By John R. Bowen
Jihad seems to hit France harder than other countries, with more than 1,000 young people leaving to fight on the side of ISIS or other jihadis in Iraq and Syria, and now the murderous attack by two men of Algerian descent on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. Why, and where will this latest attack lead?
There are three points to keep in mind as we watch the investigations play out.
First, France has been more closely engaged with the Muslim world longer than any other Western country. Since 1830, when it conquered Algeria, it has seen much of Muslim Africa as its own backyard. And after World War I, France took control of Syria and Lebanon as well. Many French settled in North Africa, and after World War II, many North Africans came to France to work in new factories, most settling in poor areas in Paris, Lyon, and the industrialized north. In the post-industrial era, factories were shut down but the settlers stayed. And it is their children and grandchildren who in 2005 exploded in rage over their exclusion from French society. The 1995 movie La Haine showed this rage before the fact—and also made clear that these explosions had nothing to with religion.
France left Algeria only at the end of a long and bloody war, from 1954 to 1962, which continues to reverberate throughout the country, especially in the south, where Algerians who fought on both sides of the war settled in Provence and kept the conflict alive. Here is where the far-right National Front was founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, a paratrooper nourishing anger against De Gaulle’s “abandonment” of French Algeria. His daughter Marine now leads the party.
But unlike other European colonial powers, the French never really left their former colonies, continuing to intervene economically and militarily to defend France’s national interests in Africa and the Near East. Now this means battling al Qaeda and ISIS in Mali, Iraq, and, perhaps in the future, Syria. So when disaffected young men and women tune in to jihadi web sites, they find French-speaking Muslims telling them of the sins their government is committing against their “brothers and sisters” in Iraq and Syria. Resentment at French racism, at the series of largely symbolic measures taken against Muslims, such as the 2010 ban on wearing face-veils in public, add to this anger, and lead some towards fighting.