France: No Change for Thirty Years

Photograph Source: Guilhem Vellut – CC BY 2.0

France, which is already facing health, environmental, economic and social woes, has also endured a series of blows in the form of terrorist attacks. Thus the calls to mobilise for war. Again. But destroying an enemy that is often very hard to find always requires more powerful weapons than last time. Not artillery and tanks (or not yet), but additional curbs on public freedoms. Who dares challenge these after a terror attack or during a pandemic? Restrictions are imposed and accepted without discussion. We’re told they’re time-limited; they’ll end when the virus, or terrorism, has been defeated and better times return. But better times aren’t coming back. And under these conditions, society may crack.

At such a time, the crime of an Islamist fanatic who, basing his action on false testimony circulated through social media, decapitated a teacher he did not know, has stunned and shocked France. He was a Chechen with apparently no close ties to any terrorist group, few accomplices and almost no support in France: in other times, his murder of Samuel Paty would have looked like the tragic act of someone who was mentally deranged. But it now joins a litany of events in a history littered with acts of Islamist terror connected by a word or two: Salman Rushdie, 9/11, Bali, Madrid, Mohamed Merah, Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan, Nice… Violent attacks or death threats that have targeted writers, Jews, cartoonists, Christians. And also killed Muslims.

So consider the irresponsibility of those who, as soon as the killing in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine was made public, promptly overcame their shock to angrily, and wrongly, complain that ‘nothing’s been done for 30 years’ about surveillance and repression, and then to demand the state take exceptional measures against migrants and Muslims. The right talks about amending the constitution; the interior minister frets over ‘ethnic food aisles’ in supermarkets; journalists insist that the Council of State, Constitutional Court and European Court of Justice be silenced so that nothing gets in the way of arbitrary administrative decrees and incarcerations based solely on a police report. The same people also want ‘hate speech’ outlawed on social media, failing to notice they deal in just as poisonous a brand of it, but on rolling news channels.

Horror at the crime could at last have encouraged people’s unanimous support for teachers, whom successive governments have reduced to the role of adjustment variables in the budget, and left to the mercy of parent pressure. Instead, the familiar whiff of the ‘clash of civilisations’ is back. It can only further divide those elements of the French people who are systematically assigned — and not just by Islamic fundamentalists or by the far right — to their ‘community’, their family, their God. This is the infernal machine that nothing has been done about for 30 years.

Translated by George Miller.

Serge Halimi is president of Le Monde diplomatique