Pascal Rossignol / Reuters

French right rises in wake of Paris attacks

Gallic politics is shifting in a dangerous direction

November 20, 2015 2:00AM ET

It’s hard to identify a winner from the killing spree that left at least 129 dead and scores more injured last week. But once the dust settles in Paris, right-wing parties will emerge stronger than ever. From the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, whose often racist and xenophobic commentary seems misplaced in a country that criminalizes hate speech, to former President Nicolas Sarkozy, last Friday’s attacks provide ammunition to France’s conservative voices — and just a month before regional elections.

Even before the massacre, the French right was poised for success ahead of the December vote, and President François Hollande’s approval ratings were lower than ever. Over the last several days, right-wing politicians have lambasted the Socialist government’s counterterrorism policies and argued that its foreign policy is crippling French security. On Saturday, protesters affiliated with the National Front stormed a solidarity march in Lille, while clashes broke out at an extreme-right protest in Brittany.

“France and French people are no longer safe,” said Le Pen following the attack. Her proposed solutions: Seal borders, close mosques, deport radical imams and expel foreigners who “preach hatred” and illegal immigrants who “have nothing to do here.” As she took to Twitter and the airwaves to announce her post-attack platform, Le Pen — in a not-so-subtle campaign move — declared that the National Front would suspend its campaign as France mourned.

Sarkozy’s reaction has been equally harsh. The former French president and leader of the center-right Republican party called for the 11,500 residents identified in the “S Files” — already on the intelligence services’ radar — to be placed under surveillance with an electronic bracelet. A “center for deradicalization” should be created to house those “tempted by radicalism,” he added, and, echoing Le Pen, “radical” imams should be expelled aggressively. He also clarified how he might identify these extremists: For Sarko, anyone who “consults a jihadist site” is a potential terrorist. In other words: be afraid, journalists and researchers.

These views are not new. “Laïcité,” or the French secular model, lends itself to right-wing tactics that aim to divide. The right has long sought to demonize French Muslims and ensure that they remain on the sidelines of the Republic. The attacks have only energized their efforts.

Accordingly, France has banned the full veil in public places. Recently, the mayor of Chalon-sur-Saône, who is a member of Sarkozy’s party, banned pork-free options in school lunches, arguing that doing otherwise would violate France’s secular values. In reality, it forces Muslim and Jewish schoolchildren to defy their own convictions or go hungry while attending a state institution in the land of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Sarkozy endorsed the ban, suggesting that those opposed should send their children to private school instead.

Parisians of all stripes and colors shed blood last week. The tragedy’s universality, though devastating, should serve as an opportunity for social cohesion rather than division.

It’s unclear whether these outlandish calls will resonate with voters next month or in 2017 when France elects its next president. But electoral predictions aside, hawkish views seem to be coloring policy proposals across the political spectrum in the wake of the attacks. Whereas in January, following shootings at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket, Prime Minister Manuel Valls made public appeals to unity, on Saturday he focused on security, echoing his right-wing rivals in calling to “expel all these radicalized imams.” Although this might be the government’s attempt to insulate itself from the right’s criticism, the policy outcomes are real.

Measures taken since the attacks reflect a hardened approach. In addition to stepping up France’s airstrike campaign in Syria, officials have raided hundreds of homes, and Hollande has announced plans to extend the state of emergency to three months, amending the law that limits it to 12 days.

As France reels from its second terrorist attack in 10 months, it’s not surprising that politicians left and right are adopting a more hawkish tone. This rightward shift is dangerous, both for the French social fabric and for effective counterterrorism policy. Islamophobic attacks — which increased drastically following Charlie Hebdo — have already multiplied since last week. Numerous mosques have been vandalized, and a veiled woman was denied entry to the clothing store Zara. French Muslims have condemned the horrors of Nov. 13, but many fear that demand for more draconian counterterrorism measures will infect public attitudes toward their communities at a time when social tensions are already high.

Rhetoric aside, the bulk of the right’s proposals, and many of the policies already being undertaken by Hollande, simply won’t work. “Politicians seem to think the answer is more war, more security, more laws, raiding the homes of individuals who have nothing to do with what happened on Friday,” Alain Gresh, editor-in-chief of Le Monde Diplomatique, told me in an interview, his tone fluctuating between bereavement and indignation. “We know that it won’t work — for 15 years, France has said and done the same thing. How can we really think, after all this time, that more bombs and more surveillance will help?”

Likewise, France has been deporting imams for some time in an attempt to prevent radicalization. But as I wrote in September for World Politics Review, that strategy misses the mark: The indoctrination process, whether by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or other extremist groups, primarily occurs online. Mosques, furthermore, are hardly the spaces to identify potential recruits; 80 percent of French radicals come from non-religious families. According to Dounia Bouzar, director of an NGO created in 2014 to combat radicalization and work with parents of children who left France to fight jihad in Syria and Iraq, “the majority of youths radicalized in France have never set foot in a mosque.” An excellent article in the New York Review of Books details the many drivers of radicalization in France, few of which reflect a Muslim upbringing or ties to Muslim countries.

Even if the National Front or the Republicans don’t perform as well as expected in December or in 2017, the French political class is skidding rightward, and opinion surveys say the public is too. This shift is worrying. Parisians of all stripes and colors shed blood last week. The tragedy’s universality, though devastating, should serve as an opportunity for social cohesion rather than division.

Karina Piser is an associate editor at World Politics Review. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, World Policy Journal, The Harvard Journal of Middle East Politics and Policy and more.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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