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The debate France urgently needs after the Toulouse attacks

In 'sensitive urban zones' where a third of residents live below the poverty line and unemployment among young people is over 40%, it is difficult to see how people like Mohammed Merah can become part of France’s social fabric. 

Elena Georgantzis
30 March 2012

“He’s a monster, a monster”. This is how President Sarkozy, candidate for re-election next month in France, characterised 24-year-old Mohammed Merah, the young-man-turned-terrorist behind this month’s shootings of four paratroopers and five people outside a Jewish school in south-west France. Speaking on French radio on Tuesday morning, Sarkozy’s remarks contained more than a hint of theatricality. “Inhumane, barbaric, a man of incredible violence” were just some of the emphatic words he used to describe Merah, who was finally killed by French special forces on March 22 after a 32-hour siege of his house in Toulouse. The comments were in response to a journalist’s question about what the incident revealed about French society. The answer? Seemingly nothing. “I do not think the presence of such a man is somehow related to our society” the President affirmed. He was “ self-radicalised” and there was no “point of transition” to terrorism.

In the aftermath of the attacks, Nicolas Sarkozy has proposed a barrage of policies which he promises to pass after the election, which polls still suggest he will lose to his Socialist rival, Francois Hollande, by a wide margin. His first proposal is to make it a criminal offense to consult websites which “defend terrorism or incite violence”, just as paedophiles are held liable for consulting websites relating to child pornography. This is a response to Merah’s apparent consultation of jihadist websites. The second, in light of Merah’s trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan where he is said to have received training, is to criminalise travelling to such countries when the trip has not been undertaken for professional, family or touristic reasons. Finally, the President wants to reduce the number of legal migrants entering the country each year from 180,000 to around 100,000 in order to solve the problem of having to integrate an ever-increasing number of people into French society.

None of these policies will be easily implemented. Merah himself was questioned by police only last summer after returning from Afghanistan, but managed to convince the authorities he had been there on tourism, providing photographs as evidence. What constitutes a website which “defends terrorism and incites violence” is also open to interpretation, would give rise to privacy issues and perpetrators would be extremely hard to catch. The real problem, as Philippe Marlière, professor of French politics at University College London, attests is that these policies are “an irrelevant distraction and not in line with the severity of what happened”. The real debate is one which the President has skilfully managed to evade.

Mohammed Merah was born in France to Algerian parents, a second generation immigrant. He spent his adolescence in the suburb of The Izards, just fifteen minutes from the town centre of Toulouse but, as one of France’s much-maligned ‘banlieues’, a no-go area for most people. He was involved in drug-dealing and petty crime, finally spending eighteen months in prison for stealing a purse. Before being imprisoned, he had worked as an apprentice to a car mechanic, but after serving his sentence was unable to get his job back. He seemingly twice tried to join the French army but was rejected. Instead, he made two trips to the tribal areas on the Afghan-Pakistani border in 2010 and 2011 and may have fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, against NATO forces.

During the siege of his house, while speaking to police negotiators who were trying to take him alive, he explained the motives behind his attacks. The French soldiers, ironically of North African origin, were targeted in protest against the French presence in Afghanistan. The shooting of bystanders at a Jewish school was an act of revenge against the “deaths of Palestinian children”. He also proclaimed his opposition to last year’s ban on the face-covering veil, or burqa, worn by a tiny minority of Muslim women in France.

These facts do not seem to chime with the President’s assertions concerning self-radicalisation and an overnight transition to terrorism. Addressing the nation on the day Merah was killed, Sarkozy himself stated that an investigation would be carried out into radicalisation in prisons. Merah’s elder brother is also being held in custody on charges of complicity in terrorist acts. In 2007, he was questioned in association with a French-based group recruiting jihadists to fight in Iraq. Questions must be raised about why these French nationals felt they had no stake in the society they were living in and decided to align themselves with the struggles of Al-Qaeda. This requires an urgent revival of the debate about integration of poor second and third generation immigrants, many of whom live in suburbs very similar to the one Mohammed Merah grew up in.

France’s Republican tradition is anchored in the egalitarian values of the Revolution, enshrined in the ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ motto. Its cornerstones are free and universal education intended to provide equality of opportunity, the right to French citizenship if you are born on French soil and a secular state where religion is relegated to the private sphere in order to maintain a neutral public space. As the state is not allowed to differentiate between its citizens based on ethnicity, no statistics are officially collected on the number of Muslims living in the country. Estimates suggest that France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, between five- and six million-strong.

Approximately ten percent of the French population, or some six million people, live in deprived suburbs labelled ‘sensitive urban zones’ by the government. Many are heavily populated by recent immigrants and their children. In these areas where a third of residents live below the poverty line and unemployment among young people is over 40%, it is difficult to see how people like Mohammed Merah can become part of France’s social fabric. Although they are nominally French, they face discrimination based on their name or address when seeking employment. Living in these zones also means physical exclusion from the rest of the city and the media constantly portray them as areas more closely resembling Baghdad than France. It is in these conditions that the descendents of immigrants turn to Islam as a way to forge their own identity in the absence of being able to relate to the French republican narrative.

As President, Nicolas Sarkozy named Fadela Amara, a second generation immigrant herself, Secretary of State for Urban Policy in charge of implementing the ‘Marshall Plan for the suburbs’ in 2008. This was later effectively abandoned, although under a national urban renovation plan which began in 2004, €42 billion will have been spent renovating housing in the ‘sensitive urban zones’ by 2019. The project has largely been decried as a failure, with the president of the committee evaluating the programme stating “we essentially remade a cleaner version of the same ghettos” in an interview with French newspaper Le Monde. The plan is also behind target, originally intended to be completed by next year. This has not stopped candidate Sarkozy promising a second such plan, with annual expenditures of €800 million. His Socialist rival has also pledged to spend €1 billion on the banlieues over five years.

Throwing money at the problem is unlikely to help integrate migrants and their descendants into French society. Under the guise of the principle of secularism, which was intended to guarantee freedom of religion, Muslims feel as if their religion in particular is under attack. A law passed in 2004 which prohibits pupils in state schools from wearing ‘ostensible’ religious symbols was widely perceived as a ban on the wearing of headscarves by Muslim girls. In addition to the law banning the burqa last year, there have been heated debates about Muslims closing off roads in order to pray in the street or even the fact that meat consumed in the Paris region is halal. The far-right candidate in the presidential election, Marine Le Pen, last week stated the need for the “Republic to retake control of its entire territory” and apply the principle of secularism everywhere, suggesting a ban on wearing religious symbols in all public services, including trains. Her reference to the deprived suburbs as “zones outside the law where only drugs and radical Islam rule” will do little to help those living in them feel less stigmatised and part of mainstream French society.

Just as the riots which took place last summer in the UK were a symptom of youth unemployment and disengagement from society, so Mohammed Merah’s actions were an indication that people like him need to be provided with opportunities for employment and be made to feel a part of their country of birth as opposed to a discriminated-against minority. France needs a real debate about why these attacks were carried out as opposed to focusing on cosmetic solutions which deviate from the problem entirely.

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