Nice attack brings a difficult question into sharp focus: why France?
If you live in France, you enjoy Bastille Day. There is a buzz in the air as you celebrate a day off in the middle of summer with your family and friends. You go to the fireworks. It is good to be in France and to remember the founding principles of the state – liberty, equality and fraternity. There is little mention of a bloody history of revolution and wars, colonialism and empire.
Now, after the horrific Nice truck attack that killed at least 84 people – including many children – and injured at least 100 others, one question is being asked more than most: why France?
France has a long history of both protest and terrorist attacks. When I lived and worked in Paris as an Irish diplomat in the late 1980s, a German diplomat was assassinated, allegedly by a Kurd extremist. Stringent anti-terrorism legislation was introduced at that time due to a number of attacks on the capital – and over the last few decades these attacks have come from different groups.
It would be foolish to imply the perpetrator of these attacks speaks for even disaffected groups in France. It would be simple to suggest that France’s North African communities are involved in this attack in Nice. It is also not appropriate to commence a witch-hunt on Muslims in France.
On July 14, France was celebrating its liberty – and that includes freedom of expression for the media, as seen in the case of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
France was rejoicing in its commitment to equality – even if that is often presented as strict adherence to secularism, or laïcité, the term used to deny any organised religion a special place in French society, with strict church-state separation. It is about secular principles always being more important than religious beliefs, which are regarded as the private sphere.
And fraternity has been talked about a great deal in French society – including by politicians – yet many young Muslims have not experienced that fraternity as they have grown up in ghettos with little chance of employment.
There has been massive discontent and even violent protests over the last decade or so in these urban settings, often very disadvantaged areas – les banlieues, often called the suburbs of exile. Here there is a combination of poverty, housing problems, and a sense of alienation from the advantages of French society.
There is a sense of lack of opportunity in the structure of French society, with high unemployment and little access to the labour market. There have equally been very strong police crackdowns.
Secularism has been the justification for the ban on headscarves and religious symbols in French schools over several decades. France was debating this issue well before September 11 and Islamic State terrorism. There is a remarkable consensus among the mainstream parties on this issue.
France, using secularism as the justification for equality, has been at the forefront of European countries in its denial of the right to wear the foulard – or headscarf – in French state-funded schools (and 85% of French schools are state schools). The move to ban headscarves was part of the French debate since 1989.
At the same time, France is also where the largest populist right-wing political party continues to gain traction with its anti-immigration agenda. The National Front is a serious contender for leading positions even up to the forthcoming presidential elections. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, has spoken of:
… the foreign populations that seek to impose on the French their own lifestyles, religion and codes.
This language of societal insecurity often allocated blame to immigrants. There is a potent populist message of a society under threat. And the actions of a lone truck driver on Bastille Day would bear this out for some. Like Belgium, which was attacked earlier this year when Brussels’ airport and Maelbaek metro station were bombed, it has relatively high numbers of jihadists.
France has had a history of requiring equality in expecting integration of its migrants or citizens who are of North African background.
Multiculturalism is not celebrated in France. What is expected is a form of integration that is quite assimilationist. There is not very much of vive la difference when it comes to North African communities, even though many in those communities have established a firm presence in the media and in winning France’s most prestigious prize for literature.
The reasons there are about several million people of North African background in France is that they were colonised nations, when the French extended its sphere of influence in the 19th century.
There are 4.7 million people of Muslim background in France and 4.8 million in Germany. Germany has not participated in the war in Iraq – Spain did. A Madrid train was attacked in March 2004, allegedly by al-Qaeda, resulting in the deaths of 191 people and injuries to some 1800 people.
Internationally, France, under President Francois Hollande, remains resolutely involved in military actions, including bombing Islamic State in Syria. There is no doubt France’s European partners will stand shoulder to shoulder with it after these attacks. We can expect increased security co-operation among the European Union countries – including the UK.
And we can expect that France will seek answers to the question – why France? – as it attempts to recover from this horrific attack.
This article was co-published with Pursuit.