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OPINION: After 12 years of Islamist terror attacks, France seems to have run out of ideas

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: After 12 years of Islamist terror attacks, France seems to have run out of ideas
Tributes to murdered teacher Dominique Bernard outside the Gambetta high school in Arras, northern France. Photo by Denis Charlet / AFP

As shock once again convulses France after a murderous terror attack, John Lichfield looks at the dangerously shallow political response - and asks whether France has run out of ideas on dealing with its small but dangerous radicalised minority.


The murder of a teacher in Arras last Friday by a radicalised Muslim was an atrocity but not a surprise.

The same can be said of the murder of two Swedish football fans by a Tunisian follower of ISIS in Brussels on Monday.

Demonstrations outside French and British embassies in Tehran and Beirut after the calamitous explosion at a Gaza hospital on Tuesday night are warnings - if any were needed - that conflicts in the Middle East are not just terrible news from faraway.

They motivate extremists and inflame intolerance. They also, as I wrote last week, expose deep fault-lines in French domestic politics.

The NUPES left-wing alliance is on the point of collapse because the hard Left La France Insoumise persists in describing the genocidal Hamas as a “resistance movement”.


Israel denies responsibility for the hospital explosion. That denial - even if independently confirmed - will not be believed by the many young Muslims in France who identity with the Palestinian cause.

I looked up some figures. Between 2003 and 2011, there were no Islamist terrorist attacks in France. Since then, there have been 20 - about one a year.

A total of 290 people died in these attacks, excluding the terrorists themselves. This is by far the highest terror death toll in the European Union.

Some attacks were motivated by events in France, like the publication of the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed by Charlie Hebdo. Overall, the frequency of the attacks rises and falls with events in the Middle East, from the emergence of ISIS to the intensity of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

When a ground war begins in Gaza - as it will - its origins in the abominable massacres of Israeli civilians by Hamas will fade into the background. The events of 10/7  are already in danger of being forgotten.

The rising death toll among Palestinian civilians will offer a trigger - or excuse - for further acts of anti-French and anti-Semitic terrorism. The 7,000 troops now patrolling French streets may become a target as well as a shield.

The overwhelming majority of France’s 6,000,000 Muslims are peaceful people. They may sympathise with  Palestinians but they do not necessarily sympathise with Hamas. They are not going to commit, or encourage, terrorist attacks against French Jews or the French state.

That leaves, unfortunately, a dangerous, radicalised minority, whose influence on young French Muslims is growing.

The young, alienated Muslim kids who rioted in French inner suburbs in July were not motivated by religion. Some were motivated by empty-headed joy of copy-cat and competitive destruction. Others by a sense of rejection - of being not accepted as French, although born in France.

All, however, are strongly attracted to the Palestinian cause. Some are vulnerable to the violent online teachings of extremist Islam - offering a warped form of alerrnative identity, anti-French, anti-western and anti-semitic.


During the hour’s special lessons on the murder organised in all French schools on Monday, there were 179 incidents of pupils disrupting the event. Some glorified the murder itself. That is a very small minority of French schoolkids – but a worryingly high number all the same.

Much of the political debate in France since the Arras murder has concentrated on the fact that the attacker, Mohammed Mogouchkov, 20, was born in the Russian Republic of Ingoushetia. He was on the “S” file of known extremist sympathisers. His father had been expelled from the country, one of his brothers is in jail for planning a terrorist attack.

In a garbled video recorded before the attack, he spoke of his allegiance to Islamic State and his hatred of France, French schools, French values, democracy and homosexuality. He made no direct mention of Gaza.

Why, asks the Right and Far Right, was he still in the country? They have accused President Emmanuel Macron and his interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, of being lax and incompetent. 


In fact, as Macron and Darmanin pointed out, Mogouchkov could not be deported under French law. He came to the country when he was five. French law forbids the expulsion of anyone who arrived under the age of 13.

 Under an immigration bill first proposed by the government 10 months ago, that restriction would have been abolished. Mogouchkov could have been expelled before he murdered Dominique Bernard.

The draft law has been blocked by objections from the Far Right and Right who complained that it was too soft and allowed some work permits for “sans papiers”.

Embarrassing for the Right and Far Right? It would be if they “did” embarrassment.

In any case, the argument about Mogouchkov’s nationality misses the point. The great majority of the 5,000 or so suspected Islamist sympathisers on the “S” file are French-born. Mohamed Merah, the man who murdered three Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse in 2012, was born in France. So were the Charlie Hebdo killers.

Most of the planners and perpetrators of the Bataclan and related attacks which killed 131 people almost eight years ago were French or Belgian born. Mogouchkov learned his extremism from his family but he learned it in France.

President Macron has called for a “pitiless” re-examination of the 5,000 cases on the S file. All possible legal ways should be sought, he said, to deport terror suspects, if foreign, or arrest them, if French.

Fair enough. France has a right to defend itself. But the concentration of the political debate on Mogouchkov’s nationality is dangerously shallow.

The Right and Far Right are obsessed with new migration; they care nothing about the integration of the children of past generations of migrants, who are French and in France to stay.

The real questions for the weeks ahead will be how to prevent young French Muslims from resorting to street violence as Palestinian civilian deaths mount; how to prevent the Gaza war from radicalising a new generation of French-born Muslims.

There are no easy answers to those questions. There may rapidly be no answers at all.


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Ganesh Natrajan 2023/10/18 16:59
There need to be harsher punishments. There's no two ways about it. Most of these crimes occur because the perpetrators know that they can get away with it. Despite being on the S list, these goons were on the loose, waiting to pounce on victims. How more lax can it get?

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