Terror Fight After Paris Attack Prompts Charge of Stifled Debate

  • Taubira cites intellectual `capitulation' in departing salvo
  • Valls, academics spar over whether explaining is excusing

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, a hardened French government is not giving dialogue a chance.

QuickTake Fighting Islamic State

That’s the charge made by former French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who quit in a huff last week and released a book this week entitled, “Murmures a la jeunesse,” or “Whisperings to the young,” in which she says France must not “capitulate intellectually” and that a better understanding of what happened would help prevent future attacks.

A medic tends to a man in Paris, on Nov. 13
A medic tends to a man in Paris, on Nov. 13
Photographer: Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

In the months since terrorists murdered 130 people on the streets of Paris, the French government has imposed a state of emergency, carried out numerous police raids, stepped up its bombing campaign against Islamic State and sought greater intelligence and military cooperation with its allies.

What it hasn’t done is to open any discussion about why young men born and bred in France and Belgium would be willing to die in order to kill as many of their fellow citizens as possible. French censors this week gave its most restricted rating to a documentary about radical Islamic groups, largely preventing the film from being seen.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s public criticism of academics seeking answers -- saying on a television show that “explaining is almost excusing” -- was one of the reasons given by Taubira for resigning. While her main reason was a dispute over President Francois Hollande’s plan to change the constitution to allow the stripping of dual-nationals of their French citizenship if they are convicted of terrorism, her book doesn’t spare Valls.

Homegrown Terror

“I would certainly agree with Taubira’s assessment that France has given up
trying to speak about terrorism in a serious and rigorous way,” said Sudhir Hazareesingh, a fellow in politics at Oxford’s Balliol College, who has written books about French politics and history. “Does Valls really think that academics should not try to understand why young men and women become jihadis?”

Former French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira
Former French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira
Photographer: Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

Of the nine attackers who carried out the attacks in and around Paris on Nov. 13, seven were born and raised in France or Belgium to families from North Africa, while two have yet to be identified. The number of people in France who have turned toward radical Islam more than doubled to 8,250 from 4,015 in March last year, Le Figaro reported Wednesday, citing information gathered by the authorities as of Jan. 28.

Soon after the November Paris attacks, Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron said Nov. 22 that French society “has its share of responsibility” because of its lack of mobility, particularly for children of immigrants. The comments brought an angry reaction from Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, the head of the ruling Socialist Party. Valls told lawmakers on Nov. 25 that “no social, sociological or cultural excuse should be searched for.”

Valls vs Academics

The following day, he told the Senate that “I’ve had it with those who are always looking for excuses or sociological or cultural explanations for what happened.” On Jan. 9 he made his comments about explaining amounting to excusing.

Manuel Valls
Manuel Valls
Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Academics shot back at Valls. Bernard Lahire, a sociology professor in Lyon, wrote in Liberation Jan. 12 that Valls is “breaking with the Enlightenment” and that no one blames climatologists for deadly storms.

Marcel Gauchet, a historian who has written dozens of book on French history, said on France Inter radio Jan. 9 that “to combat an enemy, you have to know it in order to mobilize and make your actions effective.” Andre Gunthert, a professor at Paris-based social science university Ehess, tweeted Jan. 10 “only a sociologist can explain why France is governed by such a mediocre prime minister, but that’s not an excuse.”

Porn Category

Last week, the French culture ministry gave a documentary about radical Muslims in Africa a rating that bans anyone under 18 from seeing it, placing it in the same category as hard porn and making it ineligible to be shown at almost all French cinemas. 

“Salafistes,” filmed over three years by a French and a Mauritanian documentary film maker, shows daily life in Mali under the control of Islamic radicals, and includes interviews with radical preachers in Mauritania, Tunisia and Iraq, as well as uncensored violent footage of jihadi propaganda. The movie will now open in only four cinemas in France, France3 television reported Feb. 1.

Claude Lanzmann, maker of the 1985 award-winning nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust, “Shoah,” wrote in Le Monde Jan. 25 that “Salafistes” is a “masterpiece” and the government’s attempts to block its release are “deaf, blind and stubborn.”

Keeping Up

Valls wasn’t always against any introspection about the roots of terrorism. After Islamic radicals in January last year murdered cartoonists at magazine Charlie Hebdo and Jewish customers at a Kosher supermarket, he said “a territorial, social and ethnic apartheid” had descended across France.

Oxford’s Hazareesingh said Valls has shifted gears for political reasons. 

“I think he knows better,” he said. “The reason why the French government has shifted its discourse has to do with politics, of course. Most of the country has veered to the right and the National Front is making advances across the country, notably on the issue of security. So Hollande and Valls think they have to keep up. ”

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