Haoues Seniguer, lecturer in political science at Sciences Po Lyon and researcher at the Triangle laboratory, UMR 5206, Lyon
France: The European Union Country Most Affected by Islamist Violence (1979-2021)
Over the last four decades, France has been affected by multiple terrorist attacks by groups claiming to act for Islam. There were eighty-two such attacks between 1979 and 2021. These attacks cost the lives of 330 people, not counting the many injured.
Between 1979 and 2000, there were twenty-four attacks that killed thirty-two people; between 2001 and 2012, there were eight attacks that killed eight people; and, finally, between 2013 and May 2021, there were fifty attacks that killed 290 people.
This makes France the country in the European Union most afflicted by Muslim terrorism overall, however it is notable that the pace of attacks and attempted attacks in the name of Islam has varied, with a notable acceleration since January 2015, when the staff of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were massacred. Later that year, the Islamic State murdered 130 people and injured 413 in one night at the Bataclan and other targets in Paris.
In the wake of this spike in Islamist terrorist attacks seven years ago, France’s state moved to target Islamism in all its forms and manifestations, rather than exclusively terrorism.
Attacks and Collective Emotion
In reaction to this extreme violence, which aroused strong emotions in French society, the state took political steps that have been controversial. The state moved to a more coercive, and preventive, approach to terrorism, strengthening the state of emergency law that was originally passed in 1955 in the context of the Algerian War. A state of emergency was declared on the night of 13-14 November 2015, and some amendments to the law took place within a week. The Interior Minister and prefects now had the powers to prohibit “certain public meetings”, especially if they were protests that disrupted public highways, and were able to order “the closure of public places and places of worship”. The state’s powers to perform “administrative searches” and ban websites and Internet users that advocated or apologised for terrorism were also augmented. The state of emergency decreed in November 2015 was extended multiple times, before ending on 1 November 2017, after the passage of a new law, “Strengthening Internal Security and the Fight Against Terrorism” (SILT), which is the prism through which internal security and the fight against terrorism are now conducted.
SILT, which passed on 30 October 2017, intended to “provide the State with new instruments to fight terrorism in order to be able to put an end to the derogatory regime of the state of emergency”. In a sense, however, the law was deceptive: rather than ending the dérogatoire legal regime of the state of emergency, this legal regime was made permanent in the common law through the SILT Act. The prefect’s police powers have been extended so that (s)he is now able, for example, to “proceed with the administrative closure, for a period not exceeding six months, of places of worship for apology or provocation to terrorism”. Furthermore, “the Minister of the Interior may decide on surveillance measures against any person” if there are “serious reasons for believing that his or her behavior constitutes a particularly serious threat to public security and order”. Prefects can also enforce travel bans and order police to inspect any site that is “frequented by a person suspected of terrorism”. During such inspections, “the seizure of documents, objects or data found there” is now a regularized part of the law.
At the outset, it must be stipulated clearly: the laws and other measures adopted in France since 2015—first under President François Hollande (2012-2017), then continued and deepened under President Emmanuel Macron up the present—have worked: there have been no further mass-casualty terrorist attacks.
From the beginning of this trajectory, though, civil libertarians worried about the way the state of emergency was implemented, and later there have been concerns that the language of the SILT statute is so broad and vague that it might be open to abuse. International human rights organizations have been critical of these measures. As early as 2015, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned about the risks inherent in the more repressive and preventive measures France was adopting, saying they “would undermine rights and the rule of law”.
There have been several claims that the powers to enforce house arrest and administrative searches have been carried out in an arbitrary way against Muslim groups in France, even ostensibly peaceful ones. The threshold of “serious reasons” for suspecting involvement in terrorist activity has, in the view of HRW, allowed already over-broad state powers to be extended further:
“France already has the most extensive counterterrorism laws on the continent, broad surveillance laws, and has been responsible for abusive counterterrorism practices”.
Many people, mainly Muslims, have complained of being unjustly targeted, with considerable material and psychological damage. Legal experts have protested that these measures create an environment that is “extremely restrictive of rights and freedoms, whose implementation depends on the notion of ‘terrorism’ not defined by law, escaping the control of the judicial judge and not subject to any a priori control of the administrative judge had been the subject of strong opposition from the highest authorities during the parliamentary debates relating to the SILT law of 2017”.
This article will argue that there are two main problems posed by the governmental measures and concepts adopted in the fight against Islamist terrorism since 2015: on the one hand, as suggested earlier, there is a difficulty in defining not only “terrorism” but “Islamism”, which is the declared target of these measures; and, on the other hand, even from the perspective of these laws themselves, there is a profound inadequacy between the stated purpose—to curb Islamism—and the instruments designed and employed.
Islamism: Scientific Definition, Social and Political Uses
Countless books, articles, and conferences have been devoted to defining “Islamism”. This occurs against a backdrop of intense politicization of Islam, from within and without. This religion is set up as a total or integral system of thought, both at the level of human thought and action. But its theorists and activists can be legalistic or violent; minimalist or maximalist in their demands. These nuances have largely been cast aside and in French social and political language, “Islamist” is now almost systematically equated with “terrorist” or at least with an accomplice of terrorism. This confusion was not immediately obvious in 2015 since, until roughly 2017, official language focused on combating “terrorism” or “jihadism”, that is to say those whose murderous activities were carried out under the banner of Islam.
This shift had begun even before the Islamic State’s rampage in Paris in November 2015. After the massacre at Charlie Hebdo ten months earlier, the then-socialist government announced plans to “strengthen its action against the terrorist threat”, and launched a dedicated website, Stop-djihadisme.gouv.fr, on 28 January 2015. At the time, it was above all a question of “preventing” terrorist action by anticipating and thwarting the “radicalization” of young people. On the site in question, it is clearly stated that “jihadist radicalization is driven by the desire to replace democracy with a theocracy based on Islamic law through the use of violence”. This argument, and the government devices to act upon it, have been refined, corrected, and enriched since 2015-16.
An obvious problem in the first few months after the website’s launch was some confusion between the rigorous religious behaviour of Muslims and the desire to commit violent acts motivated by jihadism. The site’s definition of “radicalization” was modified in line with the proposal of the sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar and now reads:
“[‘Radicalization’ is t]he process by which an individual or group adopts a violent form of action, directly linked to an extremist ideology with political, social or religious content that challenges the established political, social and cultural order”.
There was a further qualitative shift in the state’s view of radicalization, where the phenomenon was broadened so that it no longer focused on Islam alone. The definition now specifies that “radicalization” is “the adoption of an ideology—religious or otherwise—[which] gives the individual a framework for life, reference points guiding all his behaviour, and which can lead him to accept violent action. This radical commitment leads him to reject the values of the society from which he comes and to consider his compatriots as enemies”.
The state, partly under pressure from critics, also broadened its conception of where jihadism comes from:
“The sociological data on these people indicate major trends but also a diversity of profiles that thwart simplistic explanations. There are therefore no typical profiles. Radicalization remains the result of an evolutionary process and not of a sudden ‘switch’. It is the consequence of personal paths and there are no systematic explanations for these paths.
There had been in 2016 ideas about a “typical” portrait of a “radicalized” individual, namely the result of the encounter between a biographical path, a context, and the availability of an ideology in the marketplace of modern life; the particularities that lead to jihadism were less clearly explained, let alone demonstrated.
The government took note of a further aspect in which “the jihadist discourse presents itself as a counter-culture in opposition to what is perceived as a dominant culture. It seeks to create a strong sense of identity and a divide between ‘the Muslim population’ and the rest of the population. This discourse combines politico-religious ideology anchored in violence; exclusive identity perception and hate; victim and conspiracy discourse; proposal of an imaginary world that is both religious and eschatological (End Times); use of traditional media and the Internet in all its forms (blogs, sites, videos, social networks, forums, chats)”. To put it another way, the people who would have been Communist “urban guerrillas” in the 1970s now tended to become jihadists.
What this added up to, then, was a state focus between 2015 and 2017 less on Islamism—a word that is almost wholly absent from the official vocabulary of the time—than jihadist radicalization, with a continuous effort to refine the terminology to avoid abuses, an effort that in the end had mixed success at best. The election of Macron in 2017, and the continuation of terrorist attacks and plots, albeit never again at the scale of the November 2015 atrocities, led to a further hardening of the attitude of public authorities and a new battery of preventive initiatives and laws, notably the law reinforcing the respect of the principles of the Republic, adopted on 24 August 2021.
From the Fight Against Jihadist Radicalization and Terrorism to the Fight Against Islamism and Strict Muslim Practices
Macron, like his predecessor, has had to deal with a wave of terrorist attacks orchestrated by the Islamic State. It is in this context that the general secretariat of the inter-ministerial committee for the prevention of delinquency and radicalisation (CIPDR), initially founded in 2006, has seen its prerogatives and its themes of intervention extended. Its main missions are to prevent, through appropriate public policies, “phenomena that rupture the social order, which weaken our society … [and] to support the territorial and central network in order to defend and protect our republican model and its values”. Its scope of action was expanded in 2020, after the murder by decapitation of the history-geography teacher Samuel Paty, committed by an individual of Chechen origin on 16 October 2020.
The presidential speech in Les Mureaux on 2 October 2020 had already included the fight against Islamism, and even more specifically, “Islamist separatism”, on the public agenda:
“This conscious, theorized, politico-religious project, which takes the form of repeated departures from the values of the Republic, often results in the creation of a counter-society, the manifestations of which are the de-schooling of children, the development of communalized sports and cultural practices which are the pretext for teaching principles that do not conform to the laws of the Republic. It is indoctrination and through it, the negation of our principles of equality between women and men, human dignity. The problem is this ideology, which asserts that its own laws are superior to those of the Republic”.
The CIPDR has a specific section devoted to “the fight against Islamism”, which defines separatism in the following terms:
“It is a question of all actions aimed at preventing, hindering, and curbing proposals with separatist aims, making it possible to stem the spread of political or politico-religious doctrines that are at odds with the republican pact.”
It is also a question of fighting against “community withdrawal”, defined as follows:
“Communitarianism is the desire to subject a group or a social area to standards derived from the interpretation of a religion, in this case Islam. This phenomenon leads to a large part of social life being organised and controlled by religiously inspired, rigorous and proselytising groups, some of which are the bearers of a political project of rupture and secession.”
This broad definition of Islamism has one immediately obvious problem: it blurs the distinction between Muslims who adhere to a strict interpretation of the moral and behavioral tenets of their faith, and political Islam as an ideology and its legalist politico-religious activism. There is also not a clear distinction between legalist Islamism and jihadism. In practical terms, it leaves Muslims expressing any form of distrust in public policies open to the charge of “separatism”, particularly if their complaint has any religious foundation.
In June 2021, the Ligue des Droits l’Homme (Human Rights League or LDH) issued a collective missive in the major French daily newspaper Libération, which was signed by fifty organisations and fifty-four personalities, denouncing what they saw as the liberticidal aspects of the law of 24 August 2021 and everything that led up to it. The signatories said: “This [is a] text of division and security overkill, which seriously jeopardizes the balance achieved by the great secular laws of 1882, 1901, and 1905 […] this project further fragments French society and casts widespread suspicion on people of the Muslim faith, as well as on all associations and committed citizens”.
It is perfectly legitimate for a democratic state governed by the rule of law to equip itself with effective and efficient means to curb behavior that undermines the integrity of property and the security of the population, whatever the underlying ideology. However, the legitimate fight against jihadism, i.e. this ultra-violent version of Islam, has led in France to the public authorities adopting an measures that are insufficiently scrupulous in differentiating between religious conservatism and political radicalism, creating serious questions about the common law. This approach, which has stiffened considerably since 2020, leads the state and those in charge of public security to adopt and maintaining a logic that in its essentials casts suspicion over Muslim citizens who are too critical of public policies as “deviant” and potentially seditious.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
 Islamist attacks in the world 1979-2021 – Fondapol Accessed on July 1, 2022
 State of emergency and other exceptional regimes article 16 state of siege | vie-publique.fr Accessed on 4 July 2022.
 Law on internal security and the fight against terrorism, loi SILT | vie-publique.fr Accessed on 4 July 2022.
 France: Exceptional powers must not be normalized | Human Rights Watch (hrw.org) Accessed July 4, 2022.
 France: Disproportionate emergency measures leave hundreds traumatized (amnesty.org) Accessed 4 July 2022.
 See in particular Haoues Seniguer, Les (neo)Frères musulmans et le nouvel esprit capitaliste. Entre rigorisme moral, cryptocapitalisme et anticapitalisme, Lormont, Le Bord de l’eau, 2020. Or this interview: Interview with Haoues Seniguer – Islamism (lesclesdumoyenorient.com)
 Stop jihadism: against jihadism, all vigilant and all actors | Gouvernement.fr Consulted on 4 July 2022.
 La radicalisation | Stop-Djihadisme Accessed 4 July 2022.
 SENIGUER Haouès, ‘On some reflections on the sinuosities of radicalisation’, History, World and Religious Cultures, 2016/3 (No. 39), pp. 13-31. DOI: 10.3917/hmc.039.0013. URL: https://www.cairn.info/revue-histoire-monde-et-cultures-religieuses-2016-3-page-13.htm
 Radicalization: What is it? | Stop-Djihadisme Accessed 4 July 2022.
 The SG-CIPDR – Interministerial Committee for the Prevention of Delinquency and Radicalisation Consulted on 4 July 2022.