I lived in France – what keeps happening there isn’t surprising

Repeated terrorist attacks are taking place in one of the most divided countries in the world


It’s just over a year since I returned from my Erasmus exchange in Paris. When I arrived in January, the atmosphere in the city was glum – on the metro; at university; on the streets and in the cafés.

Six days had passed since the Charlie Hebdo shootings. The country was in a state of mourning. Since then, there have been three further attacks: one at the Bataclan Theatre in November last year, one in Nice two week ago, and one in Rouen today.

This may seem strange to those unfamiliar with France, the French and the country’s politics, but it doesn’t surprise me quite so much as it has astounded others around the globe.

The Place de la République, post-Charlie Hebdo shootings

Beneath the beautiful – and often romanticised – veneer of French life there are deep, deep tensions. Paris, the French metropole, demonstrates these tensions better than most places in the country by way of the fact that it is the multicultural hub.

Having been to the far corners of the city, well off the beaten tourist-track (I actually lived in Saint-Denis for a month, the location of a gunfight in which the Charlie Hebdo mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud was killed), you quickly realise that many of the Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian communities – among others – languish beyond the bright lights of the Champs-Élysées.

Many live in miserable banlieues (or high-rise flats) where unemployment is high and opportunities are scarce. Two such individuals were brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, the assailants in that January I arrived. They are emblematic of the much broader disenfranchisement among second and third generation immigrants from the former French colonies: the pied-noir (‘black feet’) as they were – and unfortunately still are – called at times.

Then there is the cherished French, republican ideal of laïcité, which broadly translates as secularism. Essentially the term enshrines the French State’s prohibition of all religion from the public sphere. That means, no religious symbols on display at work, and no religious education in school.

As a friend recently pointed out to me, France may be the home of the englightenment “but it’s also a country that prescribes dress codes for adults” – alluding to the controversial banning of the burqa in 2010.

This is an ideal that has been reaffirmed in the French media in the last few weeks in the wake of the attacks on Nice. Last Monday, deputy for Eure, Bruno Le Maire stated his desire “to lead the war against Islamic politics in France” on national television.

The fundamental flaw in this secularist doctrine is that it now appears to cause tension where it intended to unify a nation. The same doctrine prevents the French government from collecting information about religious communities via censuses, so even where they recognise there is tension, they are legally prohibited from seeking greater knowledge at its root. Laïcité, therefore, has become a source of provocation.

The provocations continue throughout public debate and cultural life in France. The ascendency of the Front National under Le Pen’s frankly racist programme of campaign has done little to reconcile communities. She is also now tipped to win the primary round of voting in next year’s presidential elections – none of which signifies a promising future for many.

Then there’s the “new reactionaries” of the philosophical and political right, first among them Michel Houellebecq. His dystopian novel Submission, which predicts the rise of an Islamic Fundamentalist party to government and the descent of France into the grips of Sharia law, has been referenced by so many observers in the press that it’s almost cliché to mention.

Yet in spite of its clearly implausible plot, Houellebecq has identified a genuine anxiety held by many in French society. He has played on the irrationality of these fears and stoked the fire for the vitriol of Le Pen.

The culmination of factors has created a highly charged, emotional and often irrational debate. The tensions it has created between communities are increasingly enflamed and it becomes easier to see why radicalisation is more of problem now than ever before.

Granted Mohamed Lahouajej-Bouhel, who mowed down eighty-four innocent victims in Nice last week, was Tunisian. He may also have experienced many other personal difficulties that contributed to his chosen path. These factors, nonetheless, fail to detract from the fact that France and French society is currently more susceptible to terror threats than perhaps, say, Britain.

Ultimately, we cannot predict where such atrocities will take place but it is telling that the uniquely non-secular country in Europe has become such a hotspot for these episodes.

French Intellectual Ernest Renan once remarked that the nation will resolve her “multiplicity in unity.” France can no longer subscribe to this position – and until this is realised, she will remain a prime target for terrorism in western Europe.