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Islamophobia becoming undeclared racism in France, says Alain Gresh

'We claim that we fight wars in order to prevent jihadism from reaching us, but paradoxically jihadism is activated by our wars,' Gresh tells MEE.
French soldiers patrol Paris this week after the country announced an unprecedented troop deployment (AFP)

Alain Gresh, French journalist specialised in the Middle East and deputy director of Le Monde diplomatique, reflects on the attacks which have shaken France and puts the country's foreign policy into perspective.

Middle East Eye (MEE): Many participants in the Paris demonstration mentioned that the atmosphere in France has been tense for years. How do you explain this impression?

Alain Gresh: There is indeed a harmful atmosphere in France, and this is not new. There is, first, an Islamophobia which has gained in intensity for several years now, and which clearly targets the Muslim communities. I think this is some form of racism, all the more worrying that it is echoed by political forces and the media. We can even qualify it as state racism, even if, of course, it is not declared as such. For the French Jewish community, it is a bit different: there is no anti-Semitism in the political, institutional, meaning of the term. No political force, even the National Front, carries an anti-Semitic discourse as it was the case in the 1930s. All the opinion polls show a clear drop of anti-Semitism in France, below 10 percent, whereas in the aftermath of the Second World War, anti-Semitism was still mainstream. That said, it is true that French Jews are afraid and are the targets of terrorist acts, as illustrated by the attack against the kosher supermarket and that against a Jewish school by Mohamed Merah in March 2012 in Toulouse.

MEE: How can we explain the trajectory of the three terrorists, born and raised in France?

Gresh: You are right to underline that they are French. They went through the schools or the prisons of the Republic and they became the failures of Republic. Those are young men who looked for a way in life within Western societies. Those societies are not only detached from religion but no longer have great causes to offer. The era of great struggles, when you could be a member of the communist party or the far-left and support South American guerrillas, is over. Only a few credible causes have remained on the market of ideals, and the only one which seems to oppose imperialism today is the Islamic State (IS) or al-Qaeda. Besides, the way that those two organisations are depicted, like existential threats to the West, help make them credible. By exaggerating the threat of IS, we increase its attraction. Instead, I think that IS is not an existential threat; of course, we must fight it, fight its roots in the Iraqi and Syrian situations. But we have to be careful with the idea, heard these days, that we are engaged in a Third World War, this time against terrorism, thereby forgetting that the previous world wars opposed states, and not concepts. There is also, everywhere in France, not only in the population of North African origin, a deep detestation of the political and media elites. This is bound to impact on the way that international events are perceived. Last, there is a real mobilisation of these young French with an immigrant background around the question of Palestine. Some can be under the impression that there is a dual language in the West on that subject, which is absolutely exact.

MEE: Does the crystallisation of the French political debate around the notion of laïcité [secularism] contribute to this specific atmosphere?

Gresh: The French notion of laïcité may have poisoned the debates in France, all the more that, in my opinion, this is a wrong interpretation of laïcité. When one examines history, in particular the 1905 law of the Separation of the Churches and State, one realises that this law was quite tolerant. The fact that there were religious processions in the streets, that the state and local authorities funded the upkeep of churches, had never been a problem. It was not a closed notion of laïcité. But for the past 15 years, with the emergence of Islam as a religious force in France, this French concept of laïcité has become much more exclusive, and it is used as a pretext for ostracising French Muslims. It is very significant that the concept of laïcité has been seized upon by the far-right, whereas it had traditionally been a leftist value.

MEE: What political reading can we make of the demonstrations which took place all over France on 11 January?

Gresh: There are two things which must be separated. First, the mobilisation of the population in France has been exceptionally broad, unprecedented in the French history, even if people demonstrated for extremely various raisons. The second point is the way that the French government used this demonstration, both at the domestic and international levels. Externally, the French government was keen on having European leaders attending the event to show that Europe is united, that it serves a purpose at a time when the group faces strong criticism. But there were those surprising invitations extended to some heads of foreign states and governments who constantly violate media freedoms. For instance, the Egyptian Foreign Affairs minister was present whereas in Egypt, in addition to the three Al-Jazeera TV journalists detained for more than a year, dozens of other news workers are jailed.  

MEE: What do you think of the presence of Benjamin Netanyahu?

Gresh: The presence of the Israeli prime minister raised many questions. He was not supposed to come initially but decided otherwise when he heard that Avigdor Lieberman, his foreign affairs minister and also political rival for the elections set to take place in a few weeks, would go to Paris. There was, on behalf of Benjamin Netanyahu, a desire to use these events for domestic reasons and to assert an international presence at a time when Israel is criticised. Regarding media freedoms, it is interesting to note that an article in Haaretz pointed out recently that a newspaper like Charlie Hebdo could not have been issued in Israel, where it is not possible to attack religion in such a way. We must also consider the way that Israel treats Palestinian journalists and media workers, some of whom are jailed by Israel. During the latest attack on Gaza in July and August 2014, many Palestinian journalists were killed.

MEE: What do you think of the position of the head of the Shiite Lebanese movement Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, who condemned these attacks while calling on Muslims to stand up to militants?

Gresh: There is a recurrent message addressed by the Lebanese Hezbollah, but also by Iran and Syria to the West, saying that the West has the wrong enemies and that its true adversaries are the radical Salafi groups. This message means: “We have the same enemy,” therefore there should be an alliance against those groups. This discourse is not new; it began when Hezbollah was criticised for its intervention in Syria. It is obvious that this is due to the fact that IS has an extremely violent anti-Shiite rhetoric, much more than al-Qaeda, which did not express such anti-Shiite diatribes. But it is also an attempt for Hezbollah to get out of its international isolation, in particular on the Syria issue.

MEE: Is it not also a way to contest the religious leadership of the Gulf monarchies over Muslims, knowing that these monarchies are accused by some of covertly funding Islamic terrorism?

Gresh: There can be a discussion about the politics of the Gulf monarchies and the presumption that they fund or help IS. For me, this is not something real; I do not think that it is necessarily true. IS has very clearly indicated that these monarchies were one of their foes, as illustrated by the recent attack against border checkpoints in Saudi Arabia. It is true that part of the religious rhetoric of these countries may have fed those groups. It is also true that these countries, and their civil society and religious networks, were mobilised at the beginning of the Syrian revolution. Kuwait, for instance, played an important role in supporting Islamist groups which became progressively radicalised.

MEE: The protocol for the official march saw the Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta placed at the right side of Hollande. Was there an implicit message?

Gresh: The attack against Charlie Hebdo has several dimensions. It is, of course, an attack against France’s foreign policy and its successive interventions in the Sahel, Mali, the Central African Republic, Libya, and Iraq. It is in Africa that France weighs more heavily, not in Iraq. Having the Malian president attending the event conveyed the message that the fight against terrorism is the same everywhere, that it is an international struggle. To some extent, it is like adopting the rhetoric of the war against terrorism as a global war in which we would be facing an organised enemy. It is, in my opinion, a very dangerous rhetoric, if only because this war has lasted for quite a long time now with very limited results. There is even more terrorism, even more chaos in Africa and the Middle East. [Inviting the Malian president] is therefore a way to reaffirm this policy, as questionable as it may be. We started intervening in Iraq four months ago and, on Tuesday, the French Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of prolonging this operation. (Editor’s note: around 800 French troops are involved in the so-called Chammal operation “to provide the Iraqi forces with air force support in their fight against IS.” According to the French Constitution, the Parliament must give its green light for the continuation of this intervention). There is no doubt that these attacks will be used to foster a broader support from the Parliament for a military policy which is already interventionist.

MEE: Will these attacks contribute to addressing essential political questions?

Gresh: There will inevitably be, in the coming days, fundamental debates in French society: the question of anti-terrorism laws which may be voted, that of foreign interventions, the relation with Muslim citizens – all that will have to be debated in France. Beyond the Libyan issue, we can already measure the negative consequences of the French foreign interventions in the region. But we have to be careful because these attacks can also lead to some backward redefinition of Western politics. After the Arab Spring, we witnessed some modest reversals of France’s position, which stated implicitly: “We were wrong, we supported dictatorships which were regarded back then as shields against Islamism, but we won’t do it again.” However, there is a risk of going back to those same politics of support to a dictatorial regime in Egypt, to authoritarian ones in Algeria or in Morocco. The attacks can give those regimes the opportunity to present themselves as protections against Islamist movements. We really need to have a substantial debate and ask how we can support the transformation of these countries without destroying or destabilising them, as we have done so far. Eventually, we must repeat it: terrorism and the most radical groups were ultimately created by those authoritarian regimes.

MEE: Can these attacks change the direction of France’s foreign policy in the Middle East? Former Prime Minister François Fillon recently declared that Iran and Russia should play a role “in the solution in Syria".

Gresh: International and regional relations are constantly shifting and I want to be cautious. That said, it is clear today that Syria is a deadlock because none of the forces fighting one another, neither the regime nor the opposition, can totally impose its will. This opposition to the regime, dominated by the most radical groups, is pushing Western countries to review their policy in the Syrian crisis. It is, in fact, less the case for France than for the United States. Different approaches are thus put forward. For a long time, France has been more open than the United States about the integration of Russia in the regional game. On Iran, on the other hand, France is more reluctant because it has always held a very tough stance on the issue of the Iranian nuclear program. But if the United States and Iran reach an agreement on this nuclear program, the alliances in play in the region will naturally shift.

MEE: Is France becoming aware of the consequences of its foreign interventions?

Gresh: What is certain is that in France there has been a real refusal to see the possible consequences of our foreign policy. It is clear that if France was targeted, it is also partly because of this interventionism, which is much more developed than in Germany or in Great Britain for instance. The United Kingdom is present in Iraq, but not in Africa. For that matter, France has constantly blamed these countries for not joining its intervention in Mali and in Central Africa, and believes that it should not carry alone the military effort in what it calls the fight against terrorism. Ironically, as it was the case for Afghanistan, we claim that we fight wars in order to prevent jihadism from reaching us, but paradoxically jihadism is activated by our wars.

Translated from French.

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