At the height of the foreign attacks campaign by the Islamic State (ISIS) a half-decade ago, France was by some estimates the most targeted country in the world. Though these attacks were being organized from abroad, in the lands held by ISIS, its so-called caliphate, they were being enabled by populations within France who had been radicalized. To counter this security danger, France has taken steps in the years since to reduce the number of radical Islamists within its borders, relying essentially on three prongs: (1) implementing a vigorous deradicalization effort among citizens; (2) the expulsion of non-citizens engaged in radical activities; and (3) curbing the ability of extremists to make new recruits.
In January 2015, the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were assaulted by Islamists who condemned them for blasphemy. The most infamous ISIS atrocity in France was the attack on the Bataclan and other public targets in November 2015, which massacred 130 people and wounded another 350. This same network struck the metro in Brussels a few months later, killing another thirty people and wounding another 300. From 2016 to 2020, dozens of jihadist terrorist attacks took place in France. In 2021, another half-dozen attacks have been carried out.
The most high-profile recent attack in France is probably the murder in October 2020 of Samuel Paty, a teacher who had discussed the Charlie Hebdo controversy with students, very careful to allow Muslim students who did not wish to participate to extricate themselves. When Paty was beheaded in the street by a Chechen jihadist accusing him of blasphemy, despite this caution, after an open campaign of incitement on social media and elsewhere, it provoked a reckoning in France.
In July 2021, the French Parliament overwhelmingly passed the Law Reinforcing Respect of the Principles of the Republic, which would fit into the third category outlined above. French President Emmanuel Macron said that what he called “Islamist separatism” is undermining societal cohesion and the values of the state, namely liberty, equality, and fraternity, and is incompatible with the principles of France’s basic laws based on laïcité, the French version of official secularism that strictly separates religion and state. France permits freedom of conscience and religious practice, but prevents religious orders receiving state funds and excludes the clergy from government positions.
As The Wall Street Journal described, the law provides for broad state powers in upholding laïcité:
The new law empowers the government to permanently close houses of worship and dissolve religious organizations, without a court order, if it finds that any of their members are provoking violence or inciting hatred. It also allows temporary closure of any religious group that spreads ideas that incite hatred or violence.
Religious organizations will have to obtain government permits every five years to continue operating, and have their accounts certified annually if they receive foreign funding.
In addition, the new law makes it a criminal offense for anyone, in the name of ideology or religious extremism, to put pressure on civil servants and public-service providers to deviate from France’s secular values. Under its provisions, a man who refuses to allow a male doctor to examine his wife could face up to five years in jail and a fine of up to €75,000.
In the Bible, Christians are enjoined to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” [Mark 12:17], and as developed by theologians and the Papacy in the centuries since, this became the basis for secularism: a recognition of spheres outside religious authority. Even so, where those lines of authority end has been contested, and conservative Catholics objected to the new law in France as overstepping the proper balance. For Muslims, the concept of secularism is, of course, more difficult in general and a line drawn this firmly caused consternation well-beyond Islamist circles. There were also objections from the Left-wing in France on civil liberties grounds.
Nonetheless, the law was broadly supported in France. By October 2021, after investigations by the police and intelligence services, 92 of the 2,500 mosques in the country had been closed and several associations were dissolved for “cultivating hatred toward France”, as the French Interior Minister put it. These closures have been met with well-organized protests by Islamist groups and their allies, but the French government has pressed on.
The most recent closure came on Tuesday, in the town of Beauvais, sixty miles north of Paris. The mosque is to be closed for six months, as the court ruling put it, with “the aim of forestalling acts of terrorism being committed” in circumstances where the “terrorist threat remains at a very high level”. The imam had called for jihad against Islam’s enemies, glorified terrorists who had died waging jihad abroad as “heroes”, and was “targeting Christians, homosexuals and Jews” in his sermons: this is “unacceptable”, said the Interior Minister.
It is interesting to note that the imam was a convert. Research has repeatedly shown that converts to Islam represent a disproportionately high number of the terrorist recruits to jihadist groups from Western countries—about a fifth. The imam says his words have been “taken out of context”, and the mosque has responded by saying the imam was only “speaking on a voluntary basis” and is now suspended even from those duties. There is a ten-day period in which the mosque can appeal the decision on closure, but the evidence seems damning and the lines of defence offered insufficient.
Terrorism in Europe is below the levels seen at the height of the ISIS terrorist wave of 2014-17, but the problem remains serious and with the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban-Al-Qaeda forces it is likely that there will be an uptick in the next year; this has already begun in Britain. Many European states have been slow and timid in acting to solve the issues raised by past attacks, let alone setting out policies to forestall the next ones. There have been some exceptions, like Austria, covered extensively here at EER. France is another. Whether the French model works or needs revisions, time will tell.