Lara Marlowe: France has a fatal attraction to the Middle East

France and the jihadists seem locked in a wrestlers’ hold, a mutual fascination and loathing which neither can escape


The French writer and statesman André Malraux allegedly predicted that “the 21st century will be a century of religion or it will not be at all.”

The emergence of an extremist “caliphate” straddling Iraq and Syria, and the terror sown by jihadists in France last year, seem a fulfilment of Malraux’s prophecy.

More than any modern, Western nation, France has been drawn to the Middle East and Arab north Africa time and again. Her historical, seemingly contradictory status as both “the eldest daughter of the church” and the “cradle of the Enlightenment” lie at the heart of jihadists’ hatred for France.

The crusaders were so predominantly French that the Arabic word for “crusaders” remains al-Franj – the Franks. Louis IX – Saint Louis, the only French king to have been canonised – died of dysentery on the ninth crusade.

In their claim of responsibility for the November 13th attacks that killed 130 people, Islamic State used the word “crusades” or “crusaders” four times and warned that “France and those who follow her path remain the principal targets of the Islamic State.”

For a thousand years, France has been the protector of Christians in the Middle East. France intervened in the 1860 “mountain war” in Lebanon on behalf of the Maronite Catholics, and in 1920 carved the state of Greater Lebanon out of what had been the Ottoman province of Syria as a gift to the Maronites. When Islamic State massacred Iraqi Christians in 2014, France offered them asylum.

Most of France seems to have forgotten the crusades, the 1920-1946 Syrian mandate and the 1830-1962 occupation of Algeria. But for many Muslims, history is a festering wound. When France began bombing Islamic State in Syria last September, few recalled that the French army fought Syrian insurgents in the 1920s, or that France ended its mandate with a 36-hour, continuous bombardment of Damascus that claimed hundreds of Arab lives.

Mission civilisatrice

More than other colonial powers, the French believed in their mission civilisatrice – civilising mission. During the Syrian mandate, for example, Paris boasted of having modernised a backward land, of conserving antiquities – the very ruins of Palmyra that Islamic State has revelled in destroying. France brought electricity and potable water, built tramways, roads, railways, hotels, restaurants, cinemas and schools.

In the minds of many Frenchmen, this gift of “civilisation” to the Levant and north Africa more than compensated for land seizures and discrimination against the indigenous population. In 2005, a right-wing French government passed a law ordering teachers to emphasise the “positive aspects of colonisation”.

A deeply ingrained distrust of Islam goes hand-in-hand with the French conviction of the superiority of their “Republican values”, chief among them laicité or state-enforced secularism. A rift within the socialist party over the nature of secularism widened recently, with a dispute between prime minister Manuel Valls and Jean-Louis Bianco, a socialist old-timer and the president of the government’s “observatory of secularism”.

Since the Charlie Hebdo massacre, French officials and intellectuals have demanded that Muslims condemn the attacks. Bianco has been criticised by Valls for inviting Muslim organisations that Valls considers sectarian to sign a statement condemning the November 13th attacks. This was how Bianco responded, in an interview with Le Monde: “Those who distort secularism are those who make it an anti-religious, anti-Muslim tool . . . it’s true that a fundamentalist, secularist reaction has been developing in France these last few years.”

Folk memories of the eighth century battle of Tours, when Charles Martel repelled Muslim invaders, and the Battle of Roncevaux – which was actually a conflict between Christians, romanticised by oral tradition into a major conflict between Christians and Muslims – are conjured up every time a Frenchman sings La Marseillaise:

I quote, from the first stanza of the French national anthem:

“They are coming into our midst/To cut the throats of your sons and consorts/To arms citizens. Form your battalions. March, March! Let impure blood soak our furrows!”

That “impure blood” is the blood of Muslims.

Close friend

Islamic State kidnapped four French journalists in its northern Syrian “capital” of Raqqa in 2013. They were freed the following Easter, after a ransom was paid. One is a close friend of mine, Nicolas Hénin. We had just celebrated his marriage in August 2014 when Islamic State began a grisly series of videotaped executions with the decapitation of the American journalist James Foley.

In the intervening period, the war in Syria has become personal to the French public. Some 1,800 French youths are involved in jihadist networks. At least 150 have died in Syria. Islamic State’s message, the mother of a French jihadist told me, is: “We’re stealing your children, draining your life force.”

Thousands of French people know someone who was killed or wounded in the November 13th attacks. A year earlier, they had the shock of seeing Maxime Hauchard, a 22-year-old Frenchman from Normandy, renamed Abu Abdallah al-Faransi, participate in the decapitation of 18 Syrian pilots.

By March 2015, Paris had already been through the trauma of the Charlie Hebdo massacres. France was nonetheless horrified when a 12-year-old schoolboy called Rayan, from an immigrant suburb of Toulouse, was videotaped shooting an alleged Israeli spy point blank in the head. The child then fired several bullets into his victim’s body.

The government says a quarter of the estimated 1,800 French people involved with jihadist groups are converts. It’s not uncommon to meet people who’ve had family members convert to Islam.

In November 2014, five months after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed his “caliphate,” I met Marie, the mother of a jihadist whom I mentioned a few moments ago. Her son Timothée, then 22 years-old, had converted to Islam and left for Syria two months earlier. Marie, her husband and elder son were devastated, but they hoped against hope they could persuade their prodigal son to come home.

One expects young people to be more liberal and open-minded than their elders, but the jihad generation are extremely conservative. Marie told me how her son, who had been baptised, thirsted for the rigid morality dictated by fundamentalist Islam. Around the time he converted, he was appalled when France legalised same-sex marriage. The three “Bethnal Green girls” who left London to marry jihadists in Raqqa said they wanted to leave an immoral society to join one they equated with virtue and meaning.

French law says returning jihadists must be imprisoned. But prime minister Valls announced in December that some 250 are on the loose in France. It’s a chilling revelation. Almost all of the 10 men who carried out the November 13th massacre had trained in Syria. Most were on watch-lists. Yet Belgian and French intelligence were incapable of preventing their return or foreseeing their murderous rampage.

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Marie told me she would rather her son died in Syria than commit an atrocity in France. Over lunch in mid-January, she told me she had last communicated with Timothée just after the November 13th attacks. He always used the same argument: that Islamic State acted in self defence, that the attacks on Paris were retaliation for worse atrocities by France in Syria.

Three days after our lunch, I received a sad text message from Marie. “We’re in shock,” she wrote. A stranger had informed her via WhatsApp that Timothée was dead “without a precise date or place . . . Cruel and impossible to verify.”

Islamic State sometimes announces the death of jihadists before they carry out suicide attacks in Europe. The family of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the “mastermind” of the November 13th attacks in Paris, received a similar message two months before the slaughter. They said they hoped it was true.

Marie has no way of knowing if Timothée is about to be used for a suicide attack. She will probably never receive proof of his death, or retrieve his body.


Islamic State, or those inspired by it, have carried out massacres in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. But the jihadists’ conflict with France seems freighted with more resentment, anger and emotion. Their “holy war” is inside and from as well as against France.

By coincidence, the words “terrorism” and “terrorist” were coined in France in 1794. They designate the doctrine espoused by partisans of The Terror, the year-long period of extreme violence during the French revolution, and supporters of that Terror.

France and the jihadists seem locked in a wrestlers’ hold, a mutual fascination and loathing which neither can escape. Olivier Roy of the European University Institute in Florence described the Charlie Hebdo attacks as “a will to create a point of no return in the fracture between Islam and the West.”

There’s a mutual desire for separation, but they are too entangled to free themselves from each other’s hold. As I covered the attacks in Paris last year, I thought long and hard about “Why France?” I came up with the following answers.

The first is the sheer size of France’s Muslim population, the largest in Europe. France also has the continent’s largest Jewish population, and their co-existence is difficult. Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced this week that acts against the Muslim community tripled to around 400 last year, while anti-Semitic acts decreased slightly to 806.

The French government banned marches during the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza, after members of the Jewish Defence League clashed with pro-Palestinian demonstrators.

It is illegal to collect ethnic or religious statistics in France, but Muslims are believed to number some eight million, the legacy of French colonisation of Arab north Africa.

Algerian war

I talked earlier about France’s fraught history with Islam, but I believe the 1954-1962 Algerian war was the single most significant episode. The right-wing Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) and the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) staged bombings and assassinations in Paris. Like the Syrian war at present, the Algerian war came to Paris.

Almost all the French Muslims who have attacked their own country were the children of Algerians. Khaled Kelkal was France’s first “homegrown terrorist,” gunned down by gendarmes near Lyons in 1995. His finger-prints had been found on several home-made bombs.

When Le Monde investigated Kelkal’s life and death 20 years later, they tracked down his uncle in Algeria. He told the newspaper: “On February 6th, 1962, my father was shot in cold blood by a French soldier in front of a cafe . . . The bullet hit his heart. For no reason. Thirty years later, his grandson Khaled was shot dead by a gendarme. His death proves that France still hates Algerians!”

Mohamed Merah, the son of Algerian immigrants who started the present wave of jihadist attacks in 2012 by killing seven people including three Jewish children in Toulouse and Montauban, attacked the Otzar Hatorah school on March 19th, 2012, the 50th anniversary of the ceasefire in the Algerian war.

Although they were French citizens born in France, the Kouachi brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo massacre referred to the French by the derogatory slang term céfran and forbade their sister from dating “Frenchmen”.

The presence of a large Muslim population who do not identify with France, combined with a stagnant economy and high unemployment, will continue to provide a reservoir for jihadists for years to come. Official talk of breaking the “apartheid” of the French banlieues evaporated after the November 13th attacks.

Foreign policy

France’s high profile in foreign and defence policy has also made it a target for jihadists. The country’s last two presidents abandoned Gen Charles de Gaulle’s “Arab policy” and leaned in favour of Israel, through repeated assaults on Gaza and the advent of the most right-wing Israeli government ever.

President Francois Hollande has engaged France in more wars than any other president of the Fifth Republic; in Mali, the Central African Republic, the Sahel region, Iraq and Syria. Hollande even adopted George W Bush’s term “the war on terror” for his war against jihadism. Though Britain and Germany joined in the Syrian war after the November 13th attacks, it remains mainly a Franco-American operation.

As the French academic Gilles Kepel says: “The mere juxtaposition of the terms ‘French’ and ‘jihad’ seems an aberration.” In his new book titled Terror in the Hexagon; Genesis of French Jihad, Kepel establishes a parallel chronology between the progression of international jihad and the radicalisation of French Muslims over the past four decades.

The US and Saudi Arabia launched the present form of extreme Sunni jihadism in 1979, against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and as a counterweight to the Iranian revolution. The Mujahedin drove the Soviets out in 1989, then staged failed insurgencies in Algeria and Egypt in the 1990s. The al-Qaeda atrocities of 9/11 and attempts to transform the US occupation of Iraq into a new Vietnam followed.

2005 was the turning point, the beginning of the third generation of jihad. In that year, Abu Musab al-Suri published his 1,600-page Global Islamic Resistance Call urging jihadists to exploit the presence of large, disaffected Muslim population in Europe, “the soft underbelly of the West”.

2005 also saw the advent of YouTube, which after the fax and satellite television became the jihadists’ medium of choice. YouTube received its commercial licence in California on February 14th, 2005, the same day the Lebanese leader Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated by the Syrian-Hizbollah alliance. It was the opening shot in the Sunni-Shia, Saudi-Iranian war.

Over the same period, the first generation of Muslim immigrants to France worked hard and kept their faith to themselves. The second generation, close to the Muslim Brotherhood, tried and failed to prevent the banning of the Muslim headscarf in French schools. A whole decade which might have been used to integrate Muslims was squandered in disputes over hijab and halal meat.

The third generation was figuratively born with the 2005 riots, which were sparked by the electrocution of two teenagers in a power sub-station, but also by the perception that French forces desecrated a mosque in the Paris suburb of Montfermeil.

Thereafter, a growing number of French Muslims turned to Salafist preachers who advocated the most strict observance of Islam. To maintain peace, French officials often co-operated with caids or gang leaders in the banlieues, schools and prisons. A significant number of caids converted to radical Islam.


French prisons became an incubator for jihad. Youths who entered as drug dealers or car thieves often emerged as Islamic extremists. In the most startling example, Djamel Beghal, a mentor of French jihadists, was imprisoned at Fleury-Mérogis with Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly in 2005. Ten years later, Kouachi and Coulibaly co-ordinated the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher massacres in Paris.

France is now bracing itself for further attacks.

One of the most surprising aspects of this tense situation is the apparent lack of interest in understanding how the cradle of the Enlightenment found itself under attack by its own citizens.

At a meeting with the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France or Crif on January 9th, prime minister Valls said: “For these enemies who turn on their compatriots, who tear up the contract that unites us, there can be no worthwhile explanation; for to explain means wanting to excuse a little.”

After the 9/11 attacks, the Koran became a best-seller in the US. In France, Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance was the best-selling book after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. In November, it was Ernest Hemingway’s paeon to Paris, A Moveable Feast.

The French public wanted to reassure themselves of their superiority. They did not want to delve into the twisted minds that carried out the massacres, had no interest in transforming French society so that young people would not want to join Islamic State.

French cinemas cancelled a film titled Made in France, by the Franco-Algerian director Nicolas Boukhrief, because the scenario too closely resembled the November 13th attacks. The novelist Michel Houellebecq said just before the Charlie Hebdo attacks that, “Islam is not a subject that one can really debate here.”

More fragile

The stability and cohesion of French society feel more fragile than at any time since I first moved to France nearly 40 years ago. Prime minister Valls said recently in Davos that the state of emergency will be prolonged “as long as necessary . . . until we get rid of Islamic State.”

The state of emergency gives police unlimited powers to search and impose house arrest. It has been used not only against Muslims, but against environmental activists during the COP21 climate conference in December.

Well over a hundred people have been charged with “defending terrorism” an offence that can carry a five-year prison sentence and a €75,000 fine. It’s enough to say “Vive Da’esh” [the name used by the French for Islamic State], “Je suis Coulibaly,” or “Je suis Kouachi,” the names of the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo massacres to be charged.

Last October, decisions by the Court of Cassation made it illegal to call for a boycott against Israel. Fourteen members of the BDS campaign (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) were condemned to pay €28,000 in damages to civil plaintiffs, making France the only democracy is the world where calling for a boycott is an offence. Prime minister Valls supports legal action against those who want to boycott Israel.

Not all infringements of the freedom of expression come from the government. Reporters Without Borders and Libération newspaper had to cancel the art sale they had scheduled for January 27th. The Israeli embassy protested strongly against a work by Ernest Pignon-Ernest showing the imprisoned Palestinian activist Marwan Barghouti. Pignon-Ernest had written the following text over the photo: “In 1980, when I drew Mandela, they told me he was a terrorist.”

There is an interesting debate among academics over the nature of jihadism. Olivier Roy, who I quoted earlier regarding the fracture between Islam and the West, says we are seeing the Islamisation of radicalism, that in the 1970s or 1980s the young people who have rallied to Islamic State would have joined left-wing revolutionary groups.

Nonsense, says Gilles Kepel: What we are seeing is the radicalisation of Islam, not the “Islamisation of radicalism”. I suspect both are right.


The most important debate, of course, is the one about the future. The optimists, including the former foreign minister Hubert Védrine and Gilles Kepel, say Islamic State will be short-lived. The “caliphate” lost Sinjar and Ramadi last year. It has just reduced the salaries of its fighters. Four of five members of the UN Security Council (all except China) have joined the war in Syria. The slaughter of November 13th galvanised international opinion against Islamic State and will hamper its ability to recruit, says Kepel.

The military is perhaps more realistic. “We’re facing a war of a new type,” Gen Pierre de Villiers, the chief of staff of the French armed forces, said this week. “The battle will be long . . . Our military strategy needs patience.”

The coalition against Islamic State cannot agree on its objectives and has no ground troops to hold territory it might conquer through aerial bombardment. Most of all, it offers no political alternative to govern up to 10 million people currently under Islamic State’s rule.

Academics say terrorism occurs in waves lasting approximately a decade, during which violence rises, climaxes and declines. Were last year’s attacks in Paris the apogee of Islamic State’s atrocities? Or just a beginning?

Islamic State is a different creature from earlier terrorist movements. Unlike its predecessor al-Qaeda, it holds territory, which it is actively colonising. Not only does Islamic State use artillery, massed forces and tanks, it is building a state with civil servants, tax collectors and a welfare system that provides housing, healthcare and education.

Added to that, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikdoms have bankrolled the propagation of the strictest form of Sunni Islam, from the Philippines to Niger, for the past 40 years. That ideology is now entrenched across the Sunni world.

When the Bolshevik revolution occurred a century ago, it terrified the rest of the world, much as Islamic State has. But no one had the means or will to eradicate the Soviet Union, so the West opted instead for containment. That seems to be the path we are following with Islamic State.

* Lara Marlowe delivered the above lecture at the Abbey Theatre’s Theatre of Change Symposium in Dublin on January 22nd

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