily closed its Port-Gentil wells. And Tandja claimed he would hand over control of Niger’s largest uranium mine to the Chinese if France refused to agree to an increase in the price of uranium.
Almost all of the recent French presidents announced that they would do away with Françafrique by refusing to do “business as usual” with Africa. However, the French Africa policy is marked more by continuity than change.
Conclusion The impact of the recent terrorist attacks on France is likely to be deep and long-lasting. What 9/11 was for America in 2001, what Bali was for Australia in 2002, and what 7/7 was for Britain in 2005, the Paris atrocity will likely be for France.
History is useful for understanding why France represents a particular target for Daesh. Islamic extremism, in France or in the Middle East, is a catastrophic response to history, not just a near-term response to the use of French fighter-bombers in Syria. However, a more nuanced response than total war is needed to deal with the underlying rage that fuels this confrontation. There needs to be much more understanding of the history and, for the French, the role that it has played in exacerbating the clash. In particular, the political class in France needs to undergo a deep self-examination, in order to understand the complex process in which it continues to lose ground in the fight of staying among the world power actors.
In domestic politics, France also needs a fundamental revision of the current practice of sidelining its large Muslim population, leaving them disaffected, poorly educated, underemployed, and ripe for recruitment to terrorism.
Until the reality of this history is registered, the response to this violence will be, in return, violence. And violence that begets violence is a very dangerous national security strategy for France. The use of repression and violence to control these populations is not a winnable tactic. While it might achieve street peace in the short run, it only builds resentment and further opportunity for a violent response. Fought as a “war,” it is not winnable. It simply perpetuates the colonial tradition that the colonized recognize. And it creates even more violence in response, leading to a vicious cycle.